“History Out of the Ashes: Remembering Brazilian Slavery after Rui Barbosa’s Burning of the Documents”
On December 14, 1890, just over two years after the abolition of slavery in Brazil, the distinguished statesman and then Minister of Finance Rui Barbosa issued a strange order. He demanded that all “papers, registry books, and documents that relate to slavery that exist in all divisions of the Ministry of Finance” be immediately gathered in a central place in the Federal Capital, and burned. Six days later, the order was carried out. At 11 in the morning in the Rio de Janeiro Customs House, newspapers report on the first burning of the documents and record books “concerning the ignoble traffic in people.” As the documents were being burned, a ten-year old boy with no last name, described as “the African Custódio,” a worker in the Customs House and clearly a former slave, asked special permission for “the satisfaction of watching” documents consumed by flames, “testaments of the martyrdom and opprobrium of his race.” Such words of outrage against slavery were common in the early years of Brazil’s First Republic, the political regime beginning in 1889 that followed nearly a century of the monarchial Brazilian Empire and the abolition (in 1888) of about 400 years of African chattel slavery in Brazil. The dramatic image of these burning documents soon became—and remained—implicated in such important questions as the possibility and desirability of remembering Brazil’s past as a slave society and the postabolition politics of reparation and reconciliation. By reconstructing the story behind this event and its aftermath and revisiting its impact on the historiography, this paper will examine the abolition of slavery and the politics of historical memory in Brazil.
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