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The Broken Paths of Freedom

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The Voyage of the Cezar
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The Geography of Suppression

From Ambriz to Rio: The Voyage of the Cezar

The Cezar [Slave Trade Database ID: 1723] departed Ambriz, a small trading outpost located in humid region of coastal West-Central Africa, in early 1838. A number of international, metropolitan, colonial, and national laws, struck between 1815 and 1836, had outlawed the transatlantic trade from Portuguese Africa, and the Brazilian ban, passed in April 1831, had several disrupted the trade that historically centered in Luanda. As the legal trade drew to a close, Ambriz had grown as favored spot for an unregulated trade that continued to link, via a series of clandestine baracoons and trading forts situated around a fog-prone coastal estuary, the hinterlands [sertão] of the Kongo region to the voracious slaving markets of Brazil and Cuba. The precise location of Ambriz — just to the north of the legal and effective of Portuguese territorial claims and policing, and within a relatively short westward journey to the South Atlantic — privileged clandestine slaving activities.

Although the precise trajectory of the Cezar cannot be reconstructed, it is plausible that the ship made additional stops somewhere between Luanda and the Congo River prior to its illicit voyage across the Atlantic. The various nações [ethnic toponyms] of the Africans that were subsequently registered by Brazilian authorities reinforce this supposition. It can be dated precisely, on 13 April 1838, when the crew of the British corvette Rover spotted a two-masted patacho sailing without colors on the southeastern coast of Brazil, near the entrance to Guanabara Bay. On the suspicion that the unidentified ship was engaged in the illegal slave trade, Rover commander Charles Eden issued orders to pursue. The pursuit ended near the Maricá Islands, about five miles from shore. By the time the British naval corvette overtook the suspect vessel, the slaver’s crew had abandoned ship, leaving the ship adrift. Although the accounts of the pursuit and seizure vary in their detail, there is good evidence to suggest that in deserting the ship, the crew spirited away with an unknown number of Africans. The record is quite clear, however, that the abandoned ship was transporting Africans from Africa. The captives found aboard the well-provisioned, yet abandoned ship were not to be mistaken with blacks under transport in an entirely legal trafficking of the enslaved within the territorial waters of the Brazilian empire.

An initial search of the ship’s papers and passports yielded conflicting evidence about the nationality of the ship’s registry and missing crew. Eden then placed orders to conduct an initial headcount and to prepare the ship to be towed back to Rio de Janeiro. Beyond the registry of the number of Africans found (146 men and boys; 61 women and girls) and their state of health (all “apparently healthy”), the only indication that Eden or his crew attempted to interview the Africans was the later testimony that one or more of the Africans volunteered the name Seu Joãozinho as the person in charge of the vessel.

Arriving in Rio in a convoy that included another ship seized on suspicion of illegal trading of West-Central Africans, the Flor de Luanda, Eden presented his prizes to the Anglo-Brazilian mixed commission operating in the Brazilian capital to judge cases of suspected illegal trafficking. On 20 April 1838, the mixed commission posted public notice for interested parties of the unnamed ship as well as the Flor de Luanda to appear before the Commission. Four days later, José de Castro Rodrigues, representing Sebastião Rodrigues Luiz de Moura filed claim that the ship had been sold to Moura, a Portuguese resident in Luanda, by a Brazilian citizen in Angola in 1836. The ship, according to Rodrigues, was Portuguese and thus outside of the jurisdiction of the Anglo-Brazilian commission. Rodrigues also claimed that the ship, formerly known at the União, originally had been loaded at Luanda and bound for Ambriz to transport a cargo of African Colonists [colonos] destined for resettlement in Mozambique. The passage between the two principal Africans colonies of the Portuguese empire was to touch first at the port of Montevideo, for resupply.

As the trial of Cezar progressed, the Africans remained aboard the vessel anchored in Guanabara Bay under British guard. This was an especially dangerous time for the safety and security of the detained Africans. Malnutrition and disease were constant threats to the health of the rescued Africans. Popular hostilities towards British anti-trafficking activities, allegedly stoked by the pro-slave trading Portuguese minister to the Brazilian Court, ran high, subjecting the Africans and their protectors to various acts of violence. Incidents of kidnapping of Africans detained during the trial of suspected slavers had been a notorious part of the suppression of the trade since 1834.

