Márcia Regina Berbel, Rafael de Bivar Marquese, Tâmis Parron. Slavery and Politics: Brazil and Cuba, 1790-1850. Trans. Leonardo Marques. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2016. 368 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8263-5648-2.
Reviewed by William A. Morgan (Lone Star College-Montgomery)
Published on H-Atlantic (February, 2018)
Commissioned by W. Douglas Catterall (Cameron University of Oklahoma)
Recreating Plantation Societies in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World
Cuba and Brazil, two of the largest slave empires the world has known and the last two to abolish the nearly 400-year-old institution in the New World, have inspired an immense body of scholarship. The scope of this literature has only increased as scholars have attempted new ways to understand the role of slavery in Brazil and Cuba within the larger context of the Atlantic world. However, despite a shared institution both overarching and defining within each society, the dominant trends in scholarship, at least to the authors of Slavery and Politics: Brazil and Cuba, 1790-1850, have either isolated Brazil from Cuba, treating each as its own entity with its own history and experiences during this period and in this region, or uncritically grouped them into multipronged comparisons with little regard for any semblance of unity or similarity between the two.
At its center, Slavery and Politics represents an attempt to elucidate commonality between what the authors see as two geographically disparate, but ideologically similar, slave societies largely through an analytical framework privileging a global and political context affecting both. Treating the two societies as a dynamic, “integrated unit,” the authors link these two leading slave systems within a shared Atlantic world marked by the interplay between a robust slave trade and the advent of international abolition (p. 5). In fact, a central tenet of this work in contextualizing the interconnectivity between Brazil and Cuba, in contrast to the larger Atlantic, is the authors' understanding that the two societies shared a commitment to slavery’s unchecked expansion.
The first of Slavery and Politics’s four chapters outlines Brazilian and Cuban slavery over the long course of their histories. Situating their work in the ongoing scholarship of Atlantic slavery, the authors address the static nature of comparisons of Brazil and Cuba that historians have too often failed to reconsider. The authors insist instead upon viewing them as intertwined Atlantic societies joined together by the impact of larger “historical temporalities,” essentially emphasizing their shared change over time within an Iberian Atlantic (p. 13). Beginning with the origins of Atlantic slavery, the authors focus on the linked histories of the two societies as they contrast Iberian colonial development with English and French settlements. Covering little new ground, this initial section primarily serves as contextual background.
The second section begins with an analysis of the revolution in Saint-Domingue that began in 1791, a touchstone event in terms of periodization as it marked the first real threat to the expansion of slavery in Brazil and Cuba, which had previously seen limited impact from the crises represented by the American Revolution and initial English abolitionism. For the first time Brazil and Cuba were forced to evaluate the degree of their reliance on slavery publicly and politically as well as its immediate future in the two societies as they confronted issues of freedom that plagued proslavery forces in parts of North America and the Caribbean. Despite a discussion of evolving constitutional experiences in Brazil and Cuba that reconsidered the metropole and colonial ties to slavery, the authors show that both Cuba and Brazil nevertheless became more deeply immersed in the African slave trade. This decision effectively placed the two societies on parallel and, compared to their peers, increasingly unique paths in the Atlantic world.
Extending their analysis of Brazilian and Cuban constitutional narratives around maintaining access to African-based slavery as another decade of turmoil unfolded in the Atlantic, the authors contend that both societies were forced to defend strategies designed to maintain slavery, although with different results. In Cuba, the independence movements in Latin America that shook the foundations of Spain’s New World empire influenced planter and politician responses. Framing it as "Cuba 'under siege,' ” the authors characterize the period from 1825 to 1837 as one marked by repressive attempts to preserve social and political order at the expense of any attempts at the liberalization of slavery or calls for independence (p. 142). Regulations establishing enhanced police and political powers for island officials also served to circumvent any ersatz proclamations from Spain regarding the trade in African slaves (a position made necessary by an arrangement that the Spanish Empire had entered into with Britain in 1820). Confronted with a series of external crises, Cuba chose a path of “colonial continuity,” thereby substantiating its status as the ever-faithful island (p. 124).
For Brazil, an independent nation by 1822, this period was dominated by diplomatic relations addressing British abolitionists' concerns alongside the need to maintain Brazil’s status as a slave-based economy. Facing increasing pressure from Britain, an extensive debate unfolded in the public sphere with competing factions arguing over slavery’s future in Brazil, eventually resulting in an official stance embracing ending the slave trade. As the authors rightfully note, this radical new position was greatly influenced by the need to address concerns originating from multiple slave revolts. This had the effect of galvanizing calls for the liberalization of slavery in Brazil, including the attenuation of the slave trade. However, this position was short-lived as a new political order arose in 1833 whose proponents based their program on an official proslavery stance.
