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Revolution in Haiti inspired black resistance amid Brazil’s independence

By Gabriel Araújo

The uprising of the enslaved population, 231 years old, frightened the Brazilian elites, who feared a similar uprising in the empire.

In the cauldron of the Independence of Brazil, almost 200 years ago, a battalion of browns put the elite of a revolutionary Recife on alert.

On July 22, 1824, the following stanza was heard in the capital of the province of Pernambuco: “Which I imitate Christopher / That Haitian immortal, / Hey! Imitate his people, / O my sovereign people!”

The context was the Confederation of Ecuador, which tried to establish in the Northeast an independent republic from the rest of Brazil.

However, among the rebels, black people were willing to take a step beyond the republic to make the movement to acquire a character of racial liberation – as an example of what had happened in the Haitian Revolution at the turn of the 18th to the 19th century.

Read also: Check out our coverage of Brazil

In the Caribbean, a rebellion of enslaved blacks started on August 22, 1791, 231 years ago, sparked a long racial and civil war, culminating in the abolition of slavery in the region and the independence of the island of Saint-Domingue, then the most prosperous French colony.

‘The Battle of Saint-Domingue’, painting by Janvier Suchodolski (1845) – Museum of the Polish Army, Warsaw (Photo internet reproduction)

The browns from Pernambuco were inspired by Henri Christophe, one of the black commanders of the revolution, to enforce their own war. The plan was to attack European businesses and murder the city’s wealthy white families.

This is how Emiliano Mundurucu, the leader of the battalion mentioned above, designed a printed proclamation urging the interested population to participate in the revolt. He was stopped by Major Agostinho Bezerra Cavalcanti, leader of the battalion of black men, who dissuaded the group.

Emiliano Mundurucu in acrylic on canvas by Moisés Patrício (2020), highlighted in the book “Black Encyclopedia”; no records of his appearance were found – Companhia das Letras (Photo internet reproduction)

Mundurucu was a figure that goes beyond the history of Brazil. Everything indicates that he was born in 1791, the son of a black woman and a white man.

He received an education, entered the military career, and participated in the revolutionary cycle for independence in Recife — especially between 1817 and 1824; the region was the scene of revolts and revolutions against the government of Rio de Janeiro headed by Dom Pedro the 1st.

To avoid repression, he fled to the United States, where he filed the first lawsuit against American racial segregation. He also lived in Haiti and Gran Colombia, now Venezuela.

To understand the history of their struggle, at least in Pernambuco, it is necessary to go back to 1817, when another liberal revolution shook the province.

As told by historian Marcus Carvalho, professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco, the government that the insurgents instituted for 75 days promoted some changes in society.

They disagreed with slavery and committed themselves to effect an abolition in the newly founded republic, albeit slowly and gradually. They also issued a decree that ended the obligation of manorial treatment, the “vossa mercê”.

According to Carvalho, even if this seems like “nonsense in today’s world”, the change in the form of treatment brought the spark of a feeling of equality among the free people of the region.

A spark similar to the one seen in Haiti when the Frenchman Légér-Félicité Santhonax ensured political equality between whites and freed blacks. “In 1817, blacks began to disrespect whites. And that was pushing away the manorial support [to the Pernambuco Revolution].”

This racial tension gained a new chapter in 1823 when battalions of blacks and browns took Recife and Olinda for eight days.

Pedro da Silva Pedroso, a black man, was acclaimed governor during this period. He said to Haiti, “Let the whitewashed die!” The term recovers the image of lime powder to refer to the mestizo elite who whitened themselves as they became wealthier.

“After ‘Pedrosada’, no one was against the monarchy in Brazil,” says Carvalho. This perspective is repeated in the analysis of Ynaê Lopes dos Santos, a professor at the Fluminense Federal University that integrates the Network of Black Historians.

According to her, the country’s elites, even with divergent political ideals, preferred to unite in a joint project rather than run the risk of facing a black insurrection.

“There is an effective structuring, political and economic forces that are organizing the nascent Brazilian National State to meet its interests and ideas of the world”, she says. The maintenance of the slave order would be one of them.

A series of factors provided the climate for the emancipation of Brazil from 1822, which ended only in 1825 François-René Moreaux/Revista de História da Biblioteca Nacional (Photo internet reproduction)

“Haiti is a landmark from the point of view of the fears of the Black Atlantic elites”, says historian Petrônio Domingues, a professor at the Federal University of Sergipe. “And this also reaches the bosom of the mass of enslaved and freed colored men.”

Afraid of the boiling of a climate of racial hatred, the enslavers used some strategies so that the Haitian Revolution did not occur in the territory of South America.

If enslaved represented the vast majority of the population of the island of Saint- Domingue, reaching 85% of the total population, in Brazil, there was a tacit agreement that they would not exceed around 40%.

The idea was also common among traders to buy enslaved people from different regions, which made their organization difficult.

“Escape valves” were also created through granted and purchased manumissions, as Lopes dos Santos says. They were ways of making enslaved people envision peaceful ways out of the conditions they were subjected to.

Work of the German painter Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858) (Photo internet reproduction)

Even so, the rebellions organized by enslaved people in the 19th century were not few. Uprisings in Bahia, for example, horrified an anonymous informant of the Portuguese Crown, who wrote, between 1822 and 1823: “If one continues to speak of the rights of men, of equality, one will end up pronouncing the fatal word: freedom”.

He reported amid the war for independence in the province. And he continued: “Then the whole revolution will end in Brazil with the uprising of the slaves, who, breaking their handcuffs, will set fire to cities, fields, and plantations, massacring the whites and making this magnificent empire of Brazil a deplorable replica of the brilliant colony of São Domingos”.

On the other hand, as detailed in the book “The Haitian Revolution and Slaver Brazil” by Marco Morel, the reception of news from Central America was diverse and not consistently negative.

In the press, this experience often appeared as a “positive example of the affirmation of national sovereignty”, as Morel writes, especially when Brazil wanted to free itself from the yoke of Portugal. Abolishing slavery, however, was not a current option.

With information from Folha de São Paulo

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