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The Role of Black Slavery in the Economic and Social Life of Brazil

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Although the institution of slavery comprised a part of the historical development of almost all countries worldwide, it is generally identified as one of the major tragedies in the history of humanity. Today, slavery is associated with illegal ownership of human beings, deprivation, forced labor, oppression, racism, and violation of human rights and freedoms. However, being determined as an integral part of legal codes and official regulations, slavery had existed in Brazil for more than three centuries.

The emerging issues of racial inequality, racial stratification, and racial discrimination are extremely important in Brazil, a country inhabited by Caucasians, Africans, Indians, and mulattos; many of them are descendants of enslaved Africans. Meade (2010) states that descendants of Africans comprise approximately 44% of Brazil’s population. Although recent data on the Brazilian economy, domestic policy, foreign affairs, and international relations testify to the formation and development of the consolidated multinational state, racism-related problems are still specific to social life of the Brazilians (Baranov, 2000; Klein & Luna, 2010). Driving forces of these issues originated from African slavery.

The complete definition of Black slavery in Brazil should consider economic trends, cultural specificity, social development, historical preconditions, and moral views influenced enslavement of Africans.

Black (African) slavery (Escravidãol) was the basic model of forced labour in Brazil since the time when the Portuguese started colonization in this region. In 1500, Brazil initially attracted rapacious attention of Portugal “largely because of dyewoods, which could furnish a very marketable and lucrative red/purple dye ultimately destined for European textile centers such as Amsterdam” (Bergad, 2007, p. 2). Slavery became the major type of the economic and social relations in the country as slave labour was widely utilised in single-crop plantations, cattle-breeding farmers (fazendas), household and domestic services, mining, and other productive enterprises. Brazil appeared to be the last country in the Western hemisphere that abolished the institution of slavery in 1888 (Klein & Luna, 2010; Bourcier, 2012). Although there were slaves in American, European, Asian, and African societies, the longest-lasting slave regime in the Americas is specific to Brazil. “Slavery was a form of social control” (Danver, 2011, p. 325). Thus, the social development of Brazil represented a complex phenomenon of interconnected social, political, cultural, and economic boundaries of feudalism and slavery there.

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In Brazil, slavery developed within the frames of feudal relations brought to the Americas by the Portuguese. Insignificant amounts of brazilwood, dyewoods, parrots, monkeys, and other exotic animals were the first Brazilian exports. However, limited operational capacities of Portuguese sugar plantations in Africa, growing demands for sugar in Europe, and increased competitiveness posed by the Netherlands, Spain, France, and Britain stipulated Portuguese expansion overseas in the early 1500s. Therefore, colonization of the country was characterized by rapid foundation and growth of sugar plantations (engenhos) in northeastern Brazil in the 16th century. According to historical evidence, “the first official Portuguese settlement was established at Sao Vicente, the future Sao Paulo” (Bergad, 2007, p. 3) when  Brazil was colonized by the Portuguese in the early 1500s. The first colonial governor, Tome de Souza, was appointed to administer Brazil and build a colonial administrative capital in 1549.

Sugar - the main production for export

Sugar production became a basis of the Brazilian economy focused on export of agricultural products in general and sugar in particular. However, while the export-oriented economy of Brazil was promoting production of monoculture, economic limitations of such business operations predetermined their inefficacy. Moreover, the economic development of the colony was worsened by contradictions between producers of sugar, its exporters, importers, and ultimate customers. In international trade, Portugal gave in to the Dutch merchants supervising the European sales markets.

Profitability of sugar production directly depended on the problem of labour force; the Portuguese needed large stocks of labour to produce their exports (Klein & Luna, 2010). The Portuguese colonists and owners of captaincies (capitanias) initially exploited indigenous Indians for work in sugar plantations. The indigenous population of Brazil consisted of three main tribes: the Mundurucú, the Tupinambá, and the Yanomami (Meade, 2010, p. 4). Nevertheless, the colonists’ attempts to use work of enslaved Indians failed due to a variety of conditions. Enslaved Indians were dramatically affected by diseases of European origin; their intolerance to even the simplest infections led to the demographic decline in the Indian population. Devastating rates of deaths of Indians could not provide the Portuguese with required labour force to maintain the economic viability of the colony. Furthermore, indigenous Indians withstood invaders, protecting their land. In addition, the Catholic Church opposed enslavement of Indians, aspiring to proselyte them into Catholicism, while it was considered to be morally acceptable to enslave Africans.

