It is a real shame that students are unaware of the true history of the abolition of slavery in Brazil. In school, starting with primary education, the only memories that remain in the popular imagination are of the "Lady Bountifuls" who "freed" the slaves. And the same idea is reproduced in "official history". Brazil and Cuba were the two last countries in the world to eliminate slavery as a mode of production.
In the War of Secession in the United States (1861-65) more than a million died so that the slavery might be buried and to achieve the unification of the nation. Haiti became the first black nation of the Americas when, after having conquered independence through a rebellion of the black slaves in 1794, it expelled the French colonialists with the bullet and the machete in 1803.
Already in the middle of the19th century there was no way slavery could be maintained in Brazil. The fight against black slavery was taking place all over the country. It is sufficient to mention the Palmares Uprising to prove the point. The fact that today they pay tribute to the memory of Zumbi is proof of the heroic and painful fight of all the black people, who today form part of the Brazilian working class, to free itself of all oppression and exploitation. There were innumerable popular revolts as well as slave rebellions, assaults on farms and the killing of farmers.
In the 1830s and 1840s, the country lived through some of its biggest rebellions and internal wars. Between 1835 and 1840 the province of Grão-Pará (currently the states of Pará, part of Amazonia, Amapá and Roraima) experienced the revolts of the "cabanagem", the name given to the blacks, Indians and mestizos, who lived in the shantytowns. They succeeded in taking Belém, setting up their own government, in a frontal assault on the slave-owning monarchy. This great popular struggle cost the lives of 40,000 people who fell in the fight for freedom and equality.
In the wars that lasted from 1838 to 1841, the hero of the monarchy was Baron Caxias (Caxias is one of the most important cities of Maranhão), a general who won his first aristocratic title there. He would later become the Duke of Caxias. But the hero of the popular classes was Cosme, the black leader of one uprising, who commanded about 3,000 armed men in combat against the troops of the monarchy.
In the same way in the War of Balaiada in the Maranhão, which lasted from 1835 until 1845, in Rio Grande Do Sul, when the local elite went so far as to proclaim an independent Republic of Piratini, the blacks played an important role, achieving the release of all the blacks who had fought on the side of Bento Gonçalves against the monarchy.
Brazil arrived at the end of the 19th century shaken by rebellions and plunged into a deep economic crisis. This tense situation was a result of the constantly worsening world economic crises, together with the pressure of the international bourgeoisie, which could not allow the continuation of competition from the products of slave labour. But slavery did not fall by itself, like an overripe fruit: it was defeated by the first really national popular struggle in Brazilian history.
The abolitionist struggle united blacks, whites, mestizos and mulatos. Among its leaders, there were former-slaves. While the slaves on the farms rebelled and ran away to help the abolitionists, other actors entered the scene. The print workers and railroad workers, the nuclei of a working class still in the process of formation, actively participated in the movement, hiding runaway blacks and printing anti-slavery pamphlets. But this history remains hidden from the majority of young school students.
When Princess Isabel signed the so-called Golden Law, she was really putting her name to a document of surrender - a testimonial to the bankruptcy of the Empire itself, which collapsed the following year. But, for those who worked the land - and it was they who practically alone had achieved this - the end of slavery did not mean access to the land. What it did mean was that they were kicked off the farms. Thus, the slaves were expelled from production, and the machinery of the economy developed thanks to an abundant supply of free labour, mainly foreign. Immigration was encouraged by ample State financing to supply the necessities of the backward agrarian Brazilian bourgeoisie. That is why the Brazilian bourgeoisie was born in the countryside and not in the cities.
The Empire painted a pretty picture of the 13th of May as a gift of the Benefactor Princess. Today the advocates of so-called "affirmative action" politics paint the 13th of May as the Lie of the Wicked Princess. However, the difference is superficial, since both accept the act of State, covering up the class struggles that took place in Brazil and the world in this period. It is like attributing the end of the military dictatorship in Brazil to the candidacy of Tancredo Neves and the Electoral College, ignoring the struggles of the workers and students who really defeated the generals.
To commemorate the 13th of May is to bring out the true history of struggles of the Brazilian people. It is to pay homage to the hundreds of thousand of Brazilians who fought and, in many cases, gave their lives in order that the end of slavery could be enrolled on the statute books. Above all, it is to retie the knot of historical continuity in the fight for equality that inspired the abolitionists.
The Socialist Black Movement (MNS) was constituted on the 13 of May 2006 and this year we will be organizing a commemorative meeting on that date. We are certain that the way to defeat racism is not by dividing the workers and students into "whites" and "blacks", as the defenders of the racial laws want to do. Only if we abolish the immense abyss between social classes can we defeat racism, extending the public services of good quality and employment to all the workers, whichever the colour of their skin.
José Carlos Miranda is the co-ordinator of the Black Socialist Movement (MNS) in Brazil