Brazilian Slave Emancipation Act 1888

The Brazilian Slave Emancipation Act 1888

Brazilian Slave Emancipation Act 1888
Slaves on a coffee farm in Brazil, c. 1885, in a photograph by Marc Ferrez.
Brazilian Slave Emancipation Act 1888

Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil (1846–1921)

Brazilian Princess Isabel of Bragança signed Imperial Law number 3,353 on May 13, 1888. It is one of the most important pieces of law in Brazilian history, despite having just 18 words. It was known as the “Golden Law” since it eliminated slavery in all of its manifestations. Slavery was at the center of the Brazilian economy for 350 years.

According to historian Emilia Viotti da Costa, Brazil was home to 40% of the 10 million enslaved Africans carried to the New World. Enslaved people were so important to the economy that Ina von Binzer, a German schoolteacher who resided in Brazil in the late 1800s, wrote: “The Blacks hold the principal function in this country.” They are the ones that perform all of the labor and generate all of the money in this country. “It’s just not working with the white Brazilian.”

Abolition had the support of the majority of Brazilians by 1888, including numerous conservative groups, marking the end of a lengthy period of societal and economic transformation. Slavery had already begun to decline by the time it was abolished, due to agricultural modernisation and increased migration from rural regions to Brazil’s cities.

Despite this, it took over 70 years for the transformation to occur. Slavery was abolished in the United Kingdom in 1807, and other countries were pressured to follow suit, including Brazil after it gained independence from Portugal. In 1822, however, 1.5 million of Brazil’s 3.5 million people were slaves, and the practice was not only allowed, but actively encouraged by all parts of society, including the Catholic Church.

However, in the years that followed, the United Kingdom intensified its attempts to abolish the slave trade, capturing slave ships in the Atlantic Ocean and even invading a few Brazilian ports. As a result, the Brazilian government established a legislation proclaiming that all enslaved people were free as soon as they set foot on Brazilian land, albeit the rule was never enforced.

The availability of slave labor decreased as British ships made life more difficult for slave dealers, and enslaved people became more expensive. Owners were initially pushed to improve living and working conditions because they could no longer afford the high mortality rates that had historically marked slavery in Brazil.

Slave labor grew less and less economically viable as landowners became more aware of the situation. It was actually cheaper to pay modest wages to free men than to keep slaves, for whom the owners were accountable. As a result, the Brazilian government began pursuing measures aimed at progressively decreasing slavery, but at a modest pace in order to avoid upsetting the economic interests of slave owners.

The Gradual Abolition

The so-called “Free Womb Law” was approved by the Brazilian Parliament in 1871, guaranteeing that all children born to enslaved mothers would be free. To “compensate” the owners, children were required to labor for their parents’ owners until they were adults. Many notaries faked birth certificates at the period, with the knowledge of local parishes, to establish that child slaves were born before the legislation was written. According to lawyer and abolitionist activist Joaquim Nabuco, slavery in Brazil would last into the 1930s if not for this piece of legislation.

Enslaved people over the age of 60 were liberated under a new law that went into force in 1884. This regulation was much more wicked than the previous one in that it allowed owners to leave enslaved people once they had grown less productive and more prone to illnesses. Furthermore, it was uncommon for an enslaved individual to reach the age of 60.

By 1887, the Catholic Church had stopped supporting slavery, and the Portuguese Crown had taken a stand against it. The last 700,000 enslaved people in Brazil were emancipated on May 13, 1888.

Post-abolition Brazil

Slavery was abolished legally in Brazil, but many Afro-Brazilians’ lives remained unchanged. Because it was an urban movement at a period when most slaves worked on rural holdings, Brazil’s abolitionist movement was cautious and distant. The abolitionist movement, on the other hand, was primarily concerned with liberating the white population from what had become known as slavery’s burden. The aftermath of slavery was unimportant to abolitionist leaders. There were no rules or procedures in place to aid former slaves in becoming full citizens by giving them with access to education, land, or work.

Indeed, Brazilian elites were overwhelmingly hostile to the concept of a majority Afro-Brazilian population. Following the legal abolition of slavery, the government adopted a strategy of branqueamento, or “whitening,” which was a state-sponsored endeavor to “better the bloodline” through immigration, with only white Europeans or Asian immigrants being accepted. Meanwhile, many emancipated slaves engaged into informal arrangements with their former masters because they had nowhere else to go and no other means to make a livelihood. These amounted to food and shelter in exchange for free work, allowing the status quo to be maintained.

The slave system’s relics may still be seen in Brazilian culture today. It’s no surprise that while just 53% of Brazilians identify as Afro-Brazilian or mixed, they account for two-thirds of jailed people and 76% of the poorest. Slavery influenced Brazil more than any other country in the Americas, a legacy that the country is still grappling with more than 350 years after the first enslaved African landed on its shores.


The Black Code of Louis XIV (1685);

The Emancipation Proclamation (1863);

The Abolition of Slavery (1865).


Brazilian Slave Emancipation Act 1888

Slavery and Abolition in the 19th Century

The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)