Celso T. Castilho

Narrating Abolition, Constructing “Africans”: Race, Republicanism, and Political Belonging in Recife, Brazil, 1888-1889

This paper deals with an important shift in Brazilian public discourse that occurred between the abolition of slavery and the overthrow of the monarchy some eighteen months later, that is, the conspicuous use of racialized language to debate the boundaries of political belonging. From the descriptions of “Africans” in the abolition commemorations to the ideals fueling the reconstruction of the Republican Party to the debates over popular political participation within the last imperial elections, it was clear that the terms through which to publicly frame the issue of belonging were changing; as were the strategies utilized by political mobilizations. I situate these evolving codes of public debate as bound up with the consequences of abolition, and I highlight the continuing importance of the “abolition problem” in structuring public debates on popular political participation.

I draw on the case study of Recife to analyze how the processes of narrating abolition shaped racial and political formations because it was the site where a mass struggle for slave emancipation unfolded over the preceding two decades. Competing abolitionist and sugar planters’ mobilizations incorporated wide sectors of society into the political field of activity through associational initiatives, petitioning campaigns, theatrical performances, and the press. Younger and older, free and enslaved, of all colors and both genders, the people were fully involved in the local experience of abolition. It was notable that while the “abolition problem” instigated such broad participation, neither the abolitionists nor the sugar planters’ made use of racialized language as the basis for organizing. Of course, the three-hundred year history of slavery created entrenched, racialized hierarchies that affected all dimensions of daily life, yet it was the case that race was not seen as a viable discursive strategy by either side to rally supporters or public opinion.

It was thus unusual to note the recurrent mention of the “Africans” present at the abolition ceremonies, a generic construct that seemingly collapsed important distinctions between free and freed, pardo and black, and social status. If “Africans” participated in abolition ceremonies, why were they never mentioned, in terms of a collective racial group, as part of the public political activities of the past twenty-five years? And, why “Africans,” and not “citizens” as was the term used in how everyone else congratulated each other?

The “abolition problem,” as it were, also proved central to the remaking of republicanism in Pernambuco. A party sidelined from provincial politics because of the strength of the two older imperial parties—Liberal and Conservative—the Republicans incorporated into their ranks the embittered sugar planters who cast their anger over the loss of slavery at the monarchy and became newfound proponents of the republican system. The planters were a politically influential group that brought financial resources, wide patronage networks, and political credibility to the party. They also made their disillusionment with emancipation (because of no compensation, eg.) the basis for the new republican platform. From their standpoint, therefore, the chaotic and unruly forms of politicking they associated with abolitionism needed to be removed from the political process so as not to threaten even greater unrest. I have argued elsewhere that the greatest political threat abolitionism represented was less a discussion about the reorganization of a labor system and more a reworking of the rules of the political game by fostering broader political participation.

This paper thus connects these different strands of post-emancipation public life: the unusual emphasis on the “Africans’” identity, the “abolition problem” within republican formations, and the racialized language surrounding debates concerning popular political participation. I rely principally on newspapers, as this was the best index into the modes of public discourse for late-nineteenth-century Recife. This presentation, in short, offers an entry into comparative and Atlantic considerations about the influences of race on political formations after emancipation.


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