The Sacred Cause
The Abolitionist Movement, Afro-Brazilian Mobilization, and Imperial Politics in Rio de Janeiro
Jeffrey D. Needell



The Land of the Dead


At first surprised by the immense crowd of slaves spread about in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, the observer, calmer, suddenly recognizes the particular character of dance and song of each of the different Negro nations that are found intermixed there.

In effect, it is mostly in the squares and around the public fountains, the habitual places of assembly among these slaves, where often one of them, inspired by the memory of his motherland, breaks out in song. It is then that his compatriots, spontaneously charmed by the notes of his voice, gather around him, and, according to custom, accompany each couplet with a national chorus, or simply with a suitable cry; a sort of bizarre refrain, sung over two or three notes, and adaptable, nevertheless, to varying character.

Nearly always the song, that electrifies them, is accompanied by an improvised pantomime, or varied one after the other by those of the spectators who wish to act in the middle of the circle formed around the musician. During this very clear drama, very suddenly, one sees, painted on the face of the mimes, the transport by which they are possessed. The coolest, in contrast, content themselves with maintaining the rhythm, marked by clapping their hands, twice quickly and once slowly. The instrumentalists, also improvised and always numerous, are each only equipped, it is true, but with two pieces of ceramic, or two small pieces of iron, or even a shell and a stone, or even whatever they are carrying, like a box of tin or of wood, etc. . . .

But with the song’s end, the charm ceases; and everyone coolly separates, thinking of their masters’ whip and of accomplishing the task that has been interrupted by that delightful interlude.

Debret, “Le nègre chanteur,” Voyage pittoresque et historique au Brésil

Thus, in the early 1800s, the French artist Jean-Baptiste Debret begins our study. The slave, possibly a porter (so many of whom thronged the streets and squares of Rio), puts aside his work, struck by a memory of his motherland, and begins to sing. Others join in spontaneously, drawn by a shared memory of home.

Which of the African nations did they come from? Debret makes it clear elsewhere that they were not angolas or benguelas; scholars of the African trade might well then suggest a congo. Together with the other two, congos were among the three most numerous peoples among the West Central African majority dominating Rio’s nineteenth-century African population. Moreover, congos were a people known to be well represented among the porters in the commercial area of old streets and wharves of the cidade velha, the old city, which drew on the shipping at the port city’s eastern and northern edges on the Bay of Guanabara. Perhaps a congo porter, then, carrying tin to the Rua dos Latoeiros (street of the tinsmiths—now Rua Gonçalves Dias).1

For that street was near enough to either of the two more popular squares with public fountains: the Largo do Paço (Palace Square—now Praça XV), perhaps, or possibly the Largo do Carioca (Carioca Square), with its fountain fed by the Carioca stream, descending from the nearby hills. That square was just east of the Morro de Santo Antônio (Hill of Santo Antônio), a bit west from the commercial center surrounding the Largo do Paço—between the Morros do Castelo and de São Bento.2

The captives of the three African nations mentioned, all speaking variations of the Bantu language, had traversed the Atlantic, of course, the ocean that their traditions taught separated the land of the living from the land of the dead. The crossing was thus called kalunga, the crossing to the land of the dead.3 They had found that Brazil, however, was not death alone. The slaves made it far more than that, as Debret’s description suggests. In Brazil, they found ways to each other; in their shared experiences, they found the means to make or remake communities, and they laid the bases for shared cultures and common struggles. The task here is to understand one later, glorious moment of those struggles—the abolition of slavery. We begin, then, with Debret’s evocation, with the city itself and the slaves within it, the milieu in which the struggle and the movement for Abolition must be understood.

