A City w/o Slave Rebellions?

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Recife, historically, had its share of rebellions (in 1817, 1824 and 1848) but there were virtually none composed of, and started by, slaves at the time. It was when looking at a paper by Dr. Marcus Carvalho titled “Rumores e rebeliões: estratégias de resistência escrava no Recife, 1817-1848” (Rumors and rebellions: strategies of slave resistence in Recife, 1817-1848) that I came across part of the reason why.


First, let’s look at some numbers,

“The number of inhabitants in Recife grew almost 60% between one census and the next (of 1828 and 1855). The 25,678 residents counted in 1827 in the three main neighborhoods of the city (Recife, Santo Antônio and Boa Vista), became 40,977 in 1855. The number of slaves, however, remained practically constant. There were 7,925 in 1828 and 7,707 in 1855. What did increase, and by a lot, was the free population that, according to the data, jumped more than 85% between these two countings, while the slave population stayed the same. In 1828, slaves represented 30% of the residents of the three truly urbanized neighborhoods of the city. In 1855, they were merely 18% of the total.”


And now, the methods used by slaves who, from what I gather, wished to be whipped by free men looking for a good and talented slave. Since whipping was done by slave owners, I suppose the act was done to fool others that the slave being whipped was one’s own property, not that of another.

“Nevertheless, right around the 1840s, one of the most creative ways of contesting the captivity of slaves in Recife would come about: let oneself be whipped or stolen by someone else. In other words, look for another employer, as normal workers used to do and still do when unsatisfied. What is far from missing in the announcements of escaped slaves during those years are references to a possible whipping of slaves by free people.

These floggings, however, were not given out of solidarity – to think so would be to over-idealize the master-slave relationship – even if it might have occurred in some instances, especially in cases where blacks themselves would hide their companions being chased after. In general, beatings happened due to the flogger being interested in getting a worker without having to pay the market price for him.

The most significant aspect of this is the participation of the slave in the process. It was he who left the house of his owner to establish another residence. Thus, the only fundamental difference in such an escape is the complicity of someone free, interested in acquiring a slave. This was not an escape in order to become a maroon or just another fugitive feigning to be a non-enslaved black on the streets, but the search for an owner who is less despotic and/or willing to respect certain rights that the fugitive believed to have acquired or thought to acquire.The hypocrisy of the flogging done by free people, potential owners of the slave, is recognized by law since the time that Gil Eannes crossed Cape Bojador, starting the Age of Navigations in 1434. This legislation rewarding those who helped in the recapture of fugitives is from the reign of Dom Duarte, between 1433 and 1438. Those who were spotted helping a slave in that situation was even condemned to be temporarily enslaved by their captor.

In the case of flogging being permanent, it would turn into slave theft, a crime punishable by the penal code. Only that, in neither of these cases was the slave a simple object of the crime, but an agent of his own destiny. The higher one’s professional qualification, the better chances of success. It also helped to be Creole and brown, or even a dark mulato. The slave assisted in his own transference, trying to gain something in return, as what happened with a “saddle-maker” that despite alleged “vices of drinking and smoking tobacco,” said an announcement of escape, he was very “sought after to fill mattresses” (perhaps a reference to sex). For this reason, his master suspected that “this slave, because the skills he has, is being kept hidden away in someone’s home in return, perhaps, for paying him a small daily salary.”

All that’s needed is an uncompromising look at the Recife newspapers from the mid-nineteenth century to encounter such cases. In truth, since people began publishing advertisements of runaway slaves in Pernambuco, at the end of the decade of 1820, the flogging hypothesis was mentioned by those who made the announcements. This would be repeated later, in spite of the ads also threatening the possible floggers under the law, including charging for services of enslavement during the time the slave remained under the flogger’s protection.

However, it was in the 1840s that theft of slaves had become a commonplace activity in Pernambuco. Gilberto Freyre said that, upon approaching the year 1850, theft of slaves became a “calamity and a scandal in the streets and cities of the north.”


The laws were even changed to make the act more severely punishable by saying it was robbery (includes violence) rather than just larceny (theft of property, often unknown to the owner). Nonetheless, the robberies kept happening and as such, it can be said that there in fact was a slave rebellion in Recife, but on an individual basis and over a long time period. The slaves knew their worth, in certain cases, and also used the then-lack of otherwise cheap labor (combined with the stagnant slave population at the time) in order to have some sort of control over their lives.


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