Brazil: 130 years of an unfinished abolition of slavery

The law that abolished slavery after three centuries of forced labor in Brazil set people free, but also abandoned them

São Paulo |
Abolition of slavery reached 130-year mark in Brazil yesterday (13)
Abolition of slavery reached 130-year mark in Brazil yesterday (13) - Gabriela Lucena

Conservative and short, with little more than two lines, Law No. 3,353, the so-called Lei Áurea – or Golden Law – legally established the end of slavery in Brazil on May 13th, 1888, exactly 130 years ago on Sunday. But while slavery ended from a legal standpoint, the social and political dimensions of it are still lingering to this day. This is the main aspect that black scholars and activists criticize about celebrating May 13th as the end of slavery in Latin America’s biggest country.

The Golden Law was signed with great pomp. A photograph of that day by Antônio Luiz Ferreira shows a crowd waiting outside the Imperial Palace in downtown Rio de Janeiro for Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil to sign it.

At the time, the Empire was under intense international pressure to make slavery illegal. Not only that, the slave trade was becoming less and less profitable as abolitionist ideas grew and more and more enslaved people escaped and rose up against it.

Black activist Katiara Oliveira addresses the subject with a not very common, yet unequivocal historic point of view: “Abolition was not something that happened simply through the signing of a bill. Uprisings and rebellions, like setting sugarcane fields on fire, escapes to quilombos [settlements set up in Brazil’s rural areas by escaped enslaved people of African descent], suicide, infanticide, poisoning of plantation owners, causing damage to owners... There were several ways of challenging the masters.”

Nevertheless, Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to ban slavery. The Golden Law was the most popular and last bill signed in imperial times, as the Empire of Brazil crumbled one and a half year after the abolition. Historians who research this period, like Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, a professor at the Anthropology Department of the University of São Paulo, point out that the Brazilian State had delayed the abolition of slavery as much as it could, and that cost the regime its life.

Unfinished abolition

For decades now, black movements in Brazil have deemed May 13th as the day of the unfinished abolition, highlighting the struggles of black people for freedom and demystifying the image of Princess Isabel as the benefactor of black people.

Jussara Basso, from the national coordination of the Homeless Workers’ Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto – MTST), talks about this formal and inchoate abolition. “This idea of unfinished abolition has actually put black people in a condition of paid slavery,” she says.

One year after the abolition, racist theories based on pseudo-scientific methods claiming black people were biologically inferior started to gain momentum, such as racial whitening ideologies that were widely accepted in Brazil between 1889 and 1914. In this sense, physically and culturally whitening the country became a major goal. European immigrants started to be encouraged to come to Brazil to work in the country’s plantations, ostracizing black workers.

To this day, misinformation about the slavery period is rampant in Brazil. Books such as “The Masters and the Slaves: A Study in the Development of Brazilian Civilization” by Gilberto Freyre, published in 1933, describe a harmonious coexistence, a clean slavery with no major conflicts, as if it were possible to have a peaceful system where a human being can be property of other.

What experts and researchers argue is that the law that set African-Brazilians free did not give any reparation, and those who were enslaved until that point were at the same time set free and abandoned, and ultimately marginalized.

Raumi Souza, a member of a study group in the Landless Workers’ Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra – MST) on ethnic-racial issues and agrarian issues, agrees with this statement. “The abolition of slavery was an illusion. Slaves left the senzala [slave quarters] and the plantation and became free, but it was a freedom that did not give them access to land or material and financial means. It did not offer them a decent life,” he says.


Statistics prove that Brazil is still an extremely unequal country on many levels, and the figures are even worse when race is brought into the equation. The average household income per capita of white Brazilians is more than double the rate for black Brazilians: R$1,097 [around US$300] and R$508.90 [US$140], respectively, according to a 2016 study by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Another index from the same report, called Municipal Human Development, takes into account income, health, and education, and the findings show that black people in Brazil are ten years behind white people regarding that index.

These and other data show that, as the Golden Law did not promote reparation policies, it has actually perpetuated inequality and the gaps between white and black people. Daniel Teixeira, a lawyer from the Center for Studies on Labor Relations and Inequality (Centro de Estudos das Relações de Trabalho e Desigualdades – CEERT), explains that, before the Golden Law, insubstiantial or ineffective laws were commonly passed, such as the Free Womb Law, which should free all children born to enslaved mothers after 1871, the Sexagenarian Law, which freed all slaves when they reached the age sixty, and others. Many of these laws were just for show, and were not actually enforced. “They were drafted to convey an image of a country that would not accept slavery, but effectively it was the last country to abolish it, even if just on paper,” Teixeira says.

Edited by: Diego Sartorato | Translated by Aline Scátola and reviewed by Pedro Ribeiro Nogueira