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Journal of an African Slave in Brazil [Historical Fiction]

A painting by Jean Baptiste Debret in 1826. Screenshot taken from The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record ( See image debret-2a

Written by Brendan McBride  (B.A. Student, Carleton University).
Nominated by Professor S. Lipsett-Rivera.

My name is João, and I was born near the coast in Angola.  I am a slave on a cacao plantation in Brazil, where I do hard labour every day to expand production, and ship cacao beans to the port.  Growing up in Africa, I never expected to leave the area surrounding my village, much less cross an ocean I had barely heard of to be enslaved by those I barely knew existed.  I live in hardship, which I have suffered since being captured over 5 years ago and being forced into enslavement.  I am writing to tell the story of how I came to be here, and my experience in the New World.  It is a time of expansion, both on the plantation and elsewhere, but this expansion does not benefit those who suffer and struggle under the existence of colonization to provide more to those who have taken everything from us.  I sit with a stolen quill, and scraps of parchment to document a view which is always overlooked.

Before I was captured, I lived in Angola with my wife and two children.  I had never seen the ocean before, but I knew that I was closer to the coast than many other villages because traders often passed through on their way to a port.  We had also heard of the Portuguese from the traders who came through the village occasionally, but none of us paid a lot of attention to it.  I lived in a small village which was under an Angolan ruler who lived in a city nearby. I thought I would farm to provide for the village as my father had before me, and raise my children in peace.  We did not follow the politics of the region closely, but we knew that there was more conflict among kingdoms than there had been in the past.  Although we knew very little of what was happening, we understood that people were being captured and sold across the water.  The wealth that was flowing to Kingdoms as a result of this trade was leading to an increase of conflict in our region as leaders fought to control it. As there was nothing we could do, we lived our lives as we had in the past.

One warm night in the summer of 1774, I woke up to hear the panic of a slaving raid in the village!  My village was small and had less than 100 people, which is why we were so vulnerable to attack.  There was little fighting as few of us had weapons or experience fighting.  My children were able to escape in the commotion partially because they were small and ran behind our hut, but mostly because the slavers were not interested in children.  After we were captured, we were separated into smaller groups and marched away before the sun rose.  Families around me were separated as they cried and begged for mercy and children were torn from the arms of their mothers.  My wife and I were placed into separate marching groups which left at different times.  I never saw her again.

We were marched for a number of days with very little sleep or rest to another location, where we were traded and sold to a group of Moradores [African traders who transported slaves to the coast].  The group from my village was separated into groups with slaves who had been captured from villages in the surrounding region.  I was in a group with strangers, but although I had never seen the other slaves in my group before, I felt a connection to them as they were in a similar situation to me.  The slavers did not want us communicating, and had us move quickly.  I had less than a day to rest during the first transfer, which may have been because the slavers were afraid that we would try to fight them because they were outnumbered, even though we were in chains.  One of the slavers in my group has a large scar on his face which he might have received in that manner.  They had us continue to move quickly so we were tired and did not speak to others in the group.

My group was marched on foot for a number of days, farther than I had ever been from my village before.  I thought we might be going to Luanda, which was the biggest slave port in the region, but instead we arrived in Benguela, which was closer to my village.  There were already slaves in the group when I began the second march, and more were added before we reached the coast.  Our general reaction was the same; overwhelmed, shocked, angry, and exhausted.  We were marched the majority of the day, and we did not stop often.

My experience in the city was overwhelming, I had heard of Benguela before, but I had never seen anything like it.  I saw many people and buildings when I arrived, but I never had the opportunity to see much.  When we arrived we were immediately traded to the Portuguese for wine and European textiles.  I could not believe that the goods my captors received were enough for the practice I had witnessed to continue.  I had lost my village, my family and everything I owned so that these men could receive their goods and go back to do the same thing again.  I was immediately placed in a barracoon [A building designed to hold slaves before a voyage] filled with other slaves.  Previously, my captors had been African, as the Europeans would not leave the coast for fear of disease.  Now we were guarded by the Portuguese.  The room I was kept in was full of misery and my containment was a terrible experience; we were kept in chains and guarded heavily during the weeks I spent there, both to keep us from escaping, and to guard against thieves.  Many people who came to the barracoon were sick and spread the disease to the rest of the population.  Fortunately, I was lucky enough to avoid getting sick, but a number of people who were stored with me died before they could even get aboard a ship.  The biggest fear among us was small pox, which was the greatest killer of slaves.  Finally, it was time for me to leave, but if anything, the voyage to Brazil was worse.

