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Whether as skilled labourers, domestic servants, field hands, or as soldiers in the military, enslaved Africans brought to Brazil not only such important skills but their cultural and religious beliefs and practices that were to blend with European practices and customs. Ultimately it led to an Africanization of Brazil

Brazil is intimately connected with Africa: the cultural imprint left by Africans in loco is so vibrant that it has generated the contention according to which Brazil would be conceptualized at its best as an African nation [1]. If we look at history, the prominent event within which the encounter of Brazil and (mostly Western/Central) Africa took place is the Atlantic slave trade established by the Portuguese colonizers in the sixteenth century. The enslavement enterprise brought to Brazil around 40 percent of the total number of Africans embarked on ships across the Atlantic.

Starting from this premise, the aim of this article is to shed light on cultural connections between Brazil and the African continent. I will try to reach this scope by founding my analysis on the relevant literature produced on the theme, to which I add annotations and reflections on current trends. With this scope set, the essay will briefly describe the slave trade and the philosophical as well as religious inheritance which have been shipped to Africa together with millions of enslaved human beings. I argue for the relevance of the slave trade and its long-term socio-cultural implications as useful interpretative keys for the establishment of the modern Brazil-Africa relations.


Forty-four percent of Brazilians claims today to ‘draw their heritage from Africa’ [2] and many signs of this influence can be found in cities like Recife, the capital of Pernambuco, located on the same Luanda's parallel, or in small villages as Kalunga, a quilombo (settlement of run-away slaves) where around four thousands blacks still live today.

Another example of the cultural heritage concerns religion and cults: ‘Candomblé,’ ‘macumba’ and ‘umbanda,’ which trace their original forms back to Africa, all are practised in Brazil, after being brought by slaves since the sixteenth century.

Brazil was one of the pivots of the Atlantic slave trade, the major importer of slaves from Africa to the Americas and, besides, the last importing nation to outlaw this trade: it was formally declared illegal in 1830 but it took few more decades for the commerce to totally stop. Although there is no accurate estimate of numbers, Leslie Bethell [3] affirms that 371,615 slaves were still imported in Brazil in the decade 1840-51. If one tries to enlarge the estimate for the whole slave trade, figures raise up to reach almost five millions. [4]

The forced migration started at the beginning of the 16th century, when Portugal turned to Africa to meet its labour needs in Brazil. At that time, it has been shown that slavery was widespread in Africa, and most important it was an indigenous phenomenon, on which the European-established slave trade did produced an impact, but more in quantitative terms, rather than qualitative.[5] Namely, Europeans entered and exploited a slave commerce already existent and independent from Atlantic routes. Europeans produced yet an increase in the demand, to which Africans leaders and merchants were able to respond for decades, without suffering from demographic consequences, at least for the short period. Furthermore, Europeans added a clear racist connotation to the enslavement, and made recourse to all sorts of violent means in order to ensure themselves even more slaves.

After the establishment of the commerce, for four hundreds years colonial Brazil was able to found its economy on slave labour, exploited to work both in plantations, in order to produce sugar, tobacco, cotton, coffee as well as in mining sites: to extract gold, stones and gems to be then sold in the European market.

Differently from North America, Africans in Brazil were occupied also in other kinds of activities. For example, they worked ‘as skilled labourers, domestic servants, field hands, in the military, and occasionally even in the supervision of other slaves.’ [6] The slave trade lasted until the 1850s, when the pressure deriving from the British anti-slave trade operations on the Brazilian coast and internal rebellions forced the government to stamp out the inter-continental trafficking of human beings.

Slave traders mostly acquired slaves from Central Africa, the West, West-Central coast of Africa, in countries now known as Angola, Benin, Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Few came from the Portuguese colony of Mozambique. Before 1600, the word ‘Guinea’ became in Brazil a synonym for ‘African’, reflecting the area where slaves came from: the Upper Guinea (from the Senegal river to present-day Liberia). Some years later, Central Africa would become the main slaves' basin, to the point that the area originated the largest number of slaves (usually called Angolas) bound to Brazil. In the eighteenth century, the last wave of slaves (this time called Mina), found their original land in Lower Guinea.


The African presence in Brazil left a relevant mark on the society. The Africans introduced new foods and dishes to the national cuisine, and they even ‘produced the musical and dance form of samba, capoeira, and carnival.’ [7]

But it is religion that comes to represent the most influential legacy of this segment of African diaspora, as testified by ritual practices, divinations, burials and other beliefs still alive in Brazil. After all, religion was and is so important for African communities, the spirituality so intermingled with everyday life, that African mysticism found its way to survive in the New World.

