Emiliano Mundrucu and the Sinews of Inter-American Abolitionism

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 1:50 PM
Columbia 11 (Washington Hilton)
Caitlin A. Fitz, Northwestern University
My paper will illuminate the life of Emiliano Mundrucu, a black man who was born in Brazil in 1791 (when the Haitian Revolution began), and who died in Boston 72 years later (just months after having celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation). In between, he helped lead a failed republican revolution in Brazil; he visited Haiti; he fought for independence in Colombia; and, when he finally settled in Boston, he ran a used clothing store while working to radicalize New England abolitionists.

In particular, my paper will emphasize how Mundrucu ignited the decades-long battle to desegregate public transportation in New England. Focusing on native-born activists, historians have usually dated this movement’s origins to the mid/late 1830s. Attentive to the movement’s international connections, meanwhile, I will date the movement earlier, to an 1833 court case that Mundrucu filed after a Nantucket steamboat captain denied his family first-class accommodations. With help from his lawyers David Child and Daniel Webster (the high-powered senator whom historians usually associate with moderation and compromise rather than with radical abolitionism), Mundrucu took the steamboat captain to court; he won before a packed audience in the court of common pleas but lost on appeal in the state supreme court, receiving nationwide attention. It is perhaps no coincidence that a foreigner helped spark the desegregation movement. Mundrucu’s past travels through Brazil, Haiti, and Colombia taught him other ways of moving physically through the world, and he brought that sense of possibility to segregated Massachusetts.

Despite Mundrucu’s prominence, his story has been largely forgotten, the quadrilingual archival record (in Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English) scattered across at least three countries. In reconstructing his story, I hope to recover the connections between antislavery movements within the nineteenth-century Americas (thereby complementing the exciting recent scholarship on antislavery connections between the U.S. and Europe).