Recognizing slavery as the tie that binds, the authors’ third section concludes that the heightened powers of the state in both societies were explicitly related to the minimalization, and even disregard, of contraband slave trading activity. These outcomes proved easy pills to swallow for all interested parties, as slave-based planters in Brazil and Cuba saw a monumental expansion of slavery and their profits while political authorities in each zone used this revenue--largely through a matching increase in taxes--not only to stabilize, but to actually grow, their imperial positions.
Slavery and Politics concludes with the two regimes doubling down on their commitment to slavery and increasingly coming into ever greater conflict with Britain, which had also intensified its own efforts to enforce abolition on an international level. Standing together, but isolated from other nations in the Atlantic due to the continuous (and conspicuous) importation of enslaved Africans, Brazil and Cuba would eventually be forced to reconcile their positions. But they would do so in different ways, as Britain took distinct approaches with each.
For Brazil, the authors maintain that as the larger of the two violators of the internal slave trade, it bore the brunt of British actions, forcing Brazilians to finally choose between their dependence on the African slave trade and political sovereignty. Increasingly finding itself diplomatically isolated and its politics riven with ever more “turbulent” debates and positions ever more radicalized, Brazil finally abolished the slave trade in 1850.
The larger geopolitics of the Atlantic also greatly influenced the Cuban narrative of antislavery demands during this period. In the case of Cuba, though, the British took a diametrically different approach as diplomatic treaties with Spain lacked the rigid enforcement capacities that marked those with Brazil. Additionally, British pressure on the island was mitigated by Cuba’s contraband activity that was declining rapidly just as Brazil’s was experiencing an equally dramatic shift, but in the opposite direction. Most importantly, however, the authors particularly stress that any differences between Cuba and Brazil in this period were most influenced by British concerns that a show of force on Britain's part matching that in Brazil would incite annexationists in the United States to seize the island. These considerations forced the British to demonstrate a much more lenient approach toward Cuba.
Much of Slavery and Politics’ argumentative weight rests upon a series of premises emphasizing that Brazil and Cuba, isolated at one end of the contraband slave trade, not only shared a history that was “unparalleled” within the larger Atlantic world but that their politically “shared space of experience” only grew as both were forced to deal with revolutionary developments forcing abolition to the center stage (pp. 3, 4). Despite their shared contrast with northern European colonies in the Atlantic--an overriding characteristic the authors use to ultimately group Brazil and Cuba together rather than view each as part of a multiple and varied world--nativist, proslavery forces proving to be especially recalcitrant in the wake of rising, international abolitionism did not actually make them unique. As many readers will have surmised at this point, the absence of the United States, that other great slave empire of the nineteenth century, looms large in any comparative analysis of New World slave systems. In fact, US planter elites, merchants and industrialists, expansionists, and political unionists combining to represent a national advocacy of slavery’s enlargement not only reflected similar developments in Brazil and Cuba, but, arguably, as the region’s largest slave empire, drove the emergence in Cuba and Brazil of the very characteristics that the authors choose to highlight as unique to them.
Nevertheless, Slavery and Politics represents a noteworthy contribution to the larger field through an extensive analysis in both Brazil and Cuba of the constitutional processes and political phases associated with multiple regimes and how they were forced to change over time in relation to their degree of reliance upon, and access to, the contraband trade in slaves. The result is an explicit attempt at situating the political positions of Brazil and Cuba within Dale Tomich's conceptual framework of “second slavery,” a framework in which slave societies are best understood according to distinct ebbs and flows over the course of their evolution, with a clear demarcation between initial and final phases.
This work is very much a political history of slavery and if the claim to originality resulting from treating Brazil and Cuba as an integrated, unique unit is not entirely borne out, it remains a useful addition to scholarship on the politics of Atlantic slavery in the nineteenth century. It is also a valuable counterweight to both national and comparative studies, especially those addressing the idea of a second slavery that have, of late, been more focused on slave society, culture, and commodity production.
. Recent examples using this contrasting approach are found in Laird W. Bergad, The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007); and Robin Blackburn, The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights (London: Verso Books, 2013).
. For the origins of this concept, see, Dale W. Tomich, Through the Prism of Slavery: Labor, Capital, and World Economy (Lantham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2004); and more recently, Javier Laviña and Michael Zeuske, eds., The Second Slavery: Mass Slaveries and Modernity in the Americas and in the Atlantic Basin (Berlin and Zürich: LIT Verlag, 2014).
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William A. Morgan. Review of Berbel, Márcia Regina; Marquese, Rafael de Bivar; Parron, Tâmis, Slavery and Politics: Brazil and Cuba, 1790-1850.
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