The Legacy of Slavery: Comparing Britain and Brazil

Around the world, people experience the effects of slavery in their day to day lives. Of course, the long legacy of slavery is varied, depending largely on whether countries were the colonised or the coloniser. In Britain, slavery was seen for a long time as an opportunity far across the seas, and the injustices in its colonies brought the country economic strength and prosperity, as well as, somewhat later, the inevitable tensions in race relations. However, Brazil, on whose land enslaved people toiled for the Portugese, struggles still with the social and economic effects which became entrenched by the system. The challenges in both are different, but offer valuable (opposing) perspectives.


Around 1500, the first Portuguese ships arrived in Brazil.  About 50 years later the slave trade began in Brazil, a business that quickly became extremely profitable and sustained the country’s economy for more than three centuries. The enslaved Black people who came to Brazil were forcibly transported in inhumane situations, on precarious ships, making the proliferation of diseases and food shortages even easier. The first slave ships anchored in Bahia, as initially the main ports of the colonial period were there, since Bahia was the Brazilian capital. 

Those who survived the voyage were subjected to manual labor in plantations as soon as they arrived in dry land. They manned the harvests, construction, and other forms of labor. In addition to being overworked in inhumane conditions, women who did not toil on the plantations, worked in the homes of the “masters”, such as cooks, wet nurses, chaperones, etc. Often Black women were punished for “looking at their bosses”, with promiscuous looks coming from the masters of the farm, yet the punishment was directed at the enslaved people. They had no rights over their own bodies and beings, and were forced to work, without enough food, having their bodies violated, and suffered “punishments”, such as being tied to logs receiving lashes.

Such brutality decimated many African tribes and peoples, at the same time that it created fortunes for the Portuguese (in the case of Brazil), Americans and other European countries, such as England and France. Slavery was a very lucrative business for several reasons: the construction of ships to transport the enslaved, clothing and food for merchants, and the sale of enslaved people. The free labor brought them profit and the subsistence of the Black people cost almost nothing. Thus the developing Brazilian economy was strengthened through slave labor, as such a method did not need large investments and yielded a lot of profit. While the Portuguese were delighted with the wealth that came with a lot of blood and pain, African people suffered from the loss of their culture, traditions and lives.

Africans were uprooted from their countries by the perversity and cruelty of people who cared only for their own wealth, creating myths about the Black people that lasted for many years. In letters from merchants to their kings, some said that the men who lived there (Africa) were similar to demons, thus elevating themselves through their ownreligiosity and promulgating the idea that Black people deserved slavery. This divided Brazilian history, since the Indians were described as pure and beautiful peoples. In this way, they used the religious perspective saying that the indigenous people need to be catechized to become even more “angelic” figures, and “to get closer to God”, even though they already had their own religion. Africans and their religions were seen as witchcraft and things related to the devil, which became yet another justification for slavery. Another important topic is that the indigenous people did not have the necessary “resistance” to work, as they did not have biological protection against diseases, such as malaria, Black people were said to be more immune, thus being stronger and “prepared” for work.

Just as it brought a lot of profit to the Portuguese during the slavery period, slavery left misery as an “inheritance” for Black people. After all the suffering and anguish that slavery caused, abolition left the enslaved people adrift, without education, healthcare, work and possibilities for improvement. With many forced to live in the hills close to the beaches or small communities the first favelas were formed, many of which still exist today. 

Most of the population on the peripheries of society is black or brown. But what other impacts has the long history of slavery had? In addition to the economic impact, it is important to highlight the change that slavery left in the Brazilian population. After the abolition of slaves, Brazil was taxed worldwide as a marginalized country, since without any means of work or “assistance”, the only option for the Black people to subsist was through the theft of food, for example, which contributed to the idea of ​​a marginalized country. However, care must be taken with the interpretation of the above passage, as we often hear that Black people tend to be violent, but this is an unhelpful untrue stereotype, given that any human being without the money and opportunities to acquire food, NEEDS some other way to survive – usually through theft. 

To “cleanse” the idea of a marginalized country, state bleaching was adopted, consisting of forced miscegenation. The rape of enslaved people was synonymous with criminality and even madness, and in this way mestizos came to be admitted to hospitals based on this incorrect and stupid ideology; an example of this is the journalist and writer Lima barreto, who was interned twice without justifiable cause. 

Even so, miscegenation happened massively in Brazil, being “helped” by immigrant people who came from their respective countries such as Italy, Holland. This resulted in “different peoples of the same nation” – different faces, diversity in skin tones and other characteristics.

What about the racism that we see today?