These rituals stabled upon precepts of the dominant Roman Church and the Portuguese Inquisition, disbanded only in 1821. Both institutions opposed the diffusion of heretical cults. Sometimes, the divergence between Christian Church and African rituals was pushed to the limit: Afro-Brazilian Candomblé, for instance, does not forbid same-gender sex, a common practice among men slaves, especially because of the sex ratio imbalance (males outnumbered females, approximately in a two-to-one relation). Inquisition instead defined sodomy as ‘abominable sin’ and punished it accordingly with the burning of the victim's corpse at the stake. [8] Europeans adopted the same treatment for Islam, that provided Africans with a unifying identity which could channel slaves' resentment more effectively (the same dynamic would occur in Africa during colonialism): therefore blacks found with Muslim writings were arrested in Brazil. [9] The persecution would last until the '70s, when cults adherents started to practice their spirituality in the open.

The diffusion of cults in Brazil included also ‘witchcraft’, that needs to be contextualized. Such practices were imported from Africa, yet the social effects of the slave trade emphasized its negative side, because these rituals became a primary instrument for the struggle against the Portuguese masters. The very success of European powers in subjecting black populations was seen by Africans as the result of hidden, magic powers: crossing the Atlantic on their ships meant, for Africans, dying at the hands of witches.

The attachment to tradition and the channelling of resistance efforts into communal practices were the backgrounds for the diffusion of African cults in the Brazilian diaspora. This is the origin of the Afro-Brazilian goddess of the sea, ‘Iemanjà,’ who is celebrated every new year's eve by millions of ‘cariocas’ (the inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro). Rooted in the Yoruba religion, Iemanjà is today known by several names and worshipped in the Umbanda, Candomblé religions as well as in Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti and Suriname. Macumba provides another evidence of the Afro-Brazilian ritualizing, but it is often considered a corruption of the African heritage as it involves sorcery and black magic: according to Hayes [10], ‘Macumba is widely considered an occult practice drawing on nefarious powers for nefarious purposes through the use of sacrificial offerings, spells, incantations, and other magico-ritual practices.’ The refusal of Macumba's sinister practices may be at the origin of the Umbanda diffusion in the early twentieth century. Umbanda blends African heritage with Catholicism as well as Spiritism, appearing thus a ‘legitimate’ cult in the eyes of Brazilians.

In this brief discourse over religion and its diffusion in Brazil, there are four more relevant considerations to be taken into account in order to achieve a proper understanding of its nature and specifications.

First of all, Africans came from different areas, namely from Guinea to Angola as southernmost point. It means that there is a various number of practices and rituals which can be found throughout Brazil: Candomblé alone, for example, developed at least three branches in Brazil, each linked to a specific African cultural area. [11] Hence, it should not be contended that Afro-religion in Brazil has only a single way of expressing itself.

Secondly, patterns of shipping, disembarking and residence evidently put many slaves of the same cultural nation together, favouring the concentration and thus the creation of African nations in Latin America. This process of overseas identity-(re)building was reinforced both by marriage and community association among slaves sharing language and rituals, and by more complex political actions, such as annual elections of kings and queens. [12]

Thirdly, a key element of West African traditional religion is the absence of dogmas, and the frequent absence of creeds and sacred scriptures [13] it opened the way for a certain degree of freedom of adaptation and it allowed for the fusion with elements of local Brazilian tradition.

Lastly, in several circumstances, ritual practices were thus refashioned to the point that the religion emerged in the New Atlantic World was, according to Thornton [14] ‘a type of Christianity that could satisfy both African and European understanding of religion’ and, most important, avoid Inquisition's convictions.

These four points should be considered while approaching the analysis of specific case studies, such as religion in the state of Bahia), or a specific group (e.g. the Akan, the Chambua, the Gbe).

Through religion, Africans attempted the reconstitution of an African tradition frustrated by slavery and displacement. Slaves had to struggle and be creative in adapting to their new environments, even as they consciously perpetuated their African cultural traditions.

In places where the number of slaves was greater, there were more chances of people speaking the same language to meet: they could prevent their mother tongue from dying out and the overall preservation of the tradition was made indeed easier and more efficacious. This is, for example, the case of Bahia, that can be regarded as a Yoruba territory where first Yoruba language classes were taught as early as 1959. [15]

Far from the homeland of Africa, under the oppressive role of the Church and blending with influences brought by migrants from all over the world, the Afro-Brazilian culture could develop itself as a mix of several elements. Anyway, it eventually resulted in a more homogeneous culture, if compared with the multiplicity of traditions in the African continent. The new environment managed to soften cultural diversities and bring Guineas, Angolas and Minas closer, while they would have had scarce opportunities to get in contact each other in Africa. In a way, Brazil represented for resettled Africans a renewed ground for interactions, freed from tribal logics, land disputes and cultural gaps. These interactions were soon joined by influences coming from European, Asian, and Middle Eastern immigrants, which have combined to create modern Brazil.


