Bahia, Brazil,1798: The revolution of the Black Jacobins

Publié le par hort

Bahia, Brazil,1798: The revolution of the Black Jacobins

Translated by Ernesto Páramo, revised by Nancy Harb
Almendras & Fausto Giudice

Part I - Bahia, 1798: The revolution of the Black Jacobins

In 1794, the French revolutionary tide was coming to an icy point, claiming in the Europe of the kings that all men had an equal right to happiness, not caring if they had to turn the world upside down to achieve their aim.

In the richest French sugar producing colony, the plantation owners tried to obtain their autonomy and the black men that had been freed demanded the citizenship that had been promised to them in 1789, making possible the insurrection of those still captive, in August 1791, which led to the creation of Haiti in 1804, the first American territory free of slavery.

Since 1789, the absolutist Portuguese State made every effort to stop the French, democratic and liberal revolutionary ideals from reaching the city and the colonies. In Brazil, all unusual foreign visitors were watched carefully and any luggage that arrived in the ships was searched looking for books and subversive pamphlets.
The zeal was extreme in Salvador de Bahia,
Brazil's principal colonial port.

The ex-capital of the colony, with sixty thousand inhabitants, narrow, irregular and dirty streets, steep slopes, churches, monasteries and low houses with attics, Salvador was the second metropolis of the Portuguese empire, after Lisbon. Two thirds of the population was black or half-caste; a third was white or native.

In 1789, the colony was having difficulties, but Bahia was experiencing a certain economic success, due to the exports of sugar, cotton, indigo, liquor, tobacco and other products. In spite of its commercial wealth, Salvador depended on the products of rural areas, since it did not produced anything. The dictates of the metropolis prohibited the manufacturing of any products in Portugal's Brazilian colonies

Many goods from several of the principal capitals in Europe, came through Portugal to be consumed in Salvador or to be re-exported to inland cities and other nearby governatures: olive oil, weapon, gunpowder, textiles, garments, wine, domestic wares, construction materials, etc. The principal imported product was the African worker. The commerce in Bahia, specially that of captives, was controlled by rich merchants, mainly Portuguese.

As in the rest of the colony, Bahia's society was organized in social classes. At the top of the pyramid were the big plantations owners and the merchants; at the bottom were thousands of captives. Every year, lots of Africans were shipped to Salvador. The slave community was heterogeneous, since it was divided between prisoners born in Brazil, of different skin colours and trades, and Africans of several cultures and languages

In between the slave-traders and the slaves there were the free, if poor men of the colony; with few possibilities of social mobility, but with “ clean blood ”. They were the managers, cashiers, farmers, sailors, shop keepers or were part of the lower clergy and lower ranks of the civil service and the military. They also competed with waged slaves and those that hired themselves as artisans. All positions of prestige were reserved for those of Portuguese birth.

In Salvador, free men of colour were employed as craftsmen, in small commerce, as soldiers and low rank officers in front line troops, all of them for a miserable wage. To survive, soldiers usually had to have a second job. They really had a very hard time. In addition to the scarce possibilities of improving their economic situation, they were stigmatized for the colour of their skin, which denied them any access to any civil, religious and administrative middle ranking positions.

At the end of the 18th century, Brazil was a great fountain of resources for the upper classes. The commercial monopolies and the various taxes were eating into part of the revenues so the cost of life was getting dearer in Brazil. The poor of Salvador often went hungry and were forced to beg for food

Among local leaders started to grow the idea that the colonial regime was a parasite and these ideas were strengthened by the independence of the United States and the liberal, revolutionary ideas coming from France.
Ten years previously a conspiracy for the
independence of Minas Gerais had been put down.

In 1798, Salvador experienced the only colonial and imperial revolt in Brazil, with proposals that cut through colonial society from top to bottom. These proposals suggested a democratic reorganization for the region outside the slavery system.

Part II - The seditious satirical posters of Salvador de Bahía

August 12, 1798, Fernando Jose of Portugal, governor of the captaincy of Bahia, then 43 years old, became aware that at dawn, twelve "seditious" posters had been placed, at well frequented places of Salvador, encouraging the people to create the Republic of Bahia. Even though very few people could read, the contents of the posters had a big after effect as the
contents were transmitted by word of mouth.

