Brazil: A Lost Opportunity (in relation to the USA) – 1817/1821

In 1815, Brazil – a colony of Portugal – became an Empire or Kingdom in equal terms with Portugal. The decision was taken by Don John VI who ran away in 1808 from Europe supported by England and fearing the France of Napoleon. Emperor John VI arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which was a nation full of slaves and extremely dependent on the African trade of slaves, particularly for agriculture and mining.

England – for right or wrong reasons – started to pressure John VI to eliminate the slave ship traffic from Africa and to abolish slavery. Historians say that the pressure was so great that slavery could have been abolished in Brazil during those years of the Brazilian-Portuguese Empire (1815-1821) after a Treaty signed in 1810 and a Congress in Vienna in 1814 (see below).

 It took, however, 70 more years for the elimination of slavery in Brazil (1888). Would Brazil be different today if slavery was abolished in 1818, for example?

 As a matter of fact, the first immigration of free labor to Brazil was authorized by the Emperor in 1817: the establishment of a settlement of Swiss catholic immigrants nearby Rio de Janeiro in a new town named New Fribourg.

One can argue that the long delay in the process of elimination of slavery in Brazil (until 1888) or even the delay in the actual end of the shipping traffic of slaves (1850) might have influenced in at least 1% per year on the average as far as the growth rate of the Brazilian Economy is concerned in the last 200 years.

Statistically, the level of income and production of Brazil today is the result of hundreds of years of different yearly growth rates, positive or negative, higher or lower, and of course 1808 is a natural starting point for our considerations.

Well, how is it possible that Brazil is still a poor country with low per capita income (in relation to the USA and Japan, for example) in this year of 2008 if the average growth rate of Brazil in the twentieth century was spectacular – more than 5% per year, the highest in the world? Naturally, our problem was concentrated in the nineteenth century: the country grew practically zero during almost one whole century.

 In the same fashion that economists try to discuss nowadays the causes of the low growth rates of Brazil since 1981 up until 2006 (25 years), it is only natural that economists and economic historians have to face this major challenge: to understand the Brazilian full stagnation of the nineteenth century – as a matter of fact, the major cause of Brazilian poverty today, to the extent that, after all, Brazil did very well between 1900 and 1980(and hopefully is recovering now such dynamism…).

 Without any doubt, the major Brazilian characteristic of the nineteenth century in Brazil was the maintenance of slavery up until the end of the century – in clear contrast to most of the countries. In the USA, for example, slavery was abolished in the eighteenth century. One might therefore attribute a good share of the Brazilian economic problems of today to the excessive slowness and “laziness” to decide and delay the decision to finish slavery: 1888 rather than 1818.

 As a matter of fact, Brazil was very close to promote the end of slavery in 1818 – seventy years before the so-called Golden Law of 1988 – under pressure from the English Government, which wanted Brazil to replace slaves with free labor. One historian (Rodrigo Elias) explains that the slaves as well as the trade itself from Africa were an excellent business for agriculture and trading in Brazil.

Either for noble and philanthropic reasons or for commercial reasons, England pressured intensely John VI to suspend importation of slaves from Africa. Foreign Minister George Canning and the Ambassador Lord Stangford exerted a fundamental role in such intense pressures.

In spite of many weaknesses, John VI was not naive. He had full conscience of the secret intentions of Canning and Stangford, saying many times that Great Britain was trying to recover in the New World losses in trade suffered in the Old World (England exploited agricultural products in the Caribbean with free expensive labor).

Going back to the Swiss experiment, it is reasonable therefore to assume that the Swiss solution was a decision by John VI to provide a signal of change in policy in order to minimize pressures from England. In other words, the project of the Swiss colonization in 1817/1818 must have been an attempt to fool England and particularly Canning and Stangford, that is, to act as if the country was moving towards free labor with immigrants in order to end slavery.

The Treaty of Commerce and Friendship signed in 1810 already implied a commitment from Brazil to suppress international trade of slaves. But it did not work in practice and generated an expression that is commonly used in Brazil until today: “this is only for the English people to see”.