Shipping Africans to Brazil for slavery

Thus, Indians were not a reliable source of labour force and the metropolitan government made a decision of shipping Africans from Sierra Leone, Senegal, Angola, Cameroons, Congo, Upper Guinea, and other African countries. Africans were stronger, sturdier, and more skilful in agricultural activities than indigenous Indians were. Enslavement of Africans became inevitable. Approximately 8 million slaves were transported to the Americas, “about one-third went to Portuguese Brazil” (Matthew, 2010, p. 32). Despite inhumane conditions of transportation, exhausting procedures of resale, and moil, enforced labour of Africans slaves greatly contributed to the prosperity and development of Portugal. “By the late 1500s sugar mills had multiplied, African slaves were replacing forced Indian labor, and Brazil was producing more sugar than the Atlantic islands combined with regions like the Algarve, in southern Portugal” (Davis, 2006, p. 103). In 1570, there were approximately 60 sugar plantations in Brazil; in 1710, their number exceeded the figure of 500. Hence, Portugal became the largest supplier of sugar to the world market due to black slavery.

Terrible working conditions, unhealthy living quarters, nutritionally inadequate diet, frequent accidents, and long hours of exhausting work resulted in numerous deaths of enslaved Africans. Most slaves “did  not reproduce  their  own  population,  and  died  young,  of  overwork  or disease” (Meade, 2010, p. 46).

Irrespective of the gender, most slaves worked in the fields. They were engaged in the production of tobacco, rice, sugar, cotton, and, eventually, coffee (Meade, 2010). Working conditions of agricultural labor were the hardest in Brazil. In accordance with Klein & Luna (2010), captaincies were not economically successful. However, agriculture was gradually developing. Small farms were specialized in growing manioc, corn, beans, fruit, and other crops. Forced labour of African slaves was also utilised in the internal regions of the country, where cattle breeding ranches (fazendas) prevailed. Later, cattle-farmers dwelling in the periphery of explored areas developed sales markets in other districts of Brazil. The development of agriculture was promoted in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and other captaincies.

New towns were constructed on the banks of the Amazon, Parana, Paraguay, and São Francisco rivers. African slaves worked in towns as house servants, coachmen, drivers, coffee carriers, labourers, carpenters, tailors, and tradesmen. “Slaves brought from Africa their skill for moving huge, heavy loads on their heads and could be seen in rural and urban areas transporting cotton, textiles, jars of water, and any other item on their heads” (Meade, 2010, p. 47). 

The gold fever

In the 18th century, a decrease of prices in sugar and trade restrictions made sugar production some unprofitable industry; the Brazilian economy was in relatively depressed conditions (Klein & Luna, 2010; Meade, 2010). These economic factors stipulated Portuguese efforts to explore natural resources of Brazil. Deposits of gold, silver, and precious stones were discovered in Minas Gerais, Serro do Frio, Vila Rica, Vila do Carmo, and some other districts of Brazil. These discoveries became possible due to onerous work of African slaves. Black slaves worked in the gold mines and diamond fields (Davis, 2006; Bergad, 2007; Klein & Luna, 2010; Meade, 2010). Meade (2010) identifies inhumane working conditions in mines as “a death sentence”. However, the gold fever was declining in the late 1800s due to exhausted reserves of natural deposits.

In the 19th century, Brazil entered a new cycle of its economic development and, consequently, slavery. A new phase of exploitation of Africans was connected with coffee production. Coffee production initially supplied the internal market; then, it expanded, forming the basis of a new slave plantation economy concentrated in the southeastern states of Brazil (Klein & Luna, 2010). Although the growth of coffee production induced an increase in demand for black slaves, democracy-oriented changes in the USA and Europe led to the Brazilian abolitionist movement. Furthermore, slavery appeared to the retrograde and inefficient institution (Danver, 2011).

Abolishing slavery in Brazil

Slavery was finally abolished in Brazil in 1888. However, the legal ending of African slavery did not end its impacts on Brazilian life (Baranov, 2000; Klein & Luna, 2010; Bourcier, 2012). Transformations of labor force occur more rapidly than humans’ identity. Therefore, Brazil is still facing some issues associated with racial inequality and segregation. According to Bourcier (2012), “racial inequality is manifest in many respects, starting with the share-out of riches”.  

In conclusion, although today’s Brazilian achievements in agricultural, mining, manufacturing, and service sectors are based on the inhumane institutions of slavery and slave trade, citizens of the multinational Brazilian state should always remember their past and the immeasurable costs of numerous lives paid by their descendants.

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