Gender and the manumission of slaves in colonial Brazil: The prospects for freedom in Sabará, Minas Gerais, 1710–1809

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Gender and the manumission of slaves in colonial Brazil: The prospects for freedom in Sabará, Minas Gerais, 1710–1809

Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies
Volume 18, Issue 2, 1997
pages 1-29
DOI: 10.1080/01440399708575208

Kathleen J. Higgins

On 9 December 1735 Manoel da Costa Braga declared before the notary of Sabará, Minas Gerais, his decision to free from slavery his own children, Joseph, Marianna and Maria, and to recognize them as heirs to his estate. In this declaration Manoel da Costa Braga did not, however, choose to free the children’s mother, Magdalena, who presumably remained enslaved.

Fifty-five year later, on 10 February 1790. Senhora Maria Rodrigues Pereyra freed a child named Faustino in exchange for 40 drams of gold paid to her by the father, Sebastião Angola. The records do not show whether or not Faustino’s mother was ever set free.

These two manumissions, each typical of the time in which they were granted, reflect the transformation of Minas Gerais by its renowned eighteenth-century gold rush. Manoel da Costa Braga owned slaves in the first half of the eighteenth century when gold production was booming, slave prices were extraordinarily high, and the colonizers or Sabará were largely white men rarely accompanied by while women. In contrast, by the time Maria Rodrigues Pereyra owned slaves in Minas Gerais, the gold rush was long over and the importance of gold production to the overall economy had diminished significantly. The populations of both slave and free in Sabará were, nonetheless, much larger in Maria Rodrigues Pereyra’s day, and although white women were still outnumbered by white men, women slaveholders were by no means a novelty. Furthermore, by the end of the eighteenth century whites had long since ceased to be in the majority within the free population. In this slave society, manumission decisions had ultimately led to a population of free people (and slaveholders) that was both racially mixed and racially diverse (see Table 1).

Both the decline of gold mining and changes within the slaveholding population had a major impact on the manumission of slaves. Through a…

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