The City and Its Society


We have mentioned squares and fountains, the cidade velha, the Bay of Guanabara, and the Morros de São Antônio, do Castelo, and de São Bento. All speak to the land and the water, the high places and low, critical to understanding Rio. The geography of the city was like that of the province. The Province of Rio de Janeiro, too, was divided between lowlands and highlands, between the Baixada Fluminense and the Serra Acima, that is, the coastal fluminense lowlands (fluminense is an adjective or noun referring to things or people of the Province of Rio de Janeiro) and the mountain range just above them, the nearest range of the Brazilian Highlands, which run along the South Atlantic coast. The highlands divide the South Atlantic coastal lands of Brazil from the great Amazon Basin, far inland. In the city of Rio, the marshy lowland had mostly been overmastered by the nineteenth century, built over by the city’s streets, which had slowly prevailed by means of draining and landfill. The city’s lowlands were framed or punctuated by hills or ranges of hills.4

In the colonial eighteenth century, Rio was raised from the rank of capital of the Captaincy of Rio de Janeiro (as the province was then called) to that of being the capital of the new Viceroyalty of Brazil. The viceroyalty fused all of Portuguese America—the old State of Brazil and Amazonia’s State of Great Pará and Maranhão. These changes in Rio’s rank reflected the grander policies of Portugal for South America and the regional supremacy of the hinterland that Rio served. Salvador, a still older port capital (the capital of Bahia and the first capital of the former State of Brazil), continued to preside over the cane sugar exports of Brazil’s Northeast, the traditional economic mainstay of the country. However, Salvador was distant from the Río de la Plata, where Portugal and Spain fought repeatedly over their colonial borders and the river’s critical access to the interior. Rio was not only closer to this military frontier, it had clear potential for interior linkage to Portugal’s portion of the Amazon Basin, which the crown had once administered separately from the old State of Brazil. Portugal’s Amazonia had a long, contested frontier with Spain’s silver-mining area in the Andes, at San Luis de Potosí. More recently, Rio had become the commercial nexus for the contraband trade with Potosí. Indeed, since the early eighteenth century, Rio was the port for Portugal’s own mining region in South America, which stretched north and west away from Rio’s nearest hinterland, Minas Gerais, and on to Goiás and Mato Grosso. Each of these new captaincies was rich with gold—indeed, Minas had diamonds to boot. Finally, sugarcane production in the coastal tropical lowlands of the Baixada Fluminense had burgeoned since the seventeenth century. Sugar was critical to the expanding trade in people that provided West Africans, and especially West Central Africans, for the mining and planting of the southeastern region that Rio served. Rio had thus become the greatest port for the region and its African trade, as well as the city with the largest captive population in the Americas.5

Made the viceregal capital in 1763, Rio was the logical site for the royal capital in 1815, when Brazil was raised to the status of a kingdom, coequal to Portugal itself, by the Portuguese monarch. Indeed, that monarch, together with the court, had fled to Rio from Lisbon in 1807, during the French war of 1807–1814. Then, in 1821, Dom João VI was forced to return to Portugal. He appointed his son, Dom Pedro, to take his place, making him prince regent. In 1822, however, Dom Pedro broke with Portugal and declared Brazil independent, as the Empire of Brazil. Rio then became the seat of Dom Pedro I’s new monarchy.

As noted earlier, Rio’s urban geography mirrors that of the province. The adjective applied to it, fluminense, from the Latin, refers to the river, rio, in Rio de Janeiro. The port city, after all, is on land stretching from west to east; its eastern edge is on the shore of the entry to Guanabara Bay, an entry that had first been mistaken for the mouth of a river. Higher land dominates the views in and around the city and the bay. One can see the coastal edge of the Serra Acima from the Atlantic, as one approaches the city, and the city itself, at least in the nineteenth century, was remarkably beautiful for its many hills. Indeed, the hills and nearby ranges that cut into the lowlands nearby dominated the horizon then, with their show of tropical rainforest. The city’s hills and the great bay made a dramatic contrast that never ceased to enchant the traveler.

