Historical Black Lives Matter: What A Single Story Can Reveal About People & Landscapes

A beach with palm trees.

Editor’s Note: It’s EHN two-year anniversary this week! We’re celebrating all week long by featuring pieces by both old and new friends. Today, Natascha Otoya writes about slavery, landscape, and the importance of uncovering marginalized single stories.


In November 1943, at age 80, João de Deus de Souza wrote the Brazilian National Petroleum Council to request payment for services rendered between 1938 and 1943.[1] Mr. João de Deus alleged he had not received any payment for the five years he stood watch over drilling equipment left behind by government technicians. In his letter, he described being stranded, cold, sick, and hungry, in a remote part of Maraú Peninsula in the state of Bahia, located in the northeast coast of Brazil. Today, Maraú Peninsula is a high-end tourist destination. For Mr. João de Deus, however, it was closer to the “green hell” that typically described many tropical places.

The letter reported attempts to steal and buy the equipment, and described how Mr. João de Deus did not leave his post even when his wife fell sick and died just 30 km away. He built sheds and kept the equipment from rusting at his own expense. The letter included several pictures to attest to the good upkeep of his charge. After some deliberation among branches of state and federal government, the National Petroleum Council decided it was not their responsibility to pay this debt. As far as the document goes, Mr. João de Deus did not receive any payment.

Two men on beach.
João de Deusand another workers stand next to drlling equipment at a beach in Maraú Peninsula in the state of Bahia, Brazil. Image from the National Petroleum Council Collection / Brazilian National Archive, Rio de Janeiro (Box 1298/File 3518).
[Image description: two men standing on a beach with a plethora of drilling equipment in front of them. Behind them stands some kind of machine on wheels between two palm trees.]

At first glance, this story may strike the twenty-first century reader as odd: why did he not simply leave?  But Mr. João de Deus was likely born a slave. His age in 1943 puts his birth at around 1863, before any abolition laws had been passed in Brazil.[2] Even if he were born free, life in Brazil at the time posed many challenges to free Blacks, who could be imprisoned and sold into slavery.  This context may help understand why he had gone so long without any further instructions or payment, and yet kept to his duties.

Mr. João de Deus’ story is one of hundreds I have unearthed from the personnel files of the National Petroleum Council. But this particular one is emblematic, as it exposes the ties between the purported modernity oil brought to the country and the slave society that laid the foundations of modern Brazil. In recent years, there has been a great revisionist effort in the history of capitalism to highlight the deep connection between slavery and modernity.[3] As Mr. João de Deus’ letter shows, the basis of modern capitalist enterprises such as oil was, in many instances, unpaid labor.  

Mr. João de Deus’ letter upends the chronology of how we think about the transition from slavery to free labor. His account juxtaposes two seemingly insurmountable eras: the so-called pre-modern slave period and the beginning of industrialization in Brazil. The transition from one to the other, however, happened in the span of his lifetime. Countless black Brazilians came into the twentieth century bringing with them the experiences of a slave society. This story shows how deep the marks of slavery run in the social fabric. It blurs the lines of traditional historical narratives, where slavery immediately became a thing of the past, totally unconnected with the modernity ushered in by the new century.  

For people on the ground, this difference was much less clear-cut. The same individual could have been a slave and received wages in their lifetime. Mr. João de Deus performed years unpaid labor in a modern setting, but could we call him a slave? His demand for payment of the services he provided indicates that he did not think of himself as a slave. He knew he had rights and requested an exact amount—5 cruzeiros for each of the 1,890 days he spent on duty. On the other hand, he asked to be “freed” from this situation. Also, the fact that authorities debated whether he should get paid and decided against it, shows other sides of the story. Would they have denied payment to a white worker? Would a white worker request to be “freed” from their duties? We can only speculate—at least until I am able to gather more information about the case (a post-pandemic research challenge).

Finally, a striking aspect of this story is the landscape transformation. The pictures attached to the letter show a deserted beach, highlighting how remote the place was. The coast of Bahia was the heartland of Brazilian slavery with its sugar plantations, and thereafter became the first site of oil exploration in the country.

Today, the once-remote area is a tourist paradise, filled with resorts and hotels. The same location has meant different things to generations of Brazilians. To so many, this paradise beach was the site of hard work and suffering. Telling a fuller story of Mr. João de Deus’ life will show how slavery (and post-abolition unpaid labor) intertwined with the birth of modern Brazil, both chronologically and geographically, and reshape the history of this constantly changing region. So many poor Black people lived, worked, and died to bring about modern industries such as oil—all the while in what we would call pre-modern conditions.

Mr. João de Deus’ life story hopefully sheds light on these experiences.    


[1] This document is part of the Brazilian National Petroleum Council Collection, housed at the Brazilian National Archive in Rio de Janeiro (Box 1298/File 3518).

[2] Slavery was fully abolished in Brazil only in 1888. Prior slavery laws include the 1871 Free Womb Law, which provided that children of slaves would be born free, and the 1885 Elderly Law, which freed slaves after they turned 60. Neither law had a significant impact on enslaved populations, given that a free child would still be raised by slave parents in slave quarters (at the constant risk of being wrongfully enslaved) and very rarely did enslaved people survive to be 60 years of age. At the time, average life expectancy of slaves was around 21.

[3] Edward E. Baptist and Timm Bryson, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2014); Antonio Luigi Negro and Flávio Gomes, “Além de senzalas e fábricas: uma história social do trabalho” [Beyond the slave plantations and factories: a social history of work], Tempo Social 18, no. 1 (2006): 217-240. 

*Cover image: a beach in Maraú Peninsula in the state of Bahia, Brazil. Image from the National Petroleum Council Collection/ Brazilian National Archive, Rio de Janeiro (Box 1298/File 3518).

[Cover image description: a beack with palm trees.]