Freedom in a slave society
by Robert Bland (Intern, The Liberator Magazine)
Slavery could never operate as a system of complete human domination. While slave owners could inflict horrific physical and psychological trauma on their slaves, the asymmetric power relationships between masters and slaves never extracted the slaves’ basic humanity. While the plantation owners could almost always call on the state and broader society to enforce their will, slaves always found pockets of freedom within the plantation order.
In a 1977 article entitled “Resistance and Accommodation in Eighteenth-Century Brazil: The Slaves’ View of Slavery” we see one particular example of how slaves sought to control their work and their humanity. Historian Stuart Schwartz translates what has been so far the only surviving peace treaty written by captured slaves. After a series of struggles between slaves and planters in Ilhéus (now Bahia) during the late eighteenth century, an increasing number of slaves escaped from the large sugar plantations in northeast Brazil and formed fugitive communities at the margins of settled society. These communities, which often encouraged and aided other slaves to escape slavery, challenged the fundamental logic of the slave system and forced the planters to call upon colonial authorities to force and bring the runaways back to slavery. However, rather than return to the sugar plantations on the terms of their former masters, the fugitive slaves of Ilhéaus put forth a treaty that articulated a new vision of plantation life.
Though the masters thwarted the slaves’ proposal, the ideas within the treaty deserve to be taken seriously on their own terms. Rarely can we look towards a primary source and get a direct view of how slaves understood the world. In the treaty, among a number of other work-related reforms, the slaves demanded: two days free from plantation labor, a dramatic slowdown in production quotas for their own safety, increased input on how labor was distributed within the sugar mills, the replacement of the current overseers, and the ability to fish, grow rice, chop wood and otherwise use the land freely without needing the approval of their masters.
In the treaty’s final article, we get a glimpse of how these Brazilian slaves not only attempted to protect their labor power, but also imagined ways in which they could prevent the slave system from robbing their basic humanity. Here the slaves close the treaty with this simple yet powerful statement: “We shall be able to play, relax and sing any time we wish without your hindrance nor will permission be needed.”
Treaty Proposed to Manoel da Silva Ferreira by His Slaves During the Time That They Remained in Revolt
(SOURCE: Cleveland State University / Schwartz, Stuart B. "Resistance and Accommodation in Eighteen-Century Brazil: the Slaves' View of Slavery," Hispanic American Historical Review 57-.1 (Feb. 1977): 69-81.)
My Lord, we want peace and we do not want war; if My Lord also wants our peace it must be in this manner, if he wishes to agree to that which we want.
In each week you must give us the days of Friday and Saturday to work for ourselves not subtracting any of these because they are Saint's days.
To enable us to live you must give us casting nets and canoes.
You are not to oblige us to fish in the tidal pools nor to gather shellfish, and when you wish to gather shellfish send your Mina blacks.
Make a large boat so that when it goes to Bahia we can place our cargoes aboard and not pay freightage.
In the planting of manioc we wish the men to have a daily quota of two and one half hands fmao, a measurement of quantity still used in backland Brazil] and the women, two hands.
The daily quota of manioc flour must be of five level alqueires [about thirteen liters to an alqueirej, placing enough harvesters so that these can serve to hang up the coverings.
The daily quota of sugar cane must be of five hands rather than six and of ten canes in each bundle.
On the boat you must put four poles, and none for the rudder, and the one at the rudder works hard for us. The wood that is sawed with a handsaw must have three men below and one above.
The measures of firewood must be as was practiced here, for each measure a woodcutter and a woman as the wood carrier.
The present overseers we do not want, choose others with our approval.
At the milling rollers there must be four women to feed in the cane, two pulleys, and a carcanha [carcanha: a woman who swept the engenho and did other chores].
At each cauldron there must be one who tends the fire and in each series of kettles the same, and on Saturday there must be without fail work stoppage in the mill.
The sailors who go in the launch besides the baize shirt that they are given must also have a jacket of baize and all the necessary clothing.
We will go to work the cane field of Jabire this time and then it must remain as pasture for we cannot cut cane in a swamp.
We shall be able to plant our rice wherever we wish, and in any marsh, without asking permission for this, and each person can cut jacaranda or any other wood without having to account for this.
Accepting all the above articles and allowing us to remain always in possession of the hardware, we are ready to serve you as before because we do not wish to continue the bad customs of the other engenhos.
We shall be able to play, relax, and sing any time we wish without your hindrance nor will permission be needed. (source)
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