The hills marked Rio’s history and growth. Rio had begun on the lower land between two hills and was then transferred to the top of another that was then fortified, becoming known as the Morro do Castelo (Hill of the Castle) on that account. The castle was a precaution against the French, who contested the South Atlantic coast with the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. The other, larger hills came to be ornamented by churches and monasteries, and were often given the names of their saints. The commerce and most of the population sprang up in back of the eastern beaches that edged the bay. The first streets, between the hills of Castelo to the south and São Bento to the north, began at that eastern shore; then others crept into a great, flat expanse stretching deep into the west. This became the cidade velha (old city)—the first and enduring commercial center of Rio. The shore north of the cidade velha was less accessible to this flat expanse, owing to a barricade of low hills between the shore and the expanse, stretching between São Bento and the western mangrove swamp (mangal, mangue), where the bay crept in, defining a natural frontier to the city. Thus, the morros of Conceiçao, Saúde, Gamboa, Livramento, Providência, Pinto, and São Diogo all paraded parallel to the northern shore. This shore had one long beach, with only two accessible ways through the parade of morros to the cidade velha. The beach stretched between São Bento and Saúde, a long, curving, narrow beach; the two ways through to the cidade velha became the Rua da Prainha (Street of the Little Beach), between São Bento and Conceiçao, and the Rua do Valongo (Street of the Long Valley), between Conceição and Livramento. As commerce and population grew, this northern shore became the great port district of the nineteenth century, serving Rio’s overseas trade. The cidade velha, in back of the eastern shore, remained the center of commerce for both the eastern and northern port areas, and the older, eastern port served regional trade.6

By the early nineteenth century, the city was divided into six parishes (western parts of some of these would become new parishes over the years, and these western, often rural, suburban parishes would be included in the city’s administration and were used for raising the city’s food). The six parishes were crowned by Candelária, the heart of the cidade velha. It comprised the oldest markets, at the eastern shore near the Largo do Paço, from which street vendors bought the produce, fowl, and fish brought from the local farms and the plantation areas close to the bay. These markets lined up northward from the Largo do Paço, the old site of the viceregal (now imperial) City Palace; after 1879, the Ministry of Agriculture and Public Works was housed at this square as well. Nearby, just south of the square, stood the Chamber of Deputies, fronting on the Rua da Misericórdia (Mercy Street), right before it extended into the Rua Direita (Straight Street). East and west from the Rua Direita, the main commercial boulevard running north-south between São Bento and the Largo do Paço, was the warren of commercial and professional offices where the city and the region’s business was done. Rua Direita and the old streets crisscrossing east-west and north-south reached westward to the Rua Uruguaiana. “Uruguaiana” referred to the site of a military victory in the Paraguayan war (1865–1870). Before, the street had been the Rua da Vala, after the vala, ditch, which defended the western border of the colonial city.7

These narrow streets all thronged with Africans and Afro-Brazilians, most of them captives or freed men and women. They were carrying better-off free people in ornate sedan chairs or portering their burdens, singly or in crews; making and serving food to others of the poor in the squares or at the edge of the wider streets; selling their artisanry or searching for work. They spoke the various tongues of West and West Central Africa up through the 1860s or so (the slave trade with Africa ended in 1850), and often the women wore African dress. The men generally wore cast-off clothing from their masters. The narrow streets, however adorned with occasional corner shrines or echoing with the church bells marking the time of day, were dark, noisy, and deeply muddy during the estação de aguas (the season of waters). This season, roughly from October through April, made the provincial roads from the highlands to the coastal lowlands difficult to traverse, with heavy rains and flooding rivers. The air became ever hotter, thick with water, and steeped in the scents of tropical forest. In Rio, that same air became heavy with the smells of produce and people and cooking and coffee. The slaves generally made their way through the mud or on the paving unshod. After 1850, with the modern introduction of yellow fever, the season was unusually pestilent, adding this fatal disease to the port’s infamous, established fevers and contagious maladies.8

