The color that makes the difference
In 1889, a group of freedmen from the region of Vassouras, in Rio de Janeiro, addressed a letter to Rui Barbosa in which they demanded public education for their children. It was a delicate period; slavery had been extinguished a short time before and the monarchy was collapsing. The letter signatories declared to be republicans and claimed it had been them, the former slaves, and not the royal family, the authors of the abolition. This declaration of protagonism did not please Rui Barbosa (1849-1923), nor other more conservative emancipationists, for whom the abolition was a national problem that had been solved by “citizens”, the “educated men”, categories that did not include slaves and freedmen.
However, not even by far had been the end of slavery something decided and managed only by white gentlemen and doctors in the Empire. Since here have arrived the first slave ships, police and political authorities were startled by slave escapes and insurrections that, day after day, disturbed the business, the quiet and the masters’ authority.
In the second half of the 19th century, the relevance of the black rebelliousness for the disruption of slavery became even more evident. Historiography is filled with black characters who had in the abolition their main cause, such as Luís Gama, José do Patrocínio and Manoel Querino. There were other less famous ones, but who were forceful advertisers of black freedom, like a certain Salustiano.
He became known in the Bahia chronicle as the people’s voice, thanks to the vehemence of his speeches in favor of the abolition and in supporting José do Patrocínio whenever he had some time off his duties as a shoemaker.
Salustiano’s preaching contradicted the prevailing order in such a way that a sheriff from Cachoeira, in Recôncavo Baiano, even asked the chief of police for instructions to “shut up the black man in question”.
Boldness was the focus of action of black men who struggled against slavery, to the dawn of abolition. There are many reports about the involvement of African freedmen in abolitionist societies. Many would help runaway slaves, that is, hide them while lawyers presented motions for freedom in court.
The intensity of collective rebellions and escapes was one of the strongest evidence of the slavery crisis. The black movement was so decisive that one of the abolitionist arguments was that only the end of captivity would set the white man free, seen as a hostage to his slaves’ resistance.
The freedmen from Vassouras were right in claiming the authorship of the abolition. Perhaps because former captives were the true authors of their freedom, May 13 celebrations are held today only in black communities, as in candomblés in Recôncavo baiano and congados in the Southeast.
WLAMYRA R. DE ALBUQUERQUE IS ARCHIVE DIRECTOR AT FUNDAÇÃO PEDRO CALMON/SECULT –BA, PROFESSOR AT THE UNIVERSIDADE ESTADUAL (STATE UNIVERSITY) IN FEIRA DE SANTANA AND CO-AUTHOR OF THE BOOK UMA HISTÓRIA DO NEGRO NO BRASIL. (RIO DE JANEIRO: MINISTÉRIO DA CULTURA - FUNDAÇÃO PALMARES, 2006).
(RHBN. No. 32. May 2008. P. 18)