The whole discussion was restarted in the Vienna Congress in 1814 but the resistance of the Portuguese Authorities was very intense. They argued that in Brazil there were only slaves, nobles and priests, that is, there was nobody to go to work as a free man. Extreme laziness.

Portugal and Brazil preferred to face the English fury, which was identified as something to make Brazil weak, not as a humanitarian ideal. Slaves were considered a necessary evil by the Portuguese-Brazilian Empire.

In spite of religious, ideological and humanitarian pressures, the historian Alberto Costa e Silva affirmed that the United Kingdom really wanted to equalize competition between Caribbean and Brazil as far as production was concerned, particularly sugar cane.

In a book published in 1972, the Swiss historian Martin Nicoulin published “The Genesis of New Fribourg – Swiss Colonization in Brazil – 1817/1827” describing the history and adventure of a group of 2,000 immigrants who was trying to escape from difficulties in Switzerland and came to found in the State of Rio de Janeiro an agricultural colony which would become the city of New Fribourg. It was the first non-Portuguese immigration to Brazil, authorized by the King in May 1818.

In 1819, more than 2,000 persons (300 families) embarked from Switzerland to Brazil, coming from Fribourg, Jura, Valais, Vaud, Neuchatel, Genebra, Argovia, Solothurn, Lucerne and Schwyz. [The author of this article was born in Brazil 60 years ago in the State of Rio de Janeiro, coming as a descendant from one these 300families (Lemgruber).]

The book is a big story: might be transformed into a movie.  There were 311 deaths during the trip. The project itself was considered a failure, but many families survived and spread all over Brazil, particularly the State of Rio de Janeiro.

If Brazil had really abolished slavery in 1818 ( and not in 1888), it is reasonable to imagine a growth process in the nineteenth century much more rapid than what really happened – stagnation. The Empire decided to resist to international pressures and kept slavery in the country. Maybe this might have been the great Brazilian tragedy: an opportunity was lost and until today Brazil suffers the consequences of such lost opportunity almost 200 years ago.

7 Responses to "Brazil: A Lost Opportunity (in relation to the USA) – 1817/1821"

  1. Vitoria Saddi   June 19, 2008 at 9:19 am

    Antonio Carlos, You argue that had Brazil abolish slavery earlier the country would experiment a greater rate of growth. If this is true, how do you explain the fact that in the US the high growth rates were achieved especially due to slavery?Lindo texto.VItoria

  2. Anna Martins Fontes   June 19, 2008 at 9:29 am

    Don’t you think that the Brazilian Empire indeed had little or no resources and this is a major reason for the low growth rates of the 19th century?

  3. Robert Fay   June 19, 2008 at 9:31 am

    Why do you think that slavery and low growth are related? Fogel & Engerman argue that for the US case slavery foster economic growth.Very good piece.

  4. Guest   June 19, 2008 at 5:46 pm

    Perhaps slavery dragged down Brazil because the country was late in joining the Industrial Revolution, failed to invest in human capital, slow in adopting modern legal codes (such as on property rights):

  5. Hongo   June 19, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    GDP was $738 per capita in Brazil and $807 in the United States in 1800, but was $4,854 in the latter in 1900 and actually fell from $738 in Brazil by 1913. Relative factor endowments and institutions, broadly considered, are twin traditional explanations for the extremely diverse growth rates. Brazilian institutions provided a ripe and efficient environment for rent seeking. Such conditions did not exist in the U.S., a fact that helped produce the vast difference ingrowth in the 1800s.

  6. Guest   June 21, 2008 at 9:59 am

    For Vltoria — What’s the argument and evidence behind your claim that slaves in the U.S. were a key reason/important factor for large, positive economic growth in the U.S. throughout the later part of the 19th century? I’m skeptical of such a claim.

  7. Vitoria Saddi   June 25, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    Guest, There are lots of economic history papers about that.