Slave Markets of Colonial Brazil


(What’s left of the actual pillory of Pelourinho in Salvador, source)

It’s well-known that after Brazil was discovered, an extremely high number of African slaves (three million between the 16th and 19th centuries, to be more exact) were brought here via tumbeiros, or slave ships. It was only in 1888 that Princess Isabel signed the The Golden Law, a very succinct ruling that ended slavery and for which the document itself only consisted of two statements. The first basically said, “From this date onwards, slavery is abolished” and the second said something to the effect of, “Anything to the contrary is now void.”

Abolition was bound to happen sooner than later and two laws in the years prior had foreshadowed its arrival. Both of these smaller laws freed certain categories of slaves in one manner or another, hinting at a larger change to come. Nonetheless, it wasn’t due to the goodwill of those in the Portuguese court, but rather because slavery was no longer profitable and thus why poor Europeans were later incentivized to immigrate.

Long before the slaves were freed, though, they were brought to market to be inspected like cattle and sold to the highest bidder. In fact, in historical documents, they weren’t even referred to as “escravos”, but rather as “peças”, which can be translated as “parts” (think of car parts or any part of any machine). In Brazil, there were two main markets situated where sugar barons were known to exist in high numbers. Upon examination, potential buyers would feel slaves’ muscles, look at their eyes, teeth and ears and ask them to jump around and shout, so as to inspect their health and sanity. Things were even taken a step further, to the point where buyers would examine the private parts of their “merchandise” in search of signs of certain diseases.

Pelourinho is the historic and cultural center of Salvador da Bahia. It is located in the Cidade Alta (Upper City) region of the city and was originally chosen to be the city center for its strategic position and vantage point, guarding against attacks by the Dutch. ‘Pelô’, as some call it, was the location of the first slave market of the Americas, as well as where slaves were publicly punished for various infractions. The neighborhood itself gets its name from a wooden framework made up of a post with holes where the head and hands can be locked into place (though it seems it was also used to refer to a plain whipping post like this). While said punishment for non-slaves was often solely intended to bring about shame, slaves who found themselves in a ‘pelourinho’ were often whipped severely for the smallest of infractions.


(The Valongo market, around 1830)

The second largest slave market, in downtown Rio de Janeiro, started in the middle of the 18th century and was known as Valongo. Actually, the name comes from two beaches, that no longer exist, called Vallongo and Vallonguinho and they both formed a small bay where the slave ships would dock. A British clergyman named Robert Walsh, who visited Rio in the early 1800’s, had this to say of the slaves in Valongo,

“They were all doomed to remain on the spot, like sheep in a pen, till they were sold; they have no apartment to retire to, no bed to repose on, no covering to protect them; they sit naked all day, and lie naked all night, on the bare boards, or benches, where we saw them exhibited.”

I’m actually reading Mr. Walsh’s account of his travels and finding it fascinating, as I often wonder what people must have thought about foreigners here centuries ago, slaves included. Living in favelas brings me pretty close to how life was in colonial times since I’m awaken by roosters and calls of fresh bread by the local baker passing by with a basket on his shoulder. Suffice to say, my day is full of a myriad of other examples that correspond to my current and past readings on the era. I’m not sure how I would have dealt with living in a time where slavery existed. One could have tried to ignore it, been openly against it or have simply been a part of it and treated them with dignity. I’m not sure there’s a clear and correct answer.

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4 thoughts on “Slave Markets of Colonial Brazil

  1. I think in that context, a better translation for “peça” is “article” or “unit” (of merchandise). Unfortunately, that’s how slaves were viewed in those days.

  2. I enjoyed your post – thanks.
    Although slavery is long abolished in Brazil, I often find myself thinking about the ethics of my relatively privileged lifestyle here (in comparison to the majority of Brazilians and in some respects, my own lifestyle in the UK before I moved), much of which eventually relies on the availability of (very) low-paid workers. For example I live in an apartment block with 24-hr security, cleaners etc who are paid nothing like what is required to have a similar lifestyle to me. It’s not slavery but I sometimes wander if I should (using your words) try “to ignore it, [be] openly against it or simply [be] a part of it and treat them with dignity.”
    I’m still getting established here, and its by no means certain I can continue to live my current lifestyle, but I have come to the conclusion that (assuming I am able to) I will need to “give something back” (i.e. charity/community work – beyond my tax contributions) in order to clear my conscience of these ethical questions.

  3. Though not directly related to systematic slavery in Latin America, the film Tambien La Lluvia looks at colonialism in modern day Bolivia. I think you’d like it!

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