Thursday, April 08, 2004

Choosing between freedom and slavery

Immigration is becoming a political hot potato. Fences have been erected along the US border with Mexico while here in Britain last week a minister resigned for failing to tackle an apparent rise in bogus claims from Eastern Europe.

All this is a stark contrast to the nineteenth century, when the rhetoric of free trade was matched with the reality of free movement of labour. How far we are from those times!

Of all Brazilian immigrant communities during its imperial period, among the most interesting are the Confederate Americans who left the South after the Civil War. Unlike other immigrants, the Confederados (as they became known), were already immigrants - or at least their parents and grandparents were - to the American continent. This week Brazzil magazine has published my article about them.

Like any immigrant community, they came to Brazil for a variety of different reasons. But what held them together was their revulsion at what had been done to their country by the Yankees and their pining for a defeated past. Although the Civil War is often portrayed as a conflict between slave-holders and abolitionists, the truth was more subtle. Also at stake was the political and economic direction of the United States: would it follow the aristocratic Southern path, based on states' rights and plantation society; or would it adopt the Northern approach, with its emphasis on urbanisation, industrialisation and a centralising federal government?

Those who chose to leave the South for Brazil hoped to maintain their way of life. But how could it be when race relations were subtly different? In the United States their was simply black and white and being one or the other determined one's position in life. But in Brazil there was a greater mixing of colour and hence a grey - or rather brown, if you will - attitude to individuals.

But even if this difference existed and could have acted as a spur toward greater black American migration, there was still the complicating factor of slavery. While emancipation came to blacks in the United States after the Civil War, it would be more than 20 years before the same was achieved for Brazilian slaves. In other words, while it might be possible for a 'person of colour' (to use the nineteenth century term) to achieve greater social mobility in Brazil than America, those benefits could be offset by his or her arrival in the country as a slave - particularly if the white immigrant they arrived with refused to recognise Lincoln's proclamation.

With this in mind, it seems a shame that so little attention has been paid to those former black slaves who left the American South with their masters for Brazil. While the history of the white Confederados has received considerable attention, studies of the black Confederados and their motivations for giving up freedom in favour of an uncertain existence as a slave in a faraway land don't seem to have been written. And given the distance of time involved, the impossibility of carrying out oral research and the challenge of finding documentary material, this could prove difficult for historians.

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