The parish of São José, the oldest part of the city, was dominated by Morro do Castelo and some of the oldest beach ports of the eastern shore. There was a flatter, marshy area between Castelo and the Morro de Santo Antônio, stretching west and south; an area of churches, small farms, and a landscaped public park—the Passéio Público. Two ministries were also housed in São José—the Ministry of Empire (domestic affairs ministry) was on the Rua da Guarda Velha, which led north from the park to the Largo do Carioca at the foot of Santo Antônio; and the Ministry of Justice, which was on the Rua do Passéio, that bordered the park east-west on its northern edge. At that time, the park’s southern edge was on the city’s southern shore. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was also once on the Rua do Passéio, but after 1859 it was housed for many years on the Campo de Santana. This was the great field that had once lain west of the colonial city’s frontier; by the mid-nineteenth century, however, and now officially called the Campo de Aclamação (it was the site where Pedro I was first acclaimed by the masses), it was well integrated into the urbanized flatland stretching west from the cidade velha, noted above.

The parish of Sacramento was part of that expanse, stretching directly west of Candelária, mixing commerce, better residential areas of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and numerous squares, churches, and theaters. The Rua do Sacramento, running north-south away from the Praça da Constituiçao (now Praça Tiradentes), was the site of the Ministry of Finance by 1879. To the north of this parish and that of Candelária lay the parish of Santa Rita. It included both the Morro de São Bento and the Morro da Conceiçao, the beginnings of the northern port area, and both the late eighteenth-century site of the African slave market on the Rua do Valongo and the center of the early nineteenth-century commerce in coffee at São Bento’s southern foot, on the frontier with the parish of Candelária. As in Candelária and Sacramento, artisanal and manufacturing establishments were plentiful.

Two more recent urban parishes were Glória and Santana. Glória, over the course of the nineteenth century, would serve as the first of a series of residential areas associated with the elite, stretching south of São José and the cidade velha, and providing larger lots for villas and mansions, cooled by the breezes from the bay. The Rua da Glória, curving along the bay’s shore toward the Morro da Glória (named after its small but precious towered church, beloved of the imperial family) was also the site of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by 1879. The parish of Santana straddled the western remainder of the hilly northern port area and the flat area of the western expanse south of it. It included the Campo de Santana, noted above, which by the mid-nineteenth century was edged by elite residences and government buildings. Santana also stretched into the land-filled (aterrado) area (covering and canalling the Mangal do São Diogo) called the cidade nova (new city) that led west to the suburban parish of São Cristóvão, where the residential palace of the monarchy was sited, and southwest to the suburban parish of Engenho Velho, which was largely given over to villas and farms.

In nineteenth-century Rio, given the lack of good data on race before 1872, it is difficult to assume that any one urban region comprised a black city, in the sense of an urban area mostly made up of African slaves, freedmen, or people Brazilians perceived as their enslaved or free descendants. Rather, African slaves and people (free and enslaved) taken to be their descendants worked everywhere. Even in the elite residential parish of Glória, there was a strong slave presence (after all, half of the slave population of the city worked as domestic servants). More to the point, even in the cidade velha, where slaves, freedmen, and people taken to be descendants of the latter did their work in their masters’ homes and workplaces (or where some slaves worked independently as negros de ganho—wage-earning slaves), the population was always a mix, made up of Afro-Brazilians, native-born Brazilians taken for white, and the immigrant poor (largely Portuguese). The slaves, freedmen, creoles (taken here to mean people who were of entirely African descent but born in Brazil), and people assumed to be their descendants worked and lived in the same areas (and occupations), side by side with those native Brazilians taken for white and with European immigrants.

