This study examines the experiences of the slaves and ex- slaves who lived
and labored in the Bahian Recôncavo, one of the oldest slave socie ties in
the Americas, from the last two de cades of slavery through the first twenty
years after abolition on May 13, 1888. The Recôncavo was one of Brazil’s most
impor tant slave- holding and sugar- producing regions, but sugar was not the
Recôncavo’s only crop, nor did all slaves work in sugar. Sugar was, however,
the region’s most impor tant crop and most slaves there worked in sugar, even
as abolition approached. Examining this history, therefore, reveals the impli-
cations of abolition and the consequences of the end of slavery for a signifi-
cant sector of Brazil’s black population.
Until quite recently, May 13, 1888, has primarily constituted a chronologi-
cal divider between two distinct periods of Brazilian history. Abolition in
1888 and the installation of the Brazilian Republic in 1889 marked the end of
one era and the beginning of another. Key to this new period were a num-
ber of new elements: free labor, massive growth in Eu ropean immigration
to southeastern Brazil, industrialization, and or ga nized labor. With the new
focus on these factors, the legacy of slavery and the men and women who had
lived through slavery abruptly dis appeared from Brazilian history.
This “disappearance” of the former slaves from the study of the post-
emancipation period was, in some respects, ideological, in that it was a way
to show that Brazil had done away with the legacies of slavery once and for
all. This racialized discourse made it pos si ble to discuss Brazil without refer-
ence to Africans or their descendants. In other words, it silenced them.
In the 1940s, in his classic study História econômica do Brasil, Caio Prado
Júnior argued that free wage labor had “substituted” for enslaved labor in the
last years of slavery. By substituted, he meant that the period saw the emer-
gence of cap i talist labor relations and labor movements, the principal actors
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