White people did not become slave traders and enslavers because they were racists, since slavery existed well before the slavery of Black people. They became racists because they used the enslaved Black people as a basis for making a profit and created a set of attitudes towards Black people to justify what they did. An example of such attitudes is the religious justification, but mainly the racial justification based on skin tone. Racism is like a sequel to slavery, which has left its consequences for the youngest.

In Brazil, racism was implemented in society in a structural way, thus being present in educational, legislative, cultural and other institutions, and affecting the way in which young Black people live their lives, causing a social disparity. Racism in Brazil prevents Black young people from having the ease that other white young people have to thrive. 

In the student environment this can be seen since elementary school, because according to IBGE surveys in 2018:

 94.1% of white girls finished it, but the figure for black girls was 87.7%.

 88.4% of white boys completed it, while among black boys the rate was 80.5%. 

Middle education:

 81.2% of white girls completed it, but among black girls only 66.7% did.

70.4% of white boys completed it, but only 55.8% of black boys did.

 Higher education:

38.9% of white women completed it, while only 20.6% of black women did so.

29.4% of white men finished, whereas the rate of black men who completed it was only 15.2%.

As much as the school completion rate is low for both sides, the discrepancy seen in relation to the issue of race is very large and disadvantages Black young people and adults in Brazil. 

This negative distinction can also be seen in other areas such as work, social mobility, mortality rate, prison population, and police violence. It introduces the trend to the media that Black people are always disadvantaged. Such social problems are legacies of the enslavement that happened, and without the governmental support and assistance needed for real changes to occur, improvement is unlikely to happen. However, the Afro-Brazilian population has been waking up to their culture and ancestry and decided to defend the causes of the Black movement. These are very important steps towards the day when we can reach the utopian state of equality, and we can all live without differences.


After George Floyd’s murder in May this year, the Black Lives Matter movement gained new momentum, and the sense of injustice and deep rooted pain quickly travelled around the world. George Floyd’s killing may have happened in America, but it drew attention to the strained race relations and racism embedded in the history of countries all around the world. Britain was one of these nations, and was forced to confront afresh its colonial history, and the way it found fortunes in the exploitation and suffering of Black people across the seas. 

Britain’s involvement with slavery began in 1562, with Sir John Hawkins, who became known as ‘the pioneer of the English slave trade’. As a privateer he was permitted by Queen Elizabeth 1 to plunder Spanish ships (despite the fact they were not at war) – which is how he came to capture 300 enslaved Africans from a Portugese ship near Sierra Leone. Having sold them to plantations in the Santo Domingo (now in the Dominican Republic), he returned home, where he was granted a coat of arms. 

His expedition had been profitable, and he sailed to Africa again in 1564, where he enslaved more than 400 people, and transported them across the Atlantic to the Americas. He continued to do so throughout the 1560s, and it is estimated he transported a total of 1,500 people to plantations. However, Britain had no real colonies of its own at that point. After Hawkins lost many of his men in a battle  with the Spanish in 1568, Britain’s slave trade ceased for nearly a century. 

However, Britain successfully established the Virginia colony in 1607, after several failed attempts. In 1619, twenty Africans were seized from a Portugese slave ship, and taken by slave traders to Virginia. By 1650 the number of African people in the colony had increased to approximately 300.  Until the slave laws of 1661 they, like 4000 white people who had moved there, were known as ‘indentured’, which theoretically meant they could earn their freedom. In 1662, the law also declared that children would take the status of their mothers, regardless of who their father was. It was designed to stop indentured people claiming for their freedom on the basis of their English fathers, and contrasted to English common law, only applying to colonies. Nevertheless, a notable later example of this is Sally Hemmings, who was enslaved, and is commonly thought to have had six of Thomas Jefferson’s children.

Throughout the 17th century, Britain expanded its colonies – across more of North America and the Caribbean – and with it, the number of enslaved people. Improving conditions in Britain meant that fewer white people were inclined to brave the Americas, but plantations continued to grow desirable crops; Virginia specialised in tobacco which was highly in demand across Britain and Europe. Slavery was seen as a profitable investment for many back in Britain. 

The slave economy grew with the triangular trade, selling manufactured goods to Africans in exchange for people, who were transported (the morality rate on ships was between 15% – 33%) to the Americas. An estimated 30 million people were uprooted from Africa and taken to colonies owned by various European powers; 2.3 million African people ended up in Britain’s Caribbean territories. They were sold to plantations, and goods such as sugar were taken back across the Atlantic. 

This trade quickly consolidated Britain’s powerful economic position, and made many of its cities, and citizens, rich. Its ports flourished, thousands of jobs were created through slave traders’ business, and the country had a vast market for its manufactured goods, sold to Africa in exchange for people. By 1800, exports had grown by 4x in 100 years, and 60% of British trade was to Africa and America. It enabled significant economic development across the nation, and, combined with the beginnings of Britain’s industrial revolution, formed a virtuous circle for the economy of the changing nation.

