Confederates who fled to Brazil

What was a Confederate who found himself on the losing side at the end of the American Civil War going to do? The southern states were a smouldering ruin. Slavery had been abolished – so no forced labour on the plantations anymore. The victorious Union demanded oaths of loyalty and obedience from those who had dared to secede from the United States of America. Some Confederates joined violent secret societies like the Ku Klux Klan to murder their way back to power. Others headed off to Brazil.

An invitation from the Emperor of Brazil

As Confederates licked their wounds at the end of the American Civil War, an unexpected hand of friendship was extended to former slaveholders from the south. Way down south…in Brazil. The country was then ruled by the second of two “Emperors”, descended from the Portuguese royal family – the former colonial power.

Emperor Pedro II was keen to turbo-charge Brazil’s economy by whatever means. He saw an opportunity to take advantage of the desolation of the American South by transforming Brazil into the world’s foremost cotton production nation. To achieve this, he wooed Confederate cotton plantation owners with all kinds of attractive incentives. The year 1866 saw numerous Brazil emigration programs targeting disgruntled Southerners.

Emperor Pedro II is still often portrayed as a closet abolitionist who despised slavery. But in the 1860s, he did a very good impersonation of a ruler desperate to lure Southern slaveholders to his empire with the promise of…slaves.

In 1866, Confederates felt they had an ally in the emperor and not an enemy. Even when Pedro II freed some slaves that year, one Southerner who had emigrated to Brazil wrote to the Georgia Constitutionalist newspaper to assure his countrymen that these 250 slaves had been emancipated on condition they join the army immediately. The emperor took this step to encourage other plantation owners to make a similar patriotic gesture to strengthen the country’s armed forces. Brazil was at war with Paraguay at the time.

DISCOVER: Old American newspapers reveal the horror of slavery

Brazil – the biggest destination for African slaves

Whatever the Emperor’s own views – Brazil was a prolific slave trader and owner.

According to some estimates, Brazil accounted for 40% of all slaves shipped to the New World from Africa from the 16th to the 19th century – a total of about six million people. The other major destination was the Caribbean. North America trailed far behind but still accounting for hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children.

While many Confederates began packing their bags, there were warning voices. Brazil had many attractions but the United States still offered more realistic prospects of making a fortune in your lifetime.:

“We have simply to say that any Southern man who thinks of going to this region of fabulous wealth, should, with such confidence in his luck, at once buy a lottery ticket and draw a comfortable prize, for he will get it from this quarter sooner than Brazil.” (The Norfolk Virginian, March 19, 1866).

DISCOVER: Muslim African slaves in America

Milk and honey…for slaveholders

A northern journalist from the Chicago Tribune journeyed through the American South on a fact-finding mission in August 1866, a year after the Civil War had ended. It didn’t take him long to hear talk of Brazil. On the train to Tennessee, he encountered a southerner who had just returned from this Confederate paradise in the jungle to spread “Brazil fever” among those remaining in the United States.

The traveller told the journalist that the Empire of Brazil was like the biblical Land of Canaan – all milk and honey. Though not everybody was permitted to enjoy the fruits of this utopia. Like the pre-war South, it rested on the back of black slave labour. The journalist noted sarcastically why this was so appealing to the defeated and downcast Confederates on the train:

“A land where Yankees cease from troubling, and weary Confederates are at rest in the full enjoyment of civil and religious liberty, including the right to own and whip negro slaves, the great end and aim of human existence.”

The soil was incredibly fertile and the climate appealing, the traveller claimed. Nature’s bounty sprang forth “invoked by the whip of the taskmaster”, the journalist mused. The Confederate then implausibly asserted that it wasn’t unusual to meet people in Brazil who were 120 years of age and still in good health (sic). And one man he had conversed with was 130 with the physical constitution of a 30-year-old.

The journalist observed that his audience on the train, all Confederates, were lapping it up. They wanted a one-way ticket to this Promised Land. He privately scoffed at the Southern mind displaying “the same credulity that used to make them believe one Southerner could whip five Yankees, and that grass would grow in the streets of New York if the cotton states should secede”.

The traveller was then questioned at length by the train passengers. Some Confederates from Georgia wanted to know if backbreaking work really was done by slaves in Brazil. Just like the good old days in Dixie. He assured them it was and so appealing was his new home that he’d taken Brazilian citizenship. Then he shared a juicy morsel of information to win the support of the train.

To distinguish slaves from slaveholders in Brazil – the former were not allowed to wear shoes. This went down very well. The traveller drove the message home:

“In all weathers and at all work the slaves of that noble Empire must go barefooted.”

But one caveat before everybody got too excited. The reason for no shoes among slaves was that, he lowered his voice, on account of the climate the slave owners were sometimes almost the same colour as the slaves.

In fact, this is an incorrect understanding of a very complex social situation in Brazil where a number of freed slaves and mixed-race people over the centuries became slaveholders themselves. Men like Francisco Paulo de Almeida, Baron of Guaraciaba, who was elevated to the aristocracy by the emperor, became a successful banker, owned a huge coffee business, was African by ancestry, and owned hundreds of slaves.

