Independence is freedom
More than liberating Brazil, slaves in Bahia entered the war to win their manumission
Most battles do not have just one purpose. And, at times, the same side of the dispute has different objectives. In Bahia, slaves were recruited to fight in favor of the Independence.
But these soldiers looked for more than freeing Brazil from Portugal’s domination. They carried weapons hoping to use their war services as exchange currency to obtain their manumission.
The bloody Independence War in Bahia began in February of 1822, when Portugal nominated Brigadier Inácio Luís Madeira de Melo (1775-1835) to command Bahian troops, and not a Bahian officer. The substitution triggered the revolt of the population, the Chamber and many among the Bahian military, who were defeated in three days of struggle (from February 19 to 21) and forced to flee. Little by little, from the articulation of great planters in the Recôncavo, the Pacifying Army was formed, composed by soldiers and militiamen who had left Salvador after the defeat, local militiamen and temporary battalions organized by patriot Bahians who fought against the Portuguese, in favor of the Independence.
Upon the emancipation of Brazil, Salvador remained controlled by the Portuguese. When he was acclaimed emperor in Rio de Janeiro on October 12th of 1822, Don Pedro declared his support to Bahian patriots. He sent ordnance, troops and the French officer Pedro Labatut (1768-1849), a career military officer with experience in the Napoleonic and Hispanic American wars. Troops from Pernambuco and Paraíba also came to reinforce the Pacifying Army.
The war was long and cruel. Portuguese troops, entrenched in Salvador, received reinforcements and supplies by sea, despite the blockade decreed by Don Pedro. With little ordnance and not enough numerical superiority, the patriots could not take the city by storm. Right after Labatut’s arrival, Madeira de Melo, commander of the Portuguese detachment, attacked the Bahian camp in Pirajá. The victory of November 8th belonged to the patriots, but the battle of Pirajá did not change the fight’s strategic aspect.
Labatut tried to organize a well trained army. Even having been appointed by the new emperor, the foreigner who barely spoke Portuguese was not seen with good eyes by the patriot planters of Recôncavo. Especially when he challenged them by proposing to recruit slaves, a practice that did not exist in imperial troops. Planters feared that their slaves would take advantage of the occasion to fight for freedom or new rights. In November, after the Battle of Pirajá, Labatut ordered to recruit “browns and freed blacks” to create a battalion of freedmen. He also confiscated slaves belonging to absent Portuguese (presumed enemies) to serve in this battalion. The Interim Government Council, located in Cachoeira and formed by powerful planters, considered the measure dangerous. They complained about the creation of a “battalion of black slaves, creoles and Africans”, concerned about the rumors that any slave who volunteered would be freed.
In April of 1823, Labatut proposed that planters contributed voluntarily with slaves for the war. It was the last straw: he ended up removed in May and sent to Rio de Janeiro. He was tried for various crimes – such as prepotency and corruption –, but his opponents could not accuse him of promising freedom to slaves who served in the Pacifying Army. At most, freedom was implied in the general’s proposals, or it was a (logical) conclusion of the slaves themselves, who certainly knew there was a big difference between their condition and the one of the soldiers (always free men).
But the French general’s exiting the scene did not end the battalion of freedmen. Brigadier José Joaquim de Lima e Silva, the future Viscount of Magé (1787-1855), who replaced him in the command of the Pacifying Army, did not hesitate in taking the slave-soldiers’ side. Soon after the war, he recommended that the imperial government freed the “great number of slaves” who served in the Bahian forces. “I have always seen evidence of value and intrepidity in them, as well as obstinate enthusiasm for the cause of Brazil’s Independence”, he declared.
A new field for slave resistance was open, and planters’ fear confirmed. A slave master recounted that a certain Alexandre, “a brown man, escaped during the war to Recôncavo and left for Pernambuco with the local troop”. Maria Rita, a Creole, simply “ran away as Portuguese troops retreated” after being defeated. Many slaves went to the Bahian camp where they were employed as servants or to dig trenches. A significant number of them – runaways or recruits for the battalion of freedmen – were in the Pacifying Army on July 2nd of 1823, when the patriots’ victory was celebrated. Since then, the Independence in Bahia has been celebrated on this date, considered more important by Bahians then September 7th itself.
On July 30th came the order from the capital of the Empire: the Bahian government should work on obtaining freedom for slave-soldiers. Masters who were not willing to do it for free could receive compensation. This way, the right of ownership was maintained, as well as the important principle that manumission was an exclusive privilege of the slave master.
Another decree of the same date stated that slave-soldiers were soon to be sent to Rio de Janeiro. It was feared that their permanence in Bahia would threaten the slavery order that the masters were trying to build. According to the British consul, 360 “black soldiers (slaves)” embarked in September.
It is not known how many masters freed their slaves for free nor how many insisted on being rewarded. The negotiations extended for the following years. In 1825, for example, José Lino Coutinho (1784-1836), a doctor and deputy to the Portuguese Courts, accepted 600 thousand réis to free two brothers, soldiers Francisco Anastácio and João Gualberto.
Angolan Caetano Pereira took the opportunity in his own way. He had enlisted voluntarily on June 9th of 1823 and been discharged on August 7th. However, as soon as he heard about the imperial decree, he looked for his ex-commander and convinced him to enlist again – not only to be protected from his master, a Portuguese, but also to facilitate his manumission. With the officer’s help (who perhaps hated the Portuguese man), Caetano probably won his freedom.
Some cases were more complicated. Joaquim de Melo Castro, known as Joaquim Shoemaker, declared he had been manumitted when his master died, later serving Joaquim Pires de Carvalho e Albuquerque, future Viscount of Pirajá (1801-1848) in the war. The problem is that, with independence won, Pirajá turned him in to his old master’s heirs. They sold him to a trader who moved to Rio de Janeiro. In the capital of the Empire, Joaquim ran away and enlisted in the artillery. The trader required his discharge, but the soldier’s insistence on his condition of freedman convinced military authorities to investigate the case. During this time, Joaquim participated in the campaign against the Confederation of Ecuador – a movement of opposition to Don Pedro’s government triggered in Pernambuco in 1824. Finally, the government concluded he had provided sufficient services and compensated the trader, who was certainly relieved to get rid of a slave so difficult to control.
The voice of slaves themselves is hardly present in the vast documentation about the recruitment and post-war liberation. But they certainly saw the battles, as well as the Independence, as means to win freedom. In the military service they could improve their condition and take up arms, sometimes even against their masters.
When farmer Gonçalo Alves de Almeida was asked to give a man to integrate the patriot forces, he replied: “What interest can a slave have in fighting for the Independence of Brazil?” One can venture an answer: the promise of freedom.
Hendrik Kraay is a History professor at the Calgary University in Canada and author of Race, State, and Armed Forces in Independence-Era Brazil: Bahia, 1790s-1840s (Stanford University Press, 2001).
(RHBN. No. 48. September 2009. PP. 22-24)