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Brazil removes from the pedestal the princess who abolished slavery 135 years ago

By Joan Royo Gual

The withdrawal of an award in honor of Princess Isabel, who signed the law that freed thousands of blacks in 1888, revives the debate on a figure elevated to heroine status by official history.

Guarded as one of its greatest treasures, Brazil keeps a parchment with letters of delicate calligraphy that reads: “Slavery is now declared extinct in Brazil’.

The so-called Golden Law, of very brief wording and divine halo, was signed by Princess Isabel, daughter of Emperor Pedro II, on May 13, 1888, 135 years ago this Saturday. Brazil ended with a stroke of a pen (literally) more than three centuries of slavery.

, Brazil removes from the pedestal the princess who abolished slavery 135 years ago
Princess Isabel, daughter of Emperor Pedro II (Photo internet reproduction)

It was the last country in the Americas to do so.

Thanks to this gesture, the princess quickly became a national heroine.

She gives her name to many squares and avenues, and in Rio de Janeiro, she has a statue in front of Copacabana Beach.

Until not long ago, she was a figure that generated unanimity, “the redeemer,”; but in recent years, the pressure of the black movement and a new generation of historians is revising her figure.

A few weeks ago, the government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva renamed an award created in the last days of the Bolsonaro administration (the Princess Isabel Order of Merit) as Luiz Gama in homage to a self-taught lawyer who was enslaved for ten years and who, thanks to his legal knowledge, achieved the freedom of more than 500 people, becoming one of the most prominent abolitionist leaders.

For years, the long shadow of the princess obscured many struggles, especially that of the black abolitionists.

Although things are changing, in schools and the collective imagination, the image of the savior princess prevails, as historian Ynaê Lopes dos Santos, author of the book Brazilian Racism, acknowledges.

She argues that abolitionism was the first great Brazilian social movement.

“Unfortunately, what we know about Princess Isabel was told from a white perspective of Brazilian history.”

“It seems that one fine day she woke up and said ‘slavery is over’, leaving in the background a series of struggles that marked Brazil from 1865-1868 until the abolition”, she remarks in a café in Rio de Janeiro, not far from the palace where the princess lived.

The daughter of Emperor Pedro II indeed had a progressive vision and sympathy for the abolitionist cause.

She did not hesitate to publicly appear with camellias when these flowers symbolized the anti-slavery cause because they were grown in a quilombo (a settlement) in Rio de Janeiro that sheltered fugitives.

The princess was a close friend of André Rebouças – Brazil’s first black engineer and one of the main abolitionists – and even organized charity balls to raise funds for the cause. Nevertheless, the historian recalls signing the Áurea law because “she had no other choice.”

The law formalized something irreversible.

The newspapers of the time even spoke of civil war. Insurgent movements, mass escapes, or farm invasions increased throughout the country.

The provinces of Amazonas and Ceará had already abolished slavery years before, international pressures, especially from England, were already unsustainable, and the ghost of Haiti, the only country where the black rebellion triumphed and led to an independent republic, was hovering over the landowning elite.

In Brazil, for a long time, May 13 was an important date.

In the first years after abolition, it was a public holiday with massive street celebrations.

For the freed people, there was no financial compensation or reparations (nor for the owners), but even so, “the festivities had immense popular support,” explains Dos Santos.

Everything began to decline as the black population perceived that the new Republic inaugurated in 1889 continued to stimulate racial inequality, perhaps not as explicitly as with racial segregation in the United States, for example, but with policies that relegated blacks to a subordinate position, hindered their right to vote and sought to whiten the population by stimulating the arrival of European immigrants, in line with the eugenic theses of the time.

In the symbolic field, the excessive prominence of Princess Isabel began to annoy.

From the fifties and sixties onwards, voices arose calling for the commemoration of November 20, the day Zumbi dos Palmares, who in the seventeenth century fought against the Portuguese at the head of the biggest quilombo in the country, was assassinated.

“Zumbi brought a perspective of a more radical break with slavery, and it is a black protagonist, as opposed to a white protagonist,” says the historian.

Today, November 20, is Black Consciousness Day, a holiday in several states, and May 13 passes by without a blip on the calendar.

In this resignification of the figure of Princess Elizabeth, 1988 is a year that marked a before and an after. The current Constitution was approved, the one of the re-democratization after the military dictatorship, and the centenary of the end of slavery was also celebrated.

The Unified Black Movement (MNU) organized the March against false abolition throughout the country.

One of its iconic banners read, “The princess forgot to sign our work card.”

Rio’s samba schools dedicated Carnival parades to the centenary of the historic milestone.

Between tributes and more critical looks, the winner was Vila Isabel, with a parade that solemnly ignored the princess, sang “Thank you, Zumbi,” and paid tribute to Angola’s heritage in Brazilian culture.

The deconstruction of the idea of the princess as the great savior goes a long way back but has been accelerating recently.

Another samba school, Mangueira, sang in 2019 that freedom “did not come from heaven or the hands of Isabel” and dared to present the heroic Princess Isabel on top of a float with blood-stained hands.

At the same time, he vindicated the stories that were hidden behind the “framed heroes”, such as that of Chico da Matilde, also known as Dragão do Mar, the humble sailor who, in the state of Ceará, refused to disembark slaves to distribute them throughout Brazil.

His life, like that of Manoel Congo, leader of a revolt in Rio’s central coffee-growing valley that of Luiz Gama himself and many others, is still little known to the general public, even though in recent years, books, documentaries, and exhibitions on their lives have been flourishing.

With that rescue movement in the background, the historian says Princess Isabel enters a disputed terrain.

“There is an anti-racist view that argues that the abolition cannot be explained from the centrality of the princess because it is not enough and because it eliminates the actions of thousands of people, especially blacks, and on the other hand, there is a more conservative wing that defends racism as a system of power and that strengthens Princess Isabel because it presents her as if she were the great mother of the enslaved,” she explains.

The figure of the regent who never inherited the throne has been vindicated by the right as social movements and the most progressive political sectors were stripping her of the excesses of benevolence and gratitude.

In a session in Congress, one of Bolsonaro’s sons, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, defended her against those who do not praise her “perhaps because she is white”.

He said this before the also far-right Congressman Luiz Philippe de Orleans e Bragança, great-great-grandson of the princess.

At the end of December last year, Bolsonaro, already defeated in the elections, dedicated one of his last days in office to creating the Order of Merit of Princess Isabel to reward people or entities that work for the protection of human rights.

He and his wife were among the first to receive the award, which was interpreted as one of his last provocations.

Lula’s new government renamed the award Luiz Gama and the extreme right felt it as a grievance against the princess.

The Minister of Human Rights, Silvio Almeida (one of the few blacks in the cabinet), rebutted the criticism, asking to leave her out of political battles.

“In the name of Princess Isabel and her importance to history, the best thing we did was to put an end to this award, which resulted from a diversion of purpose,” he said.

With information form El País
News Brazil, English news Brazil, Brazilian history, Princess Isabel

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