The expression “pequena África” (little Africa), referring to the part of Rio most traditionally associated with Afro-Brazilians, for example, can be misunderstood. The phrase was used from the early twentieth century on to refer to a late nineteenth-century part of the city. North-south, it took up the hills and flat expanse just south of the northern port area, and east-west, the flat expanse from the cidade velha to the Mangue area, the cidade nova, occupying, in turn, parts of Candelária, Santa Rita, Sacramento, and Santana. While this area was associated with traditional Afro-Brazilian work, residence, and culture, we cannot assume it was an area demographically dominated by Afro-Brazilians; at least by the late nineteenth century, the statistics demonstrate that Afro-Brazilians were a minority there. Demography aside, however, its centrality to Afro-Brazilian Rio is a commonplace. Pequena África was the area traditionally central to Afro-Brazilians’ historic presence and culture.9


1. On the origins of the slave population, see Karasch, Slave Life, 8, 10–17; on congos, see ibid., 15–21, 247–49; cf. Soares, O “povo de Cam,” 127–28, 284; Gomes, “Atlantic Demographics of Africans,” 15–18.

2. Soares, O “povo de Cam,” 119; Karasch, Slave Life, 228.

3. Karasch, Slave Life, 241, 247–48n101, 391; cf. Rodrigues, Da costa, 226, 242–43, 360n8.

4. This paragraph and the next four synthesize the literature on Rio and its hinterland in the late colonial and early national eras; see Needell, Party of Order, 10–23.

5. On the shift from West to West Central Africans and mining, see Gomes, “Atlantic Demographics of Africans,” 11–14; on Rio’s primacy, particularly in terms of urban slavery, see Alden, Royal Government in Colonial Brazil, 43–44; Karasch, Slave Life, xxi; Soares, O “povo de Cam,” 27; and Needell, Party of Order, 10. On the most recent figures for slaves disembarked, see Emory University, Voyages, Please note: the figures from the database increase over time with ongoing research.

6. Aside from Needell, Party of Order, 10–23, see Barreiros, Atlas, here and for the next four paragraphs. The original city site was between the hills of Dog Face and Sugar Loaf; see ibid., prancha, note 4. On the city’s history and residential areas (here and below), see also Needell, A Tropical Belle Epoque, 23–28.

7. On the location of the public buildings, here and below, see Almanaque Laemmert (henceforth, AL), 1849, 1859, 1869, 1879, 1888. On the markets, see Farias, “Mercado em greve,” 2–3.

8. On the city’s urban life, diseases, and its slaves, see Karasch, Slave Life, chaps. 3, 5, 6, passim. On yellow fever’s special impact, see Needell, “Abolition of the Brazilian Slave Trade,” 696–98, esp. 697n21.

9. On the slave market, see Karasch, Slave Life, 29–50; Soares, O “povo de Cam,” 39–41; and Silva, Negro na rua, 61–63. On the location of Afro-Brazilian residence, see Graham, “Being Yoruba,” 10; Silva, Dom Obá II d’África, 84; Soares, O “povo de Cam,” 29, 34–35, 222, 242–44; Frank, Dutra’s World, 32–33, 52, 92; and Florentino, Tráfico, 335. On racial and slave integration in the workplace and in residences, see Frank, Dutra’s World, 52, 54–55; Silva, Negro na rua, 55–56; Moura, Tia Ciata, 67–68; and Cruz, “Tradições negras,” 260–68, 275–78. On slaves’ occupations, see Soares, O “povo de Cam,” 93–94, 124, 128, 150–59, 164–68; Frank, Dutra’s World, 48; Frank and Berry, “Slave Market in Rio de Janeiro,” 94; Silva, Negro na rua, 21, 88–94, 108–9, 121–22, 152–53; Farias and Gomes, “Descrobrindo mapas dos minas,” 116; Soares, “Os últimos malungos,” 168, 181–97; Silva, Dom Obá II d’África, 75–76, 81–82; and Abreu, O império do divino, 79, 201–3, 322–33, 337. On pequena África, see Silva, Dom Obá II d’África, 81–82, 126; Moura, Tia Ciata, 42–43, 51–58; and Cruz, “Tradições negras,” 275–78. On the statistics, see ibid.; and cf. Soares, O “povo de Cam,” 367–80, passim.