H-Net Review [H-LatAm]: Proenza-Coles on Alonso, 'The Last Abolition: The Brazilian Antislavery Movement, 1868-1888'


Andrew Stewart
 



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Subject: H-Net Review [H-LatAm]:  Proenza-Coles on Alonso, 'The Last Abolition: The Brazilian Antislavery Movement, 1868-1888'
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Angela Alonso.  The Last Abolition: The Brazilian Antislavery
Movement, 1868-1888.  Cambridge  Cambridge University Press, 2021.  
468 pp.  $34.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-108-43147-7.

Reviewed by Christina Proenza-Coles (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-LatAm (June, 2022)
Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz

The Atlantic slave trade, the largest demographic shift in world
history, forced over ten million men, women, and children from one
continent to another; nearly half of these individuals went to
Brazil. Today Brazil is home to the largest African-descended
population in the Americas, which includes over fifty-five million
people. After the United States and Cuba, Brazil in 1888 became the
last nation in the hemisphere to abolish the institution of slavery.
In 2015, Brazilian sociologist Angela Alonso published a
comprehensive account of the politics of Brazil's abolitionist
movement during the two decades preceding the formal end of slavery,
_Flores, Votos e Balas: O Movimento Abolicionista Brasileiro
(1868-88),_ which garnered two of Brazil's most prestigious book
awards. Cambridge University Press has recently published an English
translation of Alonso's prize-winning book, retitled _The Last
Abolition: The Brazilian Antislavery Movement, 1868-1888_.

Alonso's rigorously researched study approaches Brazil's abolitionism
as a form of contentious politics embedded in a broader history of
social movements. She situates Brazil's struggle to end slavery in an
international context as she examines the structural aspects of
social movement formation associated with Charles Tilly's work in
historical and political sociology. As Alonso explains in her
introduction, movements form during political crisis, when the
coalition in command of the state divides, producing dissident elites
that seek alliances within society. Intra-elite division reduces the
state's capacity to repress protest, opening opportunities for
politically underrepresented groups to express their claims in the
public space (p. 16).

Alonso proceeds to document the dynamics of
movement/state/countermovement in Brazil between 1868 and 1888 by
focusing on shifting balances of power, modes of activism, and
political brokers who carve out spaces for mobilization. The chapters
center on these political brokers, and Alonso skillfully incorporates
details and research from newspapers, letters, speeches, and
parliamentary records (among many other sources) to give the reader a
vivid experience.

Among the most important leaders of the movement Alonso documents are
Andre Rebouças, José do Patrocínio, and Luís Gama. All three
identified as African-descended (unlike some of the proslavery
reactionaries who never acknowledged their possible African
ancestry). Gama was a lawyer, himself formerly enslaved (and the son
of a formerly enslaved African-born woman who played a central role
in the 1835 Malê revolt that was possibly the largest urban slave
revolt in the Americas). Gama facilitated a large number of freedom
suits that Alonso described as _Gama-style activism,_ a juridical
approach "stretching interpretations of legal slavery to their
elastic limit" (p. 101). He collaborated with José do Patrocínio,
a pharmacist-turned-influential journalist and grassroots political
mobilizer who coordinated a variety of abolitionist strategies in
public space. Andre Rebouças was an engineer, professor, and
businessman as well as an exceedingly adept lobbyist, coalition
builder, aristocratic insider, and "unsung hero" (p. 359) whose
constant, behind-the-scenes work was essential to the movement.

All three men experienced racial discrimination, and in the case of
Patrocínio and Gama, limited material resources, yet all three
successfully navigated social and political networks and had an
outsized impact on the movement that realized the end of
institutional slavery in Brazil. Alonso literally maps the multitude
of abolitionist demonstrations and organizations that formed between
1868 and 1888, yet this study of social movements often centers on
parliamentary politics and elite actors.

Among the most interesting aspects of Alonso's transnational framing
is her assertion that the kinds of racial and religious arguments
that took center stage in US and European abolitionism had little
truck in Brazil's political and cultural climate. While Alonso
documents the connections between Brazilian abolitionists and British
and American antislavery organizations (as well as with abolitionist
organizations in Spain and France), she asserts that in Brazil, the
arts took up the role of religion in creating a discourse and sites
for abolitionist mobilization. In the original Portuguese title of
this book, _Flowers, Votes, and Bullets_, "flowers" refers to the
blossoms that theater goers threw after concerts, plays and operas,
public events that were designed as de facto abolitionist
conferences. "Votes" points to the political machinations,
realpolitik, and electoral politics that shaped the movement. And
finally, "bullets" represent both the violent legal and extralegal
repression enforced by the counter movement after the 1884 election
put conservatives in power as well as the abolitionist call for civil
disobedience in its wake. When the army aligned with the
abolitionists in 1887, various elite factions came to consensus,
including the Catholic Church, the Crown, and the Conservative party,
and slavery was abolished in 1888.