Almost immediately upon their arrival in Rio, the Cezar and Flor de Luanda were objects of popular and diplomatic disquiet, and such hostilities were enflamed by the events of 18 April 1838, when British sailors attached to the Rover fired upon and then commandeered a launch [escaler] carrying four Brazilian military officers and 12 rowers returning to the City from the Forte de Boa Viagem. The incident occasioned a heated diplomatic exchange between the British Legation and the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who protested the violation of Brazilian sovereignty and international maritime law and the insult. Anti-British rhetoric circulated widely in the Rio press. Although the British naval officers subsequently found no evidence of an attempted kidnapping in the April incident, minister Gordon informed Foreign Secretary Palmerton that he still suspected that the detained Brazilian had been involved in a reconnaissance mission from "persons who are most active in protecting slaving enterprises, and they very possibly steered the course they did, in order to judge of the state of preparation the Rover and her prize were in, in case the latter should be attacked, besides more than one instance as occurred here of evil disposed person assuming the costume and badges of soldiers and officers of justice in order to put into practice their illegal designs." Indeed, later in the year, multiple kidnapping attempts were made on the Cezar and Flor de Luanda as well as the Brilhante, another vessel seized in mid-1838 whose fate was closely intertwined with the Cezar. On the night of 20 June 1838, two black boys went missing. A similar attempt, to kidnap the Africans aboard the Flor de Luanda, would be attempted by Benjamin Dupraz and two accomplices in September 1838.

After a six-week trial, the Cezar was condemned as "good prize," each surviving African aboard the condemned vessel acquired the legal status of a Free African. However, the actual certificates of emancipation were withheld for an additional seven weeks, pending an appeal lodged by representatives of the condemned vessel’s owner. In the meantime, the nominally free Africans remained aboard the Cezar, still under British guard.

In preparation for the Africans’ introduction into Brazilian society, João Baptista Cosmelli, the ad-hoc interpreter for the mixed commission, and a clerk [meirinho] conducted final registry conducted shipboard. Known by the British as “marking” and by the Brazilian as tirar as marcas [taking down of the marks],

In the meantime, minister of justice Bernardo Pereira de Vasconcellos issued instructions to the House of Correction to make accommodations for "200 or so Africans from the patacho Cezar, recently condemned by the Anglo-Brazilian Mixed Commission." The inadequacy of the facilities at the new city prison (still under construction in Catumbi neighborhood) led Vasconcellos to issue additional instructions to place the Africans on deposit in the dilapidated old dungeon at Castelo, called the Calabouço. The subsequent arrangement, published in advertisements dated 14 July, invited private citizens to petition house and sustain the liberated Africans in exchange for their services. One hundred and eighty-seven petitions, submitted to the Juiz de Órfãos Lourenço Caetano Pinto, have been identified, each typically stating the petitioner’s willingness to comply with various regulations concerning the guardianship of Free Africans, the most important being the payment of a concession fee.

Although the majority of the liberated Africans were turned over to their new "concessionaires" [Portuguese: concessionários or arremetantes] who were required to present themselves at the docks, between July 17 and 19, a portion of the Free Africans end up in the House of Correction. Quickly, the Africans were incorporated into the domestic and work arrangements of a urban households, small and large farms, and public institutions.

On 3 September 1838, the Cezar—which was being stored on the Praia do Valongo, close to the shuttered slave markets—was auctioned off, for the sum of 4:050$000, the same price settled at the auction of the Brilhante. For the Cezar, 1:607$000 was deducted for the maintenance of the Africans. Less other deductions, 2:037$000 was forwarded to the British Government for distribution among commander Eden and the crew of the Rover.

At the time the that Cezar was broken up, at least nine of the Africans had already perished. Death would be a significant part of the Africans’ fractured experience as Liberated Africans in Rio slave society. Nonetheless, the cohort remained somewhat coherent in the long journey towards the rights of “full freedom” acquired by at least sixty of the original 211, between 1853 and 1865. As was the case for the overwhelming majority of all Africans liberated in Brazil under the terms of anti-trafficking treaties and laws, the "reexportation" embedded in conditions of the original liberation and apprenticeship never materialized. In the 1868 matricula geral, none of the Africans of the Cezar were registered as ever having been officially reexported between 1838 and 1865. Rather, the cohort of West-Central Africans of the Cezar lived, worked, moved about, bore children, and died on Brazilian soil, under a peculiar condition of "freedom" that was in constant tension with a proscribed traffic that continued into the mid-1850s, the "legal" slave regime that endured until 1888, and the free polity and national civil society envisioned under the Brazilian Constitution of 1824.

Spatial History