New generations of Afro-Brazilians could thus grow a sense of identity and community, essential for the survival as a group. Agreed rituals and social behaviours ensured the legitimacy of their daily actions and provided them with the force to rebel against slavery's chains. Violent and collective revolts in ‘fazendas’ (estate, plantation) were the norm and punished with the death penalty by the government. Brazil probably held the most widespread diffusion of quilombos, [16] where fugitive slaves could lead normal lives as free peasants. Quilombos, among which Palmares is the best known, represented the ‘vehicles’ for the distribution of slaves throughout Brazilian territory, including remote places like the Amazon. These villages could host up to few thousands run-away slaves, and displayed some degrees of social organization. Many other slaves joined the army, navy or the merchant marine to escape slavery, and they also contribute to the ‘Africanization of Brazil.’ However, slaves were fundamental for the Brazilian economy and this explains why the government passed through hard times while trying to approve and enforce the slave trade ban. Since 1807, a number of ships of the British Royal Navy were located on the West African coast, marking the beginning of the British interest in the anti-slave trade fight. Notwithstanding the independence from Portugal achieved in 1823, the economy of Brazil did not switch from being heavily dependent on slave labour for its system of large-scale plantations: merchants and entrepreneurs opposed the abandon of forced labour in the fazendas.

In 1834 [17], the Royal Navy seized the first Portuguese brig (named Tamega) conducting illicit traffic in slaves towards Brazil, since the slave trade had been declared illegal four years earlier. And only three years after that a Brazilian Senate bill affirmed at its first article that all slaves entering Brazil would henceforth be legally free. In following years, the British navy's pressure would give a significant contribution to the ending of the slave trade in Brazil. By the time of the first national census in 1872 [18], people declaring themselves preto/a (black) or pardo/a (brown, mixed) were 4,246,000 on a total population of 8,420,000, accounting therefore for more than its half. Slaves would have to wait until May 13, 1888 for the adoption of the ‘Lei Áurea’ (the Golden law) that abolished slavery in Brazil, sanctioned by Princess Isabel. Considering that it was not the first anti-slave trade law, the key for the immediate success of the Golden law is to be retrieved in the fact that by the end of the nineteenth century, Brazil was attracting European immigrants, whose low wages offered a valid alternative to the cost of upkeep of the slaves.
Many other Africans, once freed, returned to homeland Africa.


This article aimed at giving evidence to existent cultural links between Brazil and Africa. It underlines that under the historical profile, ‘Africans in Brazil’ is a precondition to understand the growing role of Brazil in Africa today.

As seen, Brazil was massively inhabited by black slaves who for 400 years practised native religions, rituals and resisted to colonial masters through a varied recourse to tradition, leaving a mark on the modern Brazilian society. African-originated religions also mixed with the local culture, creating eventually a precious heritage shared in much part of Latin America and the Caribbean.

* Marco Zoppi is a freelance political analyst. He holds a MA in African Studies pursued at the University of Copenhagen (Denmark). His personal interests include Geopolitics, history of Africa and colonialism.


1 Boyce Davies, C. (ed.) Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture, vol. 1 (2008). Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO (p. 227)
2 Meade, T.A. A brief history of Brazil (2010). New York: Infobase Publishing (p. 17)
3 Betheel, L. (ed.) The Cambridge History of Latin America, vol. IX (1970). New York: Cambridge University Press (p. 388)
4 Klein, H. S. and Luna F. V. Slavery in Brazil (2009). Cambridge University Press (p. 14)
5 cf. John Thornton's book: Africa and Africans in the making of the Atlantic World (1992). New York: Cambridge University Press
6 Meade 2010, 45
7 Boyce Davies 2008, 228
8 Jefferson A. and Lokken P. Daily life in colonial Latin America (2011). Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO (p. 40)
9 Childs M.D. and Falola T. (eds.) The Yoruba Diaspora in the Atlantic world (2004). Bloomington: Indiana University Press (p. 96)
10 in Trost, T. L. (ed.) The African Diaspora and the study of religion (2007). New York: Palgrave Macmillan (p. 168)
11 Boyce Davies 2008, 228
12 Thornton 1992, 203
13 Bailey, A. C. African voices of the Atlantic slave trade. Beyond the silence and the shame (2005). Boston: Beacon Press Books (p.191)
14 Thornton 1992, 235
15 Childs & Falola 2004, 200
16 Klein & Luna 2009, 195
17 cf. Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons and Command, Vol. 51: correspondence with the British Commissioners (p.52). Accessible at:
18 Accessible on IBGE - Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística website at:

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