Salvador and the Bahia Coast Feature

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Afro-Brazilian Heritage

Of all of Brazil's states, Bahia has the strongest links with its African heritage. There are few other countries with such a symphony of skin tones grouped under one nationality. This rich Brazilian identity began when the first Portuguese sailors were left to manage the new land. From the beginning, Portuguese migration to Brazil was predominantly male, a fact that led to unbridled sexual license with Indian and African women.

The first Africans arrived in 1532, along with the Portuguese colonizers, who continued to buy slaves from English, Spanish, and Portuguese traders until 1855. All records pertaining to slave trading were destroyed in 1890, making it impossible to know exactly how many people were brought to Brazil. It's estimated that from 3 million to 4.5 million Africans were captured and transported from Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Liberia, Nigeria, Benin, Angola, and Mozambique. Many were literate Muslims who were better educated than their white overseers and owners.

It was common in the main houses of sugar plantations, which relied on slave labor, for the master to have a white wife and slave mistresses. In fact interracial relationships and even marriage was openly accepted. It was also fairly common for the master to free the mother of his mixed-race offspring and allow a son of color to learn a trade or inherit a share of the plantation.

When the sugar boom came to an end, it became too expensive for slave owners to support their "free" labor force. Abolition occurred gradually, however. It began around 1871, with the passage of the Law of the Free Womb, which liberated all Brazilians born of slave mothers. In 1885 another law was passed, freeing slaves older than 60. Finally, on May 13, 1888, Princess Isabel, while Emperor Dom Pedro II was away on a trip, signed a law freeing all slaves in the Brazilian empire.

The former slaves, often unskilled, became Brazil's unemployed and underprivileged. Although the country has long been praised for its lack of discrimination, this veneer of racial equality is deceptive. Afro-Brazilians still don't receive education on par with that of whites, nor do they always receive equal pay for equal work. There are far fewer black or mixed race professionals, politicians, and ranking military officers than white ones, although this is changing gradually.

Subtle activism to bring about racial equality and educate all races about the rich African legacy continues. For many people the most important holiday is November 20 (National Black Consciousness Day). It honors the anniversary of the death of Zumbi, the leader of the famous Quilombo (community of escaped slaves) de Palmares, which lasted more than 100 years and was destroyed by bandeirantes (slave traders) in one final great battle for freedom.

Updated: 2013-09-17

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