Multicultural History of Brazil

On the first lecture of the course Brazil experience we were invited to the Helinä Rautavaara museum in Espoo to learn and discuss the theme multicultural history of Brazil. The theme of multiculturalism was discussed focusing on the afro-Brazilian culture and religion in the Bahia, Maranhão and Sao Paulo regions. First Inkeri Aula, licentiate of philosophy, acquainted us with the cultural and political history of Brazil, which was continued by an introduction to the travels and discoveries of Helinä Rautavaara, a Finnish cultural documentarist who had lived and travelled in Brazil. Afterwards we were given an introduction to specific field-works which had been carried out by Eleonora Riviello, Ph.d. candidate, and Inkeri Aula among different afro-Brazilian religious groups. Lastly Marjaana Markkanen described different popular and folk cultures and festivities in the Maranhão region of Brazil.

In the Helinä Rautavaara museum.

In the Helinä Rautavaara museum.

Bearing in mind the general themes of the lecture we will now focus on two aspects of multiculturality in Brazil: the afro-Brazilian history and the Quilombos and the cultural diversity in Brazil today.

The afro-Brazilian history

The Brazilian cultural heritage has its foundation on the indigenous people that inhabited Brazil before it was conquered and colonized, the European colonizers that immigrated to Brazil, and the countless number of slaves that were forcefully brought from Africa. At the beginning of Inkeri Aulas lecture it was revealed that at the moment Brazil has the second largest population of afro-descendants in the world after Nigeria. With this said it also has a very diverse African culture heritage in it’s ground and a very dark history. The Afro-Brazilian history starts with the unpleasant story of slavery.

African slaves were brought to the continent from the mid 16th century well to the mid 19th century. 
Brazil received the highest number of slaves in the Americas during the slave trading period, adding up to 40% of the total amount (Sansone 1999).  According to Reis, Gomes & dos Santos (2001) Brazil and the economy that derived from Brazil was built on slave trade, from the plantation work to the building of the railways throughout Brazil. Slaves were also brought to work in sucre fields and at the mining industry.The slave trade was abolished in 1888, and by that time it has been estimated that at least 4 million people from Africa had been brought to Brazil. Even still the Brazilian society remained highly hierarchical especially concerning race relations. Throughout the modern history of Brazil the society has gone through a number of social, political and cultural changes that has helped evening out the hierarchies within the society and help the country to develop to the rich mixture of cultures it is today. But this hasn’t happened on its own, but due to a number of factors one being the resistance of the people; afro-Brazilians reclaiming their culture and the black pride movements of the second half of the 20th century (Sansone 1999). This is why we have decided to focus the first part of the rapport on an early form of resistance which still continues today: the quilombos.

Quilombo – from slavery to resistance

Quilombos are communities constructed by slaves that had managed to escape from their slave owners. According to Inkeri Aula quilombos were a safe haven not only to African slaves, but to people from different social and cultural backgrounds that suffered from oppression in the colonial Brazil. The most famous of all the quilombos was Palmares in the 17th century with an estimate population from 11 000 to 30 000 people. Reis, Gomes & dos Santos (2001) describe that Palmares had “a complex social and political structure, resisted for almost a century the various punitive expeditions sent out against it, and was finally destroyed only in 1694-1695”. Palmares might be the most famous of the quilombos, but it wasn’t the only one. Quilombos varied in size and structure, some quilombos remained in isolation from the society in general, but in many cases escaped slaves used quilombos as a backing force to negotiate the terms of their slavery with the plantation owners. Some uprisings and attacks on the plantations were also planned and executed by the fugitive slaves that resided in the quilombos, also known as quilombolas.

Even though quilombos developed during the period of slave trade they haven’t faded away completely. According to Reis, Gomes & dos Santos (2001) different quilombos managed to create an own economy, relying on fishing, agriculture etc. and construct peasant communities that still exist in Brazil today, especially in the lower Amazon. According to the Brazilian constitution (1988) the communities that are remnants of the quilombos have a right to the lands and territory they have historically occupied. Even though the constitution seems to be on the side of the quilombolas the fact of the matter is that that it is rarely realized in practice, much depending on the fact that from the point of view of the government the quilombos seem to be a historical and patrimonial site of reminiscence and not active modern communities and therefore only a few communities are recognized by the government as quilombos. According to Aula the conflict of territory is much aligned with the general rural conflict in Brazil of which the most famous protagonist is The Landless Movement.

The multicultural history of Brazil is a complex one and filled with tragedy from the slave trade era and the structural racism that still exists today but in more subtle forms, but it is also a history of resistance and a history of cultural syncretism that has turned Brazil into a stronghold of a cultural variety that has its origins in the African, indigenous and creole cultures and history. Next we will discuss the afro-Brazilian culture that exists today.

Afro-Brazilian culture today 

The 4 milloin people from Africa were roughly divided into two groups: the Bantu people and the West Africans. The big ethnic groups in West Africans were Yoruba, Igbo, Ashanti, Fon and many other smaller groups. Most of the slaves brought from West-Africa were situated in Bahia region. For that reason Bahia is the nest of Afro-Brazilian culture.

Slaves were usually separated from their own families and tribes and put to a mix of Africans. This was done to prevent the uprise of slaves. This also made Brazil, the biggest melting pot of cultures. Thought not allowed to have their own religion nor culture, African slaves managed to hold on to their heritage and created their own new ways to act on their culture, have a life beyond being a slave.

One very important part of this new Afro-Brazilian culture was Candomblé. A religion which mixes believe traditions of Yoruba, Fon, Ewe and Bantu people. The first Candomblé temple was founded in Salvador, Bahia in the beginning of 19th century, but Candomblé traces back to the start of African slavery in Brazil. Candomblé is a syncretic religion, it has taken many different beliefs and melted it into this one religion, it has also taken some influence from the catholic religion with its saints. Candomblé is an oral tradition and it doesn’t have a holy script. It is a polytheistic religion and the believers worship a number of gods. Candomblé is also to be found in other Latin American countries, though it might have different name, like Voudou, Santoría or Xango.

Candomblé was a forbidden religion in Brazil until 1969 when in Brasil was entered a law of religious liberty. Nowadays one can even find Candomblé in pop music.


Inkeri Rönnberg & Salla Kytömäki


References and for further reading:

Author unknown. 2001. Quilombos and Land Rights in Contemporary Brazil. Cultural Survival Quarterly. 25,4 Winter. 

Candomblé at a glance – unknown author

Helinä Rautavaaran Museo:

Religious Rhythms: The Afro-Brazilian Music of Candomblé – Amy Cunningham

Reis, Gomes, Joao Jose,& dos Santos, Flavio. 2001. Quilombo: Brazilian Maroons during slavery. Cultural Survival Quarterly. 25,4 Winter. 

Sansone, Livio. 1999. From Africa to Afro: Use and Abuse of Africa in Brazil. SEPHIS CODESRIA. Amsterdam/Dakar.