Brazilian Blacks Reassess Their Heroes

Brazilian Princess Isabel who signed the Golden Law ending slaveryPopular responses to slavery’s abolition in Brazil go in and out of fashion. Nowhere does this seem more apparent in popular Brazilian culture than in the way capoeira commemorates the extinction of slavery on 13 May 1888.

As Matthias Röhrig Assunção, a senior lecturer at the University of Essex suggested in a lecture at London’s Canning House this Wednesday evening, May 18, how else can we explain conflicting images of Princess Isabel’s involvement in the Golden Law. which brought an end to centuries of exploitation against the country’s black population?

The contrasting views were presented in two different ladainhas, or introductory songs which begin a capoeira roda (session) and printed at the beginning of both Dr Assunção’s lecture and new book, Capoeira: The History of an Afro-Brazilian Martial Art:

Vamos todos louvar
A nossa nação brasileira,
Salve a Princesa Isabel, oh meu Deus
Que nos livrou do cativeiro!

Hail! Hail the nation
Hail the Brazilian nation
Hail Princess Isabel, oh my God
Who delivered me from captivity!

Dona Isabel que estória é essa
De ter feito a abolição
De ser princesa boazinha
Que libertou a escravidão
Eu tô cansado de conversa
Eu tô cansado de ilusão

Lady Isabel, what story is this
That you made abolition?
That you are a nice princess
That finished slavery?
I am tired of that idle chat
I am tired of that illusion.

Dr Assunção’s lecture was to assess the factors which assisted the abolition movement and subsequent understanding of the process. Although Princess Isabel, who was regent for her father and emperor, Dom Pedro II, signed the law ending slavery, her involvement was limited and represented the final chapter.

Unlike emancipation in the US, the Golden Law only freed a small group of people since by this time many former slaves were by now legally free men and women.

Indeed, Dr Assunção asserted a range of other factors which gave momentum to abolition. External pressure from the British had resulted in an official end to the slave trade by 1850. This had a big impact since reproduction within the slave population declined throughout the nineteenth century, generating a labour shortage.

This put slaves in a position of economic advantage and obliged their owners to negotiate wages. Meanwhile, the sugar cane fields of the Northeast, where slave labour had most commonly been employed, faced economic decline as the dynamic coffee plantations of the Southeast overtook them. Furthermore, as the urban elites increased their economic and political power, they found less use for slavery, adding to the list of abolitionists.

Slaves and ex-slaves also had input into the process towards abolition. Many returned from the Paraguay War (1865-70), obliging elites to acknowledge their role as veterans who had fought for Brazil.

Others resisted the authorities, running away and escaping the plantations on which they worked, establishing quilombos, or slave communities outside the authority of the state.

And a few, who battled against the odds to get an education, became lawyers; they used law to free slaves who had been illegally brought into Brazil following the end of the slave trade.

The result of these various factors was to build up pressure against slavery, culminating in the Golden Law, which Princess Isabel and her father both personally supported. It’s in this context, suggested Dr Assunção, that the role and uses of capoeira can be seen.

Formed through a fusion of different martial styles and rhythms, both from slaves brought from Angola, Mozambique and West Africa and other communities (including Portuguese migrants) no one type of capoeira exists.

Indeed, that which existed in Rio de Janeiro at the beginning of the nineteenth century was different to that from Salvador, while an influx of new slaves in Rio between the 1810s and 1830s radically transformed it.

Since capoeira is a popular cultural form, historians struggle with the fact that most descriptions do not come from the practitioners themselves, but rather the elite. Consequently, the most common appearances of capoeira in official records date from police records during the nineteenth century.

The authorities perceived it as a threat, not least because capoeira as a form of physical resistance challenged the state’s monopoly on force. Practitioners were punished, either by flogging or working in the dockyards. But still groups continued to appear, usually organised along parish lines.

What made capoeira difficult to control was that it successfully permeated all aspects of Brazilian society. Poor Portuguese became involved, broadening the base beyond the Afro-Brazilian population, while certain groups became associated with the two political parties of the period, the Liberals and Conservatives.

As a result, when the Liberals were in power the authorities would crack down on these groups connected to the Conservatives and vice versa. In addition, some capoeira practitioners made repression harder, by joining the police and royalist National Guard.

The latter institution became especially popular in the period after abolition when a military coup seemed likely; at this period abolition was evidently associated with the monarchy.

When a coup finally did occur in 1889, the new military regime brought an end to the monarchy. Brazil’s first republic was pronounced and the new authorities actively sought to clamp down on capoeira.

In the capital city, Rio, this was extremely forceful, virtually eradicating it. By contrast anti-capoeira repression in Salvador was relatively lighter, ensuring that this style would persist and eventually come to dominate as the leading style in the following century.

Despite the collapse of the empire, Princess Isabel remained a sympathetic figure to many ex-slaves and their descendents. Dr Assunção argues that as late as the 1960s the princess’s image was included in the pantheon of prominent abolitionists.

But later, during the 1980s, a more radical form of black consciousness movement arose in the country. It was inclined to challenge past notions of history, including Isabel’s role in the movement.

In contrast to elite understandings for abolition, these activists favoured a more mass-based approach, including action by slaves themselves. In part this shift owed itself to the failure of abolition to offer anything beyond formal recognition of slavery’s end.

Absent from the abolitionist platform was a commitment to land reform, compensation or improvements in ex-slaves’ welfare. Lacking even basic education, many were faced with continuing to work on the plantations for a meagre wage.

Meanwhile the authorities set upon the task of ‘modernising’ Brazil through a ‘whitening’ policy: encouraging immigration by Europeans who were perceived at the time to be more economically dynamic than the Afro-Brazilian population.

As Isabel became a more ambiguous figure, greater attention was given to slave heroes and resistance including Zumbi, the slave king of the largest sixteenth century quilombo, Palmares.

Whereas ladainhas extolling him had been virtually non-existent prior to the 1980s, by the turn of the century many more capoeiristas were beginning their rodas, acknowledging Zumbi’s role.

Thus had Isabel experienced the roda de capoeira and seen her position in popular Brazilian culture come full circle.

Capoeira: The History of an Afro-Brazilian Martial Art by Matthias Röhrig Assunção, is published by Routledge (2005).

Guy Burton was born in Brazil and now lives in London. A postgraduate student at the Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London, he has written widely on Brazil both for Brazzil and on his blog, Para Inglês Ver, which can be read at He can be contacted at


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