There’s significant weight to the argument that Britain’s colonies were so profitable to their owners, that it allowed plantation owners to amass the capital which powered Britain’s industrial revolution and propelled the nation to the front of the world stage. The concept of ‘shares’ was invented, the growth in merchant banking formed the roots of today’s banks and profits were invested in canals and railways. All of these things were integral to Britain’s industrial revolution, and the growth in the Navy (initially to protect the country’s colonies) made it easier for the empire to grow exponentially. Today the country still profits in many ways from the strength afforded by its past as a powerful imperial nation, and the economic foundations of the industrial revolution. 

Manchester’s cotton mills proved a direct link between Britain’s colonies abroad, and its industrialisation at home. Cotton was grown by enslaved people sweating in hot Caribbean fields, exported across the Atlantic, then spun by the poor in the dark dangerous factories in England. The capitalists got rich off both. Between 1700 and 1850, Britain’s economy shifted almost entirely from one based on agriculture, to an industrial one. 

The abolition of slavery came after over fifty years of campaigning, and was a slow battle.  By the mid 18th century, London had an African population of nearly 10,000, largely made up of people who had either been freed or had run away. Although owners would advertise for the recapture of those who had run away, some African people did manage to make a life for themselves in the city, hard though it was. One example of this was Ignatius Sancho in the mid-18th century, who opened a grocer’s shop and became famous for his poetry and music. 

Sancho was involved in the abolitionist movement. The campaign to end the transatlantic trade grew from the 1770s, but many of its supporters were Quakers or other religious non-conformers. This meant that they had no political power, as they were not allowed to sit in parliament. William Wilberforce, however, was an MP, as well as an Evangelical Christian. In 1807, it was his Slave Trade Act which ended the transatlantic trade. 

It was after this that Britain established the West Africa Squadron, who patrolled the Coast of West Africa, in an attempt to suppress the trade. However, it was not until 1833 that the practice of slavery was actually ended in Britain’s colonies, through the Slavery Abolition Act. This supposedly freed 800,000 enslaved Africans across the British colonies in the Caribbean and South Africa. The same year, several abolitionist petitions had gained a total of 1.3 million signatures, but economic reasons partly contributed to the human rights arguments. Britain’s sugar plantations were protected by monopolies, but couldn’t compete with the larger ones in Cuba and Brazil. Merchants were pushing for free trade, and the fear of uprisings was growing. 

The abolition in itself was controversial, and continued to serve the interests of rich plantation owners. The British government paid owners a total of £20 million, which was 40% of the 1833 budget and today is equivalent to £20 billion. In fact, the government loans which financed this were only paid off in 2015, which means that most taxpayers will, inadvertently, have supported the slave owners of 200 years ago. 

There is an acknowledgement that this was a volatile moment in history, with a real risk that blood could have been spilt just as in the American Civil war if no compromise had been offered. However, the newly freed people were even initially committed to 6-12 years of unpaid ‘apprenticeships’, which, until they were abolished in 1838, effectively continued to give owners free labour.  

The injustices of slavery appeared in many different forms. The empire was, in many ways, built on the backs of enslaved Africans, while lining the pockets of British capitalists. According to the National Trust (which manages historical properties around the UK) up to one third of their stately homes have some links with slavery. However, many of those who became rich through slavery were known for their philanthropy and charitable works; it has taken until quite recently for the fact that much of the money they gave away was gained through others’ suffering to be properly acknowelged. 

Edward Colston, who enslaved 84,000 African people, was commemorated in his hometown of Bristol as one of the most ‘wise and virtuous sons’ of their city. With the money he obtained through slavery, he set up a school, hospitals and alms houses. It was for this he was commemorated – not his significant contribution to the system of immense cruelty and exploitation. 

After years of campaigning for the removal of his statue being ignored, it was pushed in Bristol’s harbour on the 7th of June 2020, during a Black Lives Matter demonstration. Fished out soon after, it will become a museum exhibit, with a new plaque to give a more nuanced reading of his works. Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, has also commissioned a review of the capital’s statues, an assessment as to how well the figures on their pedestals reflect 21st century values. 

The recent protests, and the increasing dialogue surrounding Britain’s imperialist past, provide and insight into long lasting effects of slavery. While Britain’s capitalists and the country at large benefitted from the suffering of those across the Atlanitic, just like those in Brazil did under the Portugese. Today anger is ingrained, and there are calls for decolonisation of the curriculum, and even for reparations to be paid. For many and for a long time, it has been a difficult discussion, but it’s a conversation that needs to be had. And the Black Lives Matter campaign has made that even clearer.



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