The Forgotten Betrayal of Black Revolutionaries in Southern Brazil
This article is adapted from AQ’s print issue on young people in Latin America.
Every September, the famous and proud residents of the state of Rio Grande do Sul celebrate Farroupilha Week, a remembrance of a 19th-century revolution in which the region tried – but ultimately failed – to secede. from the rest of Brazil. In the state capital, Porto Alegre, festivities include parades, a rodeo and a dizzying amount of churrascogrilled pieces of meat which are the local speciality.
The celebrations are also notable for what they omit – and what the omission says about Brazilian society today.
The story begins in 1844, when Brazil was still an imperial monarchy led by Dom Pedro II, who was facing a serious rebellion in the deep south of the country. After nearly a decade of fighting, a large Imperial army was closing in on a shrunken corner of the pampas near the Uruguayan border, where they had trapped the dwindling army of rebels known as the Farrapos, or “rags.” in Portuguese – initially a derisive nickname for ill-equipped soldiers but later proudly adopted by them.
Resigned to their impending defeat, the leaders of the Farrapos began negotiations with the Imperial government to end the war. There was, however, a major obstacle to this agreement: the fate of hundreds of black soldiers in the rebel ranks, said Juremir Machado da Silva, a historian at the Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul.
At the time, enslaved black people comprised more than a third of the sparsely populated province’s population and were essential to its cattle-based economy. They mainly worked on the huge ranches of Rio Grande do Sul and in its charqueadaswhere cattle were turned into Charquethe dried meat which was the main export of the province and which gave the English language the word “jerky”.
The Farroupilha revolution was led by wealthy herders who resented the imperial government’s fiscal policies and wanted greater autonomy. Desperate for manpower, these revolutionaries persuaded several hundred enslaved black people to flee their owners and join their cause with a simple promise: Fight for us and win your freedom.
When the peace talks began, Farrapos’ negotiators insisted that the black soldiers fighting for them – who by this point in the war made up about 25% of their army – should remain free. It was, however, a condition that the imperial court in Rio de Janeiro was absolutely unwilling to accept. With little bargaining power, the leaders of the Farrapos began to argue among themselves over how to proceed.
Then, on November 14, 1844, an Imperial cavalry launched a pre-dawn attack on a Farrapos encampment at a place called Porongos in the present-day municipality of Pinheiro Machado. More than 100 were killed and several hundred others taken prisoner. Almost all of the dead were black, like many of those captured. The separate camps for white and native soldiers, across a small stream, were not attacked.
Nostalgic tributes to the revolution are a popular tradition in Rio Grande do Sul
Based on documents and other evidence from the time, many current historians conclude that the Black Farrapos were betrayed by their commanders. In return, negotiations with the Imperial Government got off to a good start. Moreover, fears on both sides of a potential uprising by these trained and experienced black soldiers – fueled by events like the Haitian Revolution and a more recent slave revolt in the Brazilian province of Bahia – have been dispelled.
The Imperial Commander “came with orders not to allow the Black Farrapos to break free. So what was the quickest solution? Slay them,” said Moacyr Flores, a scholar whose many books on the history of Rio Grande do Sul include Blacks in the Farroupilha Revolution.
To this day, the story of these black soldiers remains almost entirely absent from classrooms and popular commemorations of the Farroupilha Revolution that take place every September.
For many in the state’s Afro-Brazilian community, the exclusion of black Farrapos’ history seems all too familiar in a state where more than 80 percent of the population identifies as white and prides itself on to be the most European part of Brazil. Meanwhile, a United Nations Development Program report recently identified Porto Alegre as the Brazilian city with the greatest inequality in living conditions for its black and white residents.
But things may be starting to change. Since the introduction of affirmative action policies at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) over the past decade, the university has become a hotbed of civil rights activism. Increased dialogue about race has meant that students are learning more openly about the state’s black history.
“We didn’t hear about (black Farrapos) in school,” said Andressa das Neves, an Afro-Brazilian sociology graduate student at UFRGS.
“We discovered it because we were curious to know more about our people,” added Ana Danielle Cavalheiro, another student at the university. She first heard the story of the black Farrapos from other civil rights activists.
Armed with this knowledge, Neves remained seated at her undergraduate graduation ceremony in 2015 to protest the playing of the state anthem. Written to honor the Farroupilha Revolution and fiercely loved by most gaúchos, the song’s lyrics include a line that many Afro-Brazilians find deeply offensive:Povo que não tem virtude/Acaba por ser escravoor “A people without virtue / End up being enslaved.
Cavalheiro and two other black students also sat during their graduation earlier this year.
Neves and Cavalheiro in Porto Alegre
For Neves and Cavalheiro – and others like them who have made sitting during the anthem at graduation ceremonies a regular occurrence in recent years – it’s a small, symbolic way to resist the erasure of the experience of black history and the continued marginalization of Afro-Brazilians in Rio Grande do Sul.
“We have always been invisible,” said Rosi Pontes, an Afro-Brazilian woman who became involved in civil rights issues as a university student a decade ago. “And it continues today. … We have this idea (here) that all races and all people live well together. No. We don’t live well together. We don’t live together. Each has its place. »
For Pontes, proper acknowledgment of the contributions of Afro-Brazilians to Rio Grande do Sul, including their role in the state’s iconic revolution, is outdated. While a small, anonymous plaque in a park in Porto Alegre pays homage to black soldiers betrayed by revolutionaries, it is – like the memory of black Farrapos – largely overlooked and forgotten.
“We want recognition that Afro-Brazilians played an important role in building the state,” Pontes continued.
“The recognition that, yes, we exist, and because of us, Rio Grande do Sul is Rio Grande do Sul.”
Jenner is a freelance journalist based in Porto Alegre, Brazil. His reporting on topics ranging from local politics to elite marathon runners has appeared in publications such as Washington Postthe Atlantic and Roads and Kingdoms.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its editors.