Since 1993, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso have been singing the complex Brazilian racial inequality with the lines “O Haiti é aqui / O Haiti não é aqui”, in a song released on the album “Tropicália 2”.
However, almost 200 years ago, another song sung by a battalion of pardos put the elite of a revolutionary Recife on alert. On July 22, 1824, the following stanza was heard in the capital of the province of Pernambuco: “Which I imitate Christopher / That Haitian immortal, / Hey! Imitate his people, / O my sovereign people!”
The context was the Confederation of Ecuador, which tried to establish a republic independent from the rest of Brazil in the Northeast. However, among the insurgents, there were black people willing to go a step beyond the republic to make the movement acquire a character of racial liberation – as had happened in the Haitian Revolution at the turn of the 18th to the 19th century.
In the Caribbean country, a rebellion of enslaved blacks started on August 22, 1791, 231 years ago, sparked a long racial and civil war, which culminated in the abolition of slavery in the region and the independence of the island of Saint-Domingue, then the richest French colony.
The browns from Pernambuco were inspired by Henri Christophe, one of the black commanders of the revolution, to enforce their own war. The plan was to attack European businesses and murder the city’s wealthy white families.
This is how Emiliano Mundurucu, the leader of the aforementioned battalion, created a printed proclamation urging the interested population to participate in the revolt. He was stopped by Major Agostinho Bezerra Cavalcanti, leader of the battalion of black men, who dissuaded the group.
Mundurucu was a figure that goes beyond the history of Brazil. Everything indicates that he was born in 1791, the son of a black woman and a white man. He received an education, entered the military career and participated in the revolutionary cycle for independence in Recife — especially between 1817 and 1824, the region was the scene of revolts and revolutions against the government of Rio de Janeiro, headed by Dom Pedro 1º.
To avoid repression, he fled to the United States, where he filed the first lawsuit against American racial segregation. He also lived in Haiti and in Gran Colombia, now Venezuela.
To understand the history of their struggle, at least in Pernambuco, it is necessary to go back to 1817, when another liberal revolution shook the province. As historian Marcus Carvalho, a professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco, says, the government that the insurgents instituted for 75 days promoted some changes in society.
They did not agree with slavery and committed themselves to effecting an abolition in the newly founded republic, albeit slowly and gradually. They also issued a decree that ended the obligation of manorial treatment, the “vossa mercê”.
According to Carvalho, even if this seems like “nonsense in today’s world”, the change in the form of treatment brought the spark of a feeling of equality among the free people of the region. A spark similar to that seen in Haiti when the Frenchman Légér-Félicité Santhonax ensured political equality between freed whites and blacks. “In 1817, blacks began to disrespect whites. And that was pushing away the manorial support [à Revolução Pernambucana].”
This racial tension gained a new chapter in 1823, when battalions of blacks and browns took Recife and Olinda for eight days.
During this period, Pedro da Silva Pedroso, a black man, was acclaimed governor. In a reference to Haiti, he said: “Let the whitewashed die!” The term recovers the image of lime dust to refer to the mestizo elite that whitened as they became richer.
“After Pedrosada, nobody was against the monarchy in Brazil,” says Carvalho. This perspective is repeated in the analysis of Ynaê Lopes dos Santos, a professor at the Fluminense Federal University who is part of the Network of Black Historians. According to her, the country’s elites, even with divergent political ideals, preferred to unite in a common project rather than run the risk of facing a black insurrection.
“There is an effective structuring, political and economic forces that are organizing the nascent Brazilian National State to meet its interests and ideas of the world”, he says. The maintenance of the slave order would be one of them.
“In fact, Haiti is a landmark from the point of view of the fears of the Black Atlantic elites”, says historian Petrônio Domingues, a professor at the Federal University of Sergipe. “And this also reaches the bosom of the mass of enslaved and freed colored men.”
Afraid of the boiling of a climate of racial hatred, the slaveholders used some strategies so that the Haitian Revolution did not occur in the territory of South America.
If enslaved people represented the vast majority of the population of the island of Saint-Domingue, reaching 85% of the total inhabitants, in Brazil there was a tacit agreement that they would not exceed around 40%.. The idea was also common among traders to buy slaves from different regions, which made it difficult for them to organize.
“Escape valves” were also created, as Lopes dos Santos says, through manumissions granted and purchased. They were ways of making enslaved people envision peaceful ways out of the condition to which they were subjected.
Even so, there were many rebellions organized by enslaved people in the 19th century. Uprisings in Bahia, for example, horrified an anonymous informant for the Portuguese Crown, who wrote between 1822 and 1823: “If one continues to talk about the rights of men, of equality, one will end up uttering the fatal word: freedom”.
He reported in the midst of the war for independence in the province. And he continued: “Then the whole revolution will end in Brazil with the uprising of the slaves, who, breaking their shackles, will set fire to cities, fields and plantations, massacring the whites and making this magnificent empire of Brazil a deplorable replica of the brilliant colony of Saint Domingos”.
On the other hand, as detailed in the book “The Haitian Revolution and Slavery Brazil”, by Marco Morel, the reception of news from Central America was diverse and not always negative.
In the press, this experience often appeared as a “positive example of the affirmation of national sovereignty”, as Morel writes, especially at a time when Brazil wanted to free itself from the yoke of Portugal. Abolishing slavery, however, was not a current option.