A Note of Introduction
In May 1888 the Brazilian parliament passed, and Princess Isabel (acting
for her father Emperor Pedro II) signed, the Lei Aurea, or "Golden Law,"
providing for the total abolition of slavery. Brazil thus became the "last
civilized nation," or "last Christian nation" as it was alternatively put, to
decree the end of slavery as a legal institution. In 1988 the event was
observed in Brazil with numerous historical congresses and other com-
memorations. And, just as the approach of the Columbus quincentennial
has already sparked protests from some Native Americans and others who
insist that Columbus's achievement is to be deplored rather than cele-
brated, there were counterobservances in Brazil by descendants of slaves
who argue that despite legal emancipation they are trapped even today in
a situation of cruel inequality.
In both cases those who wish to celebrate and those who deplore do
agree on at least one thing: that the event in question was important. The
freeing of slaves in Brazil, as in other countries, may not have fulfilled the
hopes of improvement that it aroused, but the former slaves certainly did
not call for restoration of their previous condition, and the final act of
abolition is one of the defining landmarks of Brazilian history. The editors
of the Hispanic American Historical Review therefore decided to dedicate
one entire issue, in August 1988, to mark this anniversary; the resulting
essays are reprinted for a wider audience in this volume. The authors
represent a broad range of scholarly backgrounds and perspectives. There
is one Brazilian historian, Hebe Maria de Castro, and a
u.s.
historian,
Seymour Drescher, whose primary specialty is the history of European
abolitionism. The other three authors, Rebecca Scott, George Reid
Andrews, and Robert Levine, are well-known U.S. specialists in Latin Amer-
ican history. Only Drescher's essay deals strictly with the abolition pro-
cess. However, that process and its aftermath occurred within a larger
context of Brazilian history, which both affected and was affected by the
decision of the parliamentary majority and Princess Isabel. It thus seems
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