At this time the Portuguese were buying almost 10000 slaves being captured every year, although not all of them made it to their final destination.  The ship that I was eventually placed on was full of prisoners like me, with more than 350 men and women; the most that could legally fit onto a ship of that size.   No consideration had been taken for our comfort or wellbeing, except what was needed to keep us breathing.  I spent months cramped in close quarters, barely being kept alive.  About 1 out of 6 of slaves present on the voyage died along the way, and had their bodies dumped overboard.   Although there were women present on the ship, they were outnumbered by men, as men were desired more for hard labour.  Children were not present, as they had been separated from their parents beforehand; they were not desired for the work that was done by slaves in the Americas.  Occasionally some of the slaves were allowed onto the deck, but only rarely and in small numbers to avoid a rebellion.  I suffered sea sickness, and I was hungry and thirsty for the entire trip.  We were occasionally given meat or lemons, but the majority of our meals consisted of rice.  When we finally arrived in Brazil and were taken out into the sun, I could not see, but the air was so clean and I had so much room around me that I felt more joy than I had thought I would ever feel again.

I had heard that the most common location for slaves to be shipped was to Rio de Janeiro, but instead I landed in Salvador da Bahia, which was much closer to where I would be working.  From the ship, I was placed on a much smaller river boat which went along the coast and rivers in Ilh´eus district, where I would live.  I was told once when we got there that I would not be working with sugar, as many slaves in Brazil were doing.   Instead, like many slaves in the area I work with cacao.  I have been given a Portuguese name here, and I am now referred to as Manoel.

Living as a slave is brutal work.  I do hard labour every day, and anyone who breaks the rules risks beatings, whippings, or being put in the stocks which stand in the open as a warning to us.  In my first month at the plantation, I tried to take some of the beans to understand why they were worth such pain and suffering.  I was put in the stocks for two days, and my back ached for a week afterwards.  Some other punishments are much worse; one time a man tried to escape into the jungle to join a Mocambo [Fugitive African slave villages in the South American jungle], but was captured a day later.  What happened next was one of the most horrible things I have ever seen; all of the slaves were gathered together and he was branded in front of us.  When I sleep I sometimes still hear him screaming.

There is a high demand for African slaves in Brazil for a number of reasons.  The biggest reason is that the natives who were enslaved here previously are almost all gone.  Many died from sickness, or escaped and are living into the forest.   It is easier for them to live in the forest than us, as they are more familiar to the land.  Africans are less likely to die from European diseases.  About 1 in 10 people on the plantation are native, but the rest are African, or Creole.

I’ve been told that Cacao grows in the north of Brazil around the Amazon River, but is our job to work to introduce it here.  When I arrived at my plantation there were already some cacao plants that had come from the north, but the plantation has been rapidly growing with our forced labour.  Our region is the biggest producer of cacao in all of Brazil, because we have been planting long rows of the plants and we do not go into the jungle to find the beans.  This works for my masters for a number of reasons; the beans are much easier to grow and collect, and they also do not trust us in the jungle where we could run away.  When a batch of cocoa is finished, it is sent to Ilh´eus Town where it is shipped away and we never see it again.  Ilh´eus Town is the most successful town in the region because it is has the best climate for growing the cacao, and it is built on a number of waterways which allows goods to be shipped in and out easily.  The cacao is loaded onto shallow boats which transport the beans along the coast to cities, and from there they are traded and sent away on ships.  Most of my work on the plantation is working to make the plantation bigger.  My day mostly involves cutting down plants and brush, and burning them to make more farmland.  When the land is clear, the women plant rows of cacao.  In the time that I have been here, I have seen the size of the plantation grow significantly, both with a growth of production, as well with the arrival of more and more African slaves.

