Crossroads of Freedom: Slaves and Freed People in Bahia, Brazil, 1870-1910.

Author:Powers, Michael Shane
Position::LATIN AMERICA - Book review
 
FREE EXCERPT

Fraga, Walter. Crossroads of Freedom: Slaves and Freed People in Bahia, Brazil, 1870-1910. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016.

Recent historians have not only demonstrated the permeability of borders, but increasingly shed the artificial perimeters of periodization. Walter Fragas exceptional study of one of the Americas' wealthiest and long-lasting plantation regions does both. Examining Brazil's northeastern state of Bahia, particularly the lucrative Reconcavo region, through the day-to-day experiences of laborers and elites from the last decades of slavery in the Empire to the beginning of Getulio Vargas's administration, Fraga shatters clean breaks between pre- and post-emancipation, questions neat works of the first republican period, and demonstrates myriad ways rural and urban communities influence each other. His work goes a long way in demonstrating how "the reconstruction of plantation agriculture after abolition was not a unilateral process" or "simple transition to a more rational capitalist system" (138). Fragas in-depth social analysis rests upon nominative record linkage that cross reference a wide array of sources from census, baptismal, and hospital records to court proceedings and oral histories. The result is a work valuable to historians interested in slavery, subaltern methods of agency, and state formation.

Fragas study is grounded in the formative ways enslaved individuals played a decisive role in bringing down Brazilian slavery as they fought for dignity, property, and personal mobility. It contains engaging accounts of slaves' dogged fight to expand the internal economy of slavery and escape the institution's control as "slave ingenuity was undermining slaveocrat domination" (51). Slaves astutely drew upon planters' competition for laborers, demanded state protection from mistreatment, and utilized anti-slavery networks. Fragas chapters are filled with well-written analyses of slaves' legal testimonies and elite newspapers and memoirs that detail verbal and physical confrontations. Crossroads of Freedom, however, does not only focus on poor people of color, it provides a full picture through a continuing assessment of the seigniorial response. Fraga highlights how Bahian sugar planters kept the end goal of maintaining the racial hierarchy and controlling laborers, yet worker resistance forced them to increasingly abandon corporal punishment in favor of paternalistic pleas and, ultimately, material concessions...

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