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Ploughing the sea: Latin America observed

Slavery in Brazil

Coloured plate depicting slaves stooping and sifting gravel in the troughs while two overseers look on.Slaves working in the gold and diamond mines from John Mawe's account, The gold and diamond mining districts of Brazil.The mineralogist John Mawe (1766-1829) was one of the first European beneficiaries of the policy of cosmopolitanism practised by the prince regent of Portugal (later John VI). The forced removal of the Portuguese royal family from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro in 1808 inaugurated an intellectual and cultural renaissance in Brazil and a new openness to other European influences, through which, in the words of historians James Lockhart and Stuart Schwartz, Brazil 'attained much of the substance of independence by the mere transfer of personnel'.

Mawe's account (first published in 1812) of the gold and diamond mining district of Minas Gerais was the first to be published in English of this area of Brazil, as it had hitherto been closed by the Portuguese authorities to other Europeans. The reason for this was that Portugal feared, with much reason, that it was losing revenue through contraband. Portugal had come to depend on the declining supply of gold and diamonds from Brazil to meet the expenses of managing its empire and to pay for imports.

Portugal had developed a system of plantation slavery in the Canaries, the Azores, Sao Tomé and Principe in the 15th century and this became the prototype for similar enterprises throughout the Americas, including Brazil, where it was the basis for the cultivation of all important primary products for export. Africans were deemed to be more suitable for this work than Brazilian Indians for two reasons: they were less susceptible to imported European diseases than the Indians and they were thought to be more capable of prolonged and strenuous work (as they had come from settled societies) than the Brazilian Indians, who, unlike many of their counterparts in Spanish America, tended to be nomadic.

Mawe gives a detailed description of the working conditions of the slaves in the gold and diamond mines. Although these were not as dangerous as those prevailing in the silver mines of Peru and Mexico (as most gold could be mined without digging deep), they were very injurious to health. By the time of Mawe's visit there was a complicated system of troughs, sluices and conduits in rivers to separate gold from gravel, but to pick out diamonds the slaves had to work in a stooping position facing their overseer, while they sifted the gravel in the troughs.

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