In the late nineteenth century, Brazil's proslavery advocates,
according to Alonso, did not have a well-articulated rationale. They
did, however, generate a robust counter movement, establishing, for
example, the Commercial and Plantation Club to combat the Free Womb
Law. Resistance to the free womb laws that engendered a partial,
gradual, and very imperfect abolition in the Spanish Americas (and
which passed in Brazil in 1871 and splintered the conservative
faction) was couched in fears of social upheaval and economic
breakdown, not racial superiority. "Racialization, a cornerstone of
the US slave system, was mitigated in Brazil," Alonso writes (p. 58).
She goes on to argue that in a society based on class hierarchy like
Brazil "no racial angle was really required ... even if one was
nonetheless ingrained" (p. 58). Whereas historians of the United
States can point to a variety of manifestos of white supremacy as an
ideology intended to rationalize slavery (epitomized by Alexander
Stephens's 1861 "Cornerstone Speech"), Brazil's proslavery faction
recognized that slavery was an institution incompatible with
modernization. Despite the ignominy of being the last nation to
maintain slavery, these proslavery aristocrats sought to prolong its
denouement because they knew that enslaved Brazilians "were the
Atlases on whose shoulders rested the world" (p. 53), and that every
aspect of their economic and social luxury was made possible by the
work of the enslaved. Anti-Blackness manifested in Brazil not in
denigrating legislation targeting African descendants like the US's
infamous Black Codes but rather, as Alonso argues, in cultural
erasure. She points to operas in the wake of abolition that performed
origin stories centering Brazil's European and Native American
history and severing the African branches and roots of the nation's
founding. Public and literary narratives downplayed the abolitionist
movement, omitted the formerly enslaved, and excised Africans from
Brazil's "foundation myth [and] imagined community" (p. 351).

Alonso succeeds in making her case that the history of Brazil's
abolitionist movement is inextricable from the larger, global history
of modern social movements. She illuminates how Brazilians built
polycentric national networks of associations, established alliances
with and sought political pressure from transnational abolitionist
networks, and adapted and generated novel, portable strategies of
mobilization in the face of specific local and political
circumstances. In addition to the book's eleven chapters in which
Alonso details the relational dynamics and trajectory of the movement
over the course of two decades, her annex includes a detailed
chronology spanning from 1823 to 1888, as well as tables and
timelines naming hundreds of specific associations and
demonstrations. Alonso's painstaking work completely obliterates the
notion that Brazilian "abolition was the handiwork of the Crown" (p.
360), a mythology cultivated in the wake of abolition in part by key
players like Rebouças and Patrocínio whose public statements helped
transform Brazil's last emperor, Dom Pedro II, into the "patriarch of
the abolitionist family" (p. 349).

In her framing of abolition as Brazil's first social movement, Alonso
centers Black political actors like Rebouças, Patrocínio, and Gama
along with white Brazilians like Abílio Borges, Antônio Bento,
and Joaquim Nabuco (of whom Alonso has written a biography) as
protagonists in the story of Brazilian abolition, even as they
themselves sometimes publicly deflected that narrative. Her focus on
local and international social networks, public ritual, state power,
and civic associations reflects the larger themes of comparative
historical sociology. For an almost play-by-play examination of the
political antagonism and strategies of the leaders who shaped
Brazil's national movement and the counter movement, action and
reaction in changing political circumstances, Alonso's book is the
landmark study connecting political-institutional dynamics to public
mobilization. As Alonso recognizes, the ending of slavery in Brazil
was complex, and a wealth of scholarship examines the multifaceted
processes that shaped it. Celso Thomas Castilho's 2016 _Slave
Emancipation and Transformations in Brazilian Citizenship_ builds
upon Alonso's work in many regards, covering the same time frame, as
it brings attention to the abolitionist work of enslaved Brazilians.
Camillia Cowling's 2016 book _Conceiving Freedom_ centers the ways in
which enslaved women's court petitions in Rio de Janeiro and Havana
initiated paths to freedom and shaped the trajectory of abolitionism.
The breadth of scholarship in Brodwyn Fischer and Keila Grinberg's
2022 edited volume, _The Boundaries of Freedom: Slavery, Abolition,
and the Making of Modern Brazil_, frames Brazilian abolition as a
century long process that involved a broad range of contributors.
Despite various approaches to the subject, all of these scholars
would agree with Alonso that "the end of slavery was a watershed in
Brazilian history, but its aftershocks are still felt in the
country's current forms of inequality" (p. 23).

Citation: Christina Proenza-Coles. Review of Alonso, Angela, _The
Last Abolition: The Brazilian Antislavery Movement, 1868-1888_.
H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. June, 2022.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57450

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
License.


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