Historian Broadens Narrative of Slavery in the Americas

Historian Broadens Narrative of Slavery in the Americas

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Patrick Verel

Photograph by Patrick Verel

In the United States, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Underground Railroad loom so large in the understandings of slavery that most Americans can almost be excused for thinking it’s a phenomenon unique to us.

Yuko Miki, PhD, assistant professor of history, wants to vastly expand that understanding of the system—particularly its role in the South American nation of Brazil, which had the distinction of being the last country in the Americas to outlaw slavery in 1888.

An expert in Iberian Atlantic history, Miki has looked at Brazil’s connection to slave trading firms in the United States, to slave traders in West Central Africa, and to British abolitionists.

The picture of slavery as a national institution has been too small, she said. “It’s very exciting to be able to look at the history of slavery in a more transnational way.”…

…“I began to realize that in fact, the history of indigenous people in Brazil is very much a missing piece of history,” she said. “They were enslaved and lived and worked alongside slaves of African descent until the eve of the 20th century. For too long we had presumed that African slavery had expanded into ‘empty’ lands, which in fact were indigenous territories.” These histories, long separated, are in fact deeply connected.

Bringing these stories to light now is important, she said, because they challenge enduring popular narratives in Brazil. In The Masters and the Slaves (1946), for instance, sociologist/anthropologist Gilberto Freyre argued that the country is a “racial democracy”—composed of the race mixture between black, Portuguese, and indigenous people—and because of that, there is no racial tension in Brazil.

But just because people are of mixed race doesn’t mean there was or is no conflict, Miki said.

“It’s still important to look at the actual history of Brazil’s black and indigenous peoples. You don’t want to just look at the end result of a mixed society and celebrate it; but also look at how such race mixture might have occurred,” she said…

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