Subversive agitation was nothing new.
At the beginning of 1797, someone placed some “ satirical posters ” on the public scaffold, which was burnt at the dead of night. The culprits were never caught or punished. That act was a crime against the crown since the macabre way to protest had a symbolic meaning. In July of that year, other manifestoes were distributed all
over the city.

It is possible to identify the political, social and trade union orientation of the movement by the texts. In these, the authors defended the concepts of equality, the republic, the independence of Bahia, free commerce and the freedom to produce goods, as well as praising revolutionary France and demanding the end to all kinds of social and racial discrimination. It threatened the clergy that was against new ideas and promised an increase in salary for soldiers and front line officers

In statements made by witnesses who had heard about the manifestoes, without actually having read them, there was a clear reformulation of the content of the texts suggesting claims of support for the under-classes in ways that were not reflected in the actual texts, such as the presentation of a table to fix the price of meat. The reconstruction of the contents of the messages in the manifestoes was normal in a society in tension, in which the principal vehicle of transmission of information was the spoken word.

The governor ordered an investigation to be opened to trace the culprits. Before the investigations began, a rumor started circulating in the city suggesting that the pamphlets had been created by soldiers and mulatto officers stationed in the city. Since, in the Bahia of the time, literacy was not at all common, especially among the poor, the authorities compared the hand writing in the manifestoes with that of petitions and claims in government files.

The police investigation pointed towards a suspect. On August 16, the mulatto Domingos da Silva Lisboa was arrested and thrown into prison. He was born in Lisbon, was 43-years old, never knew who his parents were and had made petitions to the government and written letters with antireligious and libertarian ideas. He was a resident of Ladeira da Misericordia and in his house were found more than a hundred books, which at the time was equivalent to an enormous library, specially for a man of scarce resources

On August 22 appeared two more letters left in a church, with the same hand writing and as Domingo da Silva Lisboa was still in prison, the investigations started again culminating with the arrest and imprisonment on the 23 of Luis Ganzaga das Virgens. He was a 36-year-old mulatto, native of Salvador and attached to the 2nd First Line Regiment.
Some liberal literature was found in his house.
Some time earlier, Luís Gonzaga, the grandson of a Portuguese man and an African slave, had requested that his promotion in the army should not be obstructed because of the colour of his skin.

The imprisonment of the soldier accelerated the conspiracy and soon emerged, at the centre of events, a João de Deus do Nascimento, married, mulatto and a Corporal with the 2nd Regiment, 27 years old, a tailor with well appointed premises in Direita street. Concerned that Luís Gonzaga was likley to talk, the conspirators organized a hasty meeting with all those involved and their sympathizers, with the objective of deciding the future course of the revolt.

The meeting was going to take place on the night of Saturday, 25th August, in the field do Dique, in the area of Desterro, in Salvador, but it was a disaster as only fourteen out of the two hundred supporters expected attended, perhaps because the call to attend was badly handled. In any case all the revolutionaries were in danger of being captured as in a nearby orchard, about a hundred soldiers and slaves were waiting and watching armed with clubs. It is also possible that some of the conspirators left the field do Dique as soon as they realized that an inept trap was about to be sprung on them. The officer in charge was lieutenant colonel Alexandre Teotônio de Souza, who was wearing a white cape

The meeting was denounced by the freed slave and blacksmith Joaquim Jose da Veiga and the barber Joaquim Jose de Santana, a captain in the Third Regiment of Coloured Men militias. As they were invited to take part in the conspiracy, these police informers decided to denounce it to avoid any charges of high treason and to collect any reward on offer.

Later on, Joaquim José de Santana expressed his hope that he would be promoted, according to him, for the very important services rendered and the important role that he played in his militia. Following instructions from the authorities, Joaquim José de Santana and Joaquim José da Veiga took part in the meeting at the do Dique field, to be able to better betray the conspirators. There was a third denunciation after that.

Part III - The Cruel Repression to the Social Republic of Bahia

The discovery of the satirical posters in Salvador started a police investigation that endangered the conspiracy to create a republic in Bahia without slavery. Because of the traitors the movement was suppressed even before it had the opportunity to have any impact. The investigation made possible the betrayal of 34 conspirators, although the total number of people involved, both free citizens and slaves, was very much larger. There was a clear conspiracy on the part of the governor to blame mainly the "men of no consequence" to be able to protect the "good men" of the captaincy.

The exclusion of the well to do Jacobins from the investigation was both, a show of social solidarity and also opened a door for future negotiations. At that point the illustrated sectors of the Portuguese administration decided to prevent any move for colonial independence by trying to win the support of the Brazilian poor and the working classes with the proposal of an independent Brazil within a restructured Portuguese Empire, which would leave Portugal as the political and commercial centre.

The conspirators identified themselves with external symbols, like growing long beards, wearing an earring in one ear or by adding a shell from Angola to their watch chains. The flag of the uprising had a white stripe, between two parallel blue stripes right up to the flagstaff. On the white stripe there was a big star and five small red ones, with the motto “nec mergitur”. [“It will never sink ”].

The governor was accused of leniency, as he had been warned of the Frenchinesses (francesias), in August, 1797, by the commander of the 2nd Line Regiment, and for only reprimanding lieutenant Hermógenes Francisco de Aguilar Pantoja, who was the most visible figure head propagating this liberal ideas. According to some historians, his apathy was due to his inability to take a decision. The fact that Fernando José of Portugal acted so softly, was taken by the absolutists as complacency and by the liberals as a show of sympathy. All this happened as he realized that repression could not be the only way to keep control over Brazil.

His passivity before the Frenchinesses was due also, to the uncertain result in the clash between liberalism and absolutism in Europe. The conspirators in Bahia were hoping that the governor was going to head the new power structures and were relying on a French landing in Bahia. In August, 1797, perhaps under the influence of the conspirators, a French officer presented the Directorate with a proposal to attack Salvador.

Ten of the accused were white and the other 24 were men of colour - light brown and dark brown. There was only one black slave. Some of the revolutionaries were officers and soldiers of the waged troops and tailors. There was a teacher, two craftsmen, an embroiderer, a bricklayer, a merchant, a carpenter and a surgeon without qualifications. Eleven of the accused were slaves and 23 free or freedmen. The slaves were rented ones, mainly, tailors, shoemakers, barbers etc.

The conspirators were very harshly punished. In addition to the sentences of exile, four movement leaders were hanged, drawn and quartered in the Praça da Piedade, 8 November 1799, as they rang the bells of all the churches in Salvador. The soldiers and woodworkers Luis Gonzaga das Virgens and 24-year-old Lucas Dantas de Amorim, resisted bravely in prison; the tailors João de Deus do Nascimento and Manuel Faustino dos Santos Lira, freedmen mulattos. A slave, Antônio Jose, committed suicide in jail. The bodies of the executed prisoners remained exposed to the public view, quartered, as a public example. Their families were defamed for three generations. A fifth leader was condemned to death but was never captured. The slaves that took part in the conspiracy, were condemned to five hundred lashes and were sold and sent to the dreaded captaincy of Rio Grande do Soul.

The few white men that were tried had in general light sentences. Among them were Cipriano José Barata de Almeida, surgeon who owned 35 books, and 28 year-old lieutenant Hermógenes Pantoja, owner of 26 books and who had said that at his wedding, it would be enough, for the bride and groom to express their desire to be united to celebrate the ceremony. In addition to being a liberal and a republican: he was also atheistic! Well known members of Bahian society that were part of the conspiracy or sympathizers of the Jacobins were never troubled in any way.

Part IV - The Conspiracy of the Humbles

In Primeira revolução social brasileira, Affonso Ruy indentifies the pharmacist João Ladislau de Figueiredo Melo, the Parish Priest Francisco Agostinho Gomes; the intellectual José da Silva Lisboa; the senhor de engenho [1]

Inácio Siqueira Bulcão; the surgeon Cipriano de Almeida Barata and the teacher of rhetoric Francisco Muniz Barreto as the leaders of the conspiracy in Bahia.

It is possible that there was no organic participation on the part of well to do Bahians in the acts of August and the Jacobin agitation that took place, at least, at the beginning of 1798, through direct actions like the fire of the gallows or the posting of the manifestoes. The links between the liberal land- owners and the black Jacobins of Salvador were not yet clear.

The democratic and revolutionary French ideas expressed by members of the land owning classes in Bahia would have been transmitted by craftsmen and soldiers of colour, freed men and slaves, mainly in Salvador. This were adapted to the social realities of the time, writing the most advanced political programme that had been proposed in Brazil and comparable only with that of the Abolition in 1888.

Perhaps lieutenant Hermógenes Aguilar Pantoja was the bridge between the illustrated and liberal members of the landed classes and the jacobins of the lower classes. The diffusion of the manifestoes could have been a way to force the liberal elites to end their indecision, possibly immobilized by the questions posed by the abolition of slavery. They dreamed about the independence of Bahia but were afraid about the liberation of the captives.

The lack of consideration on the part of national ideologists for the conspiracy of 1798 is due to its lower class origins and to its radicalism, and not to the fact that the movement did not actually go into action. A movement of slave traders, clergymen and intellectuals made the much more celebrated Mining Conspiracy [2] of 1789 collapse like a castle of cards. In Bahia, the rich participated in the conspiracy, but the hegemony of the movement belonged at the end with the soldiers, artisans and captives of Salvador.

In Minas Gerais, only one conspirator, the poorest, was executed. In Bahia, four leaders were hanged, with the rope higher than usual as if to signify the gravity of the crime. In 1798, of the men that not having supported “ in peace the difference between the social classes and the inequality of fortunes among the people, on which our admirable civil society is based ”and were trying to impose the “ antisocial principles of absolute equality ”, “ without any distinction of colour or birth ” as recorded on the indictments and court documents, were repressed with brutality.

As it was a movement of poor, coloured, working class people, the conspiracy managed something unique in the history of Brazil, to attract the captives and to propose the end of slavery, undoubtedly under the inspiration of the decision taken by the French Convention of 1794 to abolish the institution in the French colonies. Without ever being applied, the revolutionary agreement was annulled, in 1802, by Napoleon, whose troops suffered a defeat at the hands of the slaves of Saint-Domingues, where, in 1804, the independence of Haiti was proclaimed and the slaves freed.

The participation of the captives and the proposal to abolish slavery assured the revolutionary character of the movement, in a colony where slavery was the main way to exploit workers. The victory of the movement and the attainment of its programme would anticipate in Bahia, in almost a century, the full implementation of a system of freedom of work.

The Tailors' Conspiracy of 1798, had certain resemblance with the Conspiracy of the Equals of Gracchus Babeuf, put down in France two years earlier, in 1796. The first proposal in Bahia, was the end of racial discrimination and slavery. The second one, was to point to an independent participation of the workers in political and social activities at a time when capitalism was already the system of domination in France.

The dismantling of the Conspiracy of the Tailors did not mean the end of social agitation. From 1807, the tension between the slave workers of Salvador would explode, periodically, ending in the Great Revolt of the slaves of 1835. In spite of the violence of the Malê revolt, its proposals were a regression with regards to the previous ideology, since it proposed death and slavery for whites and mulattos

The repression of the movement of 1798 damaged the struggle and the changes for the whole of society, extinguishing the proposals of democratic and revolutionary character for all exploited sectors and a democratic, egalitarian society. At least the radicalized abolitionists proposed, nine decades later, a similar and extensive democratic programme.


[1] The senhor of engenho was the land owner and controlled the sugar production systems.

[2] Inconfidência Mineira or Minas Conspiracy was the name given to an attempted riot in Minas Gerais, in which the leaders were accused of inconfidência,ie  lack in loyalty to the king.

Source: ViaPolitica

About the author

Ernesto Páramo, Nancy Harb Almendras and Fausto Giudice are member of Tlaxcala, the network of translators for linguistic diversity. This translation may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the source, author, translator and reviser are cited.

Publié dans African diaspora

Pour être informé des derniers articles, inscrivez vous :
Commenter cet article