The European colonies in the Americas were built upon the backs of the African slaves whose unpaid labor produced immense capital for Atlantic economies. Taken from their African homelands and thrust into the Americas, Black slaves labored under the hot Western sun to produce cash crops to add to the coffers of others. The slaves had no economic incentive to produce for their masters. To provide the necessary motivation, the slave masters relied above all on violence to coerce their slaves into labor. The slave trade and the production of cash crops created great wealth and was of great benefit to men on either side of the Atlantic, with the notable exception of the individuals who actually performed the labor.
The history of Africans in the Americas is as much a history of slavery as it is a history of resistance to enslavement. From the moment they set foot on American soil, Africans plotted against their masters. Haiti and Brazil were two regions where slavery was as especially important as it was harsh. An African, upon touching Brazilian soil, had a life expectancy of sixteen yearseight years if he was sentenced carrying coffee. (Conrad 125) One third of all Haitian slaves died within several years. (Klubock) Both nations offer countless tales of Black resistance to White domination. Revolutionary action was often connected to religious practice, which slaves had to conduct in secret. African slaves also sought ways to maintain their African culture through secret dances and religious ceremonies, as well as the flight to mock African communities in the Americas to escape bondage.
Manumission was also not uncommon as a relief from slavery. In Brazil, manumission was often purchased by a slave who had accumulated wealth on his own. Frequently these slaves were mulattos and more often than not women. In Haiti, children of the master, born of a slave concubine, were frequently manumitted. Haitian and Brazilian manumission created sizable populations of free blacks and mulattos, some of whom became very successful in Euro-American society.(Klubock)
Though often temporary, another means of escaping slavery was to flee. Sometimes slaves left their plantations to participate in secret dances. Other slaves attempted permanent escape. As Conrad wrote, “The problem of runaway slaves placed a permanent claim on the energies and assets of the slaveholding class” (362). The escape of slaves from their plantations was a common event in Brazil. The rosters of most slave owners included runaways, and the metropolitan newspapers were rife with advertisements with descriptions of runaway slaves and offers of rewards. (Conrad 362, 111)
Gathering together in the jungles of frontier Brazil, runaway slaves formed towns and villages called quilombos (Conrad 367). These quilombos became centers of African culture where African languages and customs predominated. As in Africa, quilombos were often governed by a king. And given enough time, authority in a quilombo could become hereditary. (Conrad 368)
Operating autonomously, quilombos near Brazilian towns were often able to offer their services in exchange for goods. Such arrangements were conducted outside of Brazilian law and efforts were made on the part of the government to suppress these contacts and eliminate the quilombos.(Conrad 368)A Brazilian police report written in 1876 describes the commercial trade conducted between two quilombos and the city of Rio de Janeiro. In addition to supplying the residents of the quilombos with provisions and equipment, Brazilians from Rio de Janeiro “always warned them when there was reason to suspect that the authorities were trying to capture them”. In exchange, the members of the quilombos cut and loaded firewood for the Brazilians. (Conrad 386)
Another document, written in 1854 by the British consul in Belm, Brazil, describes the members of a quilombo as “industrious in the cultivation of rice, mandioca, and Indian corn, and in the manufacture of charcoal.” The inhabitants of the quilombo also manufactured canoes and small sail boats for navigating the rivers of the Amazon Valley and carrying on trade. Their trading partners were “the inferior class of tradesmen in the neighboring towns” with whom the members of the quilombo traded for provisions and equipment. (Conrad 390)
Despite the industriousness of many quilombos others relied on less productive means of procuring wealth. When they were located near plantations and settlements, quilombos frequently