Something that would have confounded a Confederate!

A Southerner expressed concern about the current war between Paraguay and Brazil, one of the bloodiest conflicts ever in Latin America. Wouldn’t Brazil run up war debts as the United States had? Wouldn’t people be reduced to the same kind of misery? Not at all, countered the traveller and naturalised Brazilian slave holder. Why, Confederates could not only own slaves but indulge their passion for chivalrous warfare by joining in on behalf of their new country and whipping those Paraguayans!

What what about the native Indian tribes, one passenger butted in, could they be reduced to slavery too? The traveller remarked that sadly they were like the freed slaves in the South: “they won’t work if they can get rid of it”. Everybody nodded mournfully. But to cheer them up, he continued by describing the legal protections for slaveholders enshrined in the constitution of imperial Brazil. That soon put smiles back on Confederate faces.

Confederates import Southern-style lynching to Brazil

Even as Confederates arrived in Brazil hoping to continue life as a slaveholding plantation owner, the legal situation was slowly inching away from slavery. In 1850, Brazil outlawed the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This didn’t free a single slave in Brazil. But it meant no new slaves would be arriving.

Why did they do this? The traditional explanation was that the British Royal Navy made slave trading in the Atlantic almost impossible. The United Kingdom, after centuries of slave trading, abolished it in 1808 with the Slave Trade Act. The Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron was then ordered to impound ships of any nation transporting slaves to the Americas.

But the number of slaves shipped from Africa to Brazil actually increased in the decades after 1808. And despite rumours that the emperor wanted to end slavery altogether, he continued to own slaves, as did the ruling class, and the Catholic church.

Nevertheless, there was a growing sense that being the only country in the Americas allowing slavery could leave Brazil diplomatically isolated. There was also nervous chatter among slaveowners as to whether the huge slave population could be controlled and fears over the spread of diseases like yellow fever.

All of which led to the “Free Womb Law” being passed in 1871. This legislation mandated all children born of slaves from that date to be automatically free. Though there would still be obligations to those who had owned their parents. Freedom had its limits.

This still wasn’t outright abolition of course. And Confederates in Brazil knew it. As with the United States, the most important factor in the move away from slavery was the growth of a powerful abolitionist movement among both black and white Brazilians. For Confederates hoping to continue their old lifestyle, this must have seemed like a bad case of déjà vu. How were they going to deal with these liberal, human rights types?

Frantic to maintain slavery in their new homeland against all the odds, they resorted to extreme violence. This was undoubtedly influenced by what happened in the American South in the aftermath of the Civil War. With freed blacks not only voting but sitting in state legislatures and working in law enforcement, Confederates across the South had resorted to mass murder, lynchings and whippings to cow the black population. Confederates in Brazil drew their own conclusions.

The Brazilian abolitionist Francisco Paulo de Almeida de Araujo Cunha (pictured below) was lynched by a mob led by two Confederates who had fought in the American Civil War and then moved to Brazil: James Warne, English by birth, and John Jackson Klink. Cunha was the local police chief in the town of Penha do Rio do Peixe – and a firm abolitionist. He refused to arrest escaped slaves and even harboured fugitives from plantations in his own house.

Enraged by his conduct, Warne and Klink gathered two hundred pro-slavery supporters and Cunha was beaten to death in the backyard of his house on February 11, 1888.

But already, emancipations were occurring en masse all over Brazil. Where they weren’t, slaves were just running away, hiding out in the jungle or hills. Entire plantations found themselves with no labour unless they were prepared to move from slavery to paid employment. Even then, slaves didn’t return to their previous owners – understandably.

Just three months after the lynching, on May 13, 1888, Princess Isabel – acting as Regent for the Emperor who was gravely ill – signed the so-called Golden Law into effect abolishing slavery in Brazil. It was too late for Cunha but his dream was realised posthumously.

Americana – a Confederate town in Brazil

Confederates – known as “Confederados” – can still be found in Brazil.

Every year, the town of Americana celebrates its Confederate dead. Sixth and seventh generation descendants of those who came from Alabama and Georgia to build a Dixie in the jungle congregate to hear mass and lay wreaths on the graves of the first arrivals. They wear Confederate uniforms and mid-Victorian dresses. Some of them still have English surnames but speak Portuguese.

They deny being racist or endorsing slavery or any form of racism. But equally, they boast that the plantations owners who came to Brazil brought with them previously unused farm technology such as the plough and harrow. They claim that everything from kerosene lamps to pecans and those watermelons with a “rattlesnake” stripe were imported with the Confederates.

The founder of Americana was a former Alabama senator, Colonel William Hutchinson Norris. On arrival in Brazil, he was received in person by Emperor Pedro who went on to open the town’s railway station, arrange long-term loans, and provide both free transport and accommodation for other Confederates coming to the new colony.

Norris lived long enough to see Americana grow – and to witness the slavery on which it relied, abolished.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: