Rio de Janeiro’s Cemetery of New Blacks Sheds New Light on the Horrors of Slavery

Last week, The Guardian ran this piece on the fates of Brazilian slaves in colonial and imperial Rio de Janeiro:

Locals called it the “cemetery of the new blacks”, but in truth it wasn’t much of a cemetery. Devoid of headstones, wreaths or tearful mourners, this squalid harbourside burial ground was the final resting place for thousands of Africans shipped into slavery.

The new world greeted them with a lonely death in an unfamiliar land.

For decades the cemetery and those buried there between 1760 and 1830 were forgotten, hidden under layer after layer of urban development.

But 15 years after the cemetery’s fortuitous discovery – during the renovation of Petrucio and Ana de la Merced Guimaraes’s family home when builders unearthed a series of muddy skeletons – academics now believe they have evidence of the true reach of the slave trade.

The study of teeth from 30 partial skeletons has hinted that slaves arriving in Rio – many of whom were sold on to work in coffee and sugar plantations or gold mines – came from a much wider geographical region than once thought.

It’s no secret that the treatment of slaves in Brazil was inhumane; unlike in the United States, where slave-owners created laws that made slavery hereditary and actively tried to “breed” their slaves to replace those who escaped, were murdered, or died, in Brazil, slaveowners tended to counter slaves’ deaths not by “breeding” new generations of servants, but by simply importing more slaves to replace those who had died. That is part of the reason Brazil did not outlaw the slave trade itself until 1850, when Great Britain pressured Brazil to eliminate the slave trade (and certainly, clandestine slave trade continued well after 1850), and that is part of the reason why more than 4 million of the 10 million slaves brought to the Americas between 1500 and 1850 went to Brazil alone (compared to roughly 500,000 to the United States).

The discovery of the “cemetery” in Rio and what it suggests about how slaves were treated in death is enlightening, if not surprising.  Of course any system of slavery is unspeakably horrifying and appalling, whether it was in the United States, Brazil, the Caribbean, and debates over who had the “worst” slavery are stupid and distract from the broader issue of the horrors of slavery. As with any system of slavery, Brazilian slave-owners were often brutal and inhumane in their treatment of slaves, and the military regime of 1964-1985 used some of the same methods when it tortured subversives (such as the pau-de-arara, or “parrot’s perch”), as slaveowners used against their slaves in the colonial era, albeit in a more modernized form.

A common method for punishing slaves in Brazil was to tie them to a rod and then beat them while prone. The military regime of 1964-1985 would modernize and employ this same technique against "subversives," pointing to just one of the many ways slavery in Brazil continued to shape Brazilian society into the 20th century.

Given this treatment of Brazilian slaves in life, it is thus not surprising to find that they were treated inhumanely in death as well:

“It was ugly: a dump into which bodies were thrown and burned,” said Sheila Mendonça de Souza, a bio-archaeologist studying the cemetery in Rio de Janeiro, once one of the busiest slave ports in the Americas.

“People weren’t buried in tombs, they were tossed away into mass graves.”

This treatment of course came after a horrible, grueling journey, in which the space on ships was beyond cramped, people were dehumanized in the worst ways possible as they were stripped, beaten, and forced to sit in their own filth, and thousands died even before reaching the Americas in any given year.

Paradoxically, the excavation of a reminder of Brazil’s dark past has taken place as the country prepares to highlight its bright future, as Rio de Janeiro renovates in order to show itself off to the world in the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics; in this way, historians and anthropologists are already learning much about Brazil’s past even as it prepares for its immediate future. This discovery is particularly important in helping scholars further understand the depth of inhumanity in the slave trade in Brazil specifically and the Americas generally. In my experiences teaching, students today rarely have an understanding of just how brutal and horrifying the slave trade was or what a horribly dark period it was in human history. The Cemetery of New Blacks serves as yet another important reminder that African slaves were treated in the most debased and inhumane conditions possible from the moment of capture (or even birth) to death and beyond.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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