There are a lot of women and children on my plantation, a lot more than at many others in America.  This is because a lot of the work that needs to be done with cacao can be done, and is sometime done better by them.  The work of separating the beans from the pods is actually recommended to be done by children.  After the beans are grown, picked, and separated from the pods, they are roasted.  The process preserves them for a long time, and they are dumped into heavy sacks to be shipped out.  The pods are used to feed the pigs and cattle. It also my job to load the heavy sacks onto the carts before they are sent to Ilh´eus Town, but I am never allowed to leave the plantation.

Many slaves have started new families after moving to Brazil.  Generally, couples come from the same region of Africa, although this is not always the case.  I do not have a new family here as I still miss my wife and children, although I doubt I will ever have a chance to see them again.  Unions among slaves can be overseen by the church, but often it will take place without it, although these are not seen as legitimate.  Weddings do not always take place from the same African groups, as there is generally a sense of unity among slaves, but the majority of unions are between Africans.  Occasionally there are also unions between Africans and natives but these are less common as there are so few natives left on plantations, and generally African slaves marry amongst each other.  Sometimes there are also relations among Europeans and slaves, but much of the time the slave has little say in this.  Our master has had a number of affairs with some of the female slaves, which he works to hide from his wife.

Although there are some efforts to convert us to Christianity, including baptisms, and official weddings, many slaves still work to keep their culture.  Rituals must often be practiced in secret, as witchcraft, or anything that is viewed as such can be punished severely.  There are many Africans in Brazil who know witchcraft and medicine, as those who practiced witchcraft in Africa were some of the first sold into slavery when the opportunity arose.  Although I have been assigned a new name and religion here, I still feel that my ancestors are with me, and are guiding me through this difficult time so that someday I may be free and feel joy once more.

Today, I spoke to another slave who works with me, discussing a plan to escape.  There is a Mocambo that exists in the jungle, far from the plantation.  Slave resistance is something that we have seen to a small extent on our plantation, through stealing food or materials, or breaking equipment, but there have been no large escape attempts in the past.  Of the few people who have tried to escape so far, the majority have been caught and dragged back, but some of them have disappeared.

Our region makes it easier to form Mocambos than other places because the land makes it hard to follow those who escape.  Some of them have lasted for decades!  There are a number of Mocambos in the region, although many of them are destroyed by the Portuguese, who send missions to stop them.  They are stopped by killing or recapturing the escapees, and destroying their villages. It would be risky, as those who try to escape are brutally punished, and expeditions are sometimes taken from our master to hunt down escaped slaves.

We will escape in the night when everyone is asleep; we have stolen enough food and supplies to sustain us for days.  Everyone in the plot is used to navigating the forests from all of our days spent cutting it down for cacao fields. A major problem we may face is the hostile jungle, but we are willing to risk it to gain our freedom.  We will hide in the brush if we hear horses or men coming, and we have also brought some tools with us, which are more for helping us get through the jungle and make shelter, but could also be used for fighting.  I am tired of spending my life working to produce a bean that goes to make a food I will never eat, and working to improve the lives of those who have taken everything from me although I may caught and punished, nothing is worse than living the rest of my life as a slave here.  Tonight, on this stormy night in1779, I will finally be free again.

It is my hope that in telling my tale, I not only show my journey of hardship and pain, but the journey of thousands of others as well.  From Angola to Brazil I have documented my journey to show the life of one who is overlooked.  At the time of great growth in Brazil, it is important to consider its effects on the whole, especially those who have the most to lose.


Mariana Candido, An African Slave Port and the Atlantic World: Benguela and its Hinterland (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Walter Hawthorne, From Africa to Brazil: Culture, Identity, and an Atlantic Slave Trade, 1600 –1830 (New York: Cambridge University, 2010). Herbert Klein, “The Portuguese Slave Trade from Angola in the Eighteenth Century,” The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 41 (1985).

Linda Newson, “Africans and Luso-Africans in the Portuguese Slave Trade on the upper Guinea Coast in the Early seventeenth Century”, Journal of African History, Vol. 53 (2012).

Stewart Swartz, “The Mocambo”, Journal of Social History,  Vol. 3 (1970).

Timothy Walker, “Slave Labour and Chocolate in Brazil”, Food and Foodways, Vol. 15 (2007).

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