The Erasure of History and the Places of Memory of Slavery

Photograph Source: Cícero R. C. Omena – Monumento a Zumbi dos Palmares – CC BY 2.0

“Places of Memory of Slavery and Black Culture in Pernambuco” is a book that should be read in every city in Brazil and abroad. Published by CEPE, it was organized by historian Isabel Cristina Martins Guillen, who brought together researchers and teachers on the subject of the history of slavery in Pernambuco and its forgetting. In this “forgetting”, hiding, the reader can already see similarities with crimes against humanity in other countries.

In the book, some of the places of black resistance in Recife are evoked and reenacted: the Monument to Zumbi dos Palmares in Praça do Carmo, the Statue of Naná Vasconcelos at the city’s Ground Zero, the Church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Homens Pretos in Recife, the Church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Homens Pretos in Muribeca, the Monument to the maracatus-nation, the statue of the black poet Solano Trindade and the Pátio de São Pedro in Recife.

But the most important thing comes from the texts that contextualize these places, based on discussion and references to documents that have not been made freely available until now. In the words of Isabel Cristina Martins Guillen, the book’s organizer:

“In the specific case of Recife and its metropolitan region, there is a sensitive erasure of this memory of slavery in the public space. There are very few explicit references to the slave-owning past.”

At this point, we realise that it is symptomatic to have Rua do Bom Jesus internationally recognized as one of the most beautiful streets in the world, but with the forgotten scene of the horror of the enslaved men’s market. As can be seen in the text by Ezequiel David do Amaral:

“Sold on the city’s main street, Rua da Cruz (now known as Rua do Bom Jesus). François de Tollenare, in 1816, saw an everyday scene of slavery in Recife: an exhibition of slaves for sale. In his Sunday Notes on Recife, the traveler describes the scene as follows…”.

And here, once again, we see that the indignity of slavery, in its ferocious inhumanity, is invisible to the local elite. The brutality is only perceived by foreigners:

“Groups of black people of all ages and all sexes, dressed in simple loincloths, are on sale in front of the warehouses. These wretches are huddled on the floor and indifferently chew on pieces of sugar cane given to them by the captive compatriots they meet here. A large number of them suffer from skin diseases and are covered in disgusting pustules”. (Tollenare, quoted by Ezequiel David do Amaral).

But we learnt more. Just look at this impressive discovery. We learnt about the slave trade in Pernambuco in Marcus Joaquim Maciel’s revealing text:

“The fact that the memory of the slave trade has been forgotten is also surprising, because ever since the subject began to be studied in the Americas, Pernambuco has appeared in sources and literature, because the captaincy began receiving enslaved people from Africa very early on. It could be said that Pernambuco was the first place in Portuguese America where this process became routine. From the data in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, it can be seen that between the 16th century and the Dutch invasion in 1630, Pernambuco received almost half of all the Africans taken to Portuguese America”. (Emphasis mine).

In Marcus Joaquim’s text:

“It was in the 1820s-1830s that Francisco de Oliveira really stood out in this important trafficking business. The fact that he was a trafficker didn’t make him any different from so many other so-called good people, but immersed in the sordidness of an unscrupulous daily life. He had his feelings, so much so that, in 1839, he announced in the Diario de Pernambuco the disappearance of Petit, his little white dog, ‘very skinny, with languid eyes, coffee-colored ears, a thin belly, very thin and long legs’.

But at the same time (or for that very reason), he was capable of unimaginable cruelty towards slaves:

“In 1845, Mr Cowper, the British consul in Recife, said that Francisco de Oliveira was probably the richest man in the city. Francisco was greatly feared by his captives. When a piece of jewellery was stolen from his house, he became suspicious of a domestic captive who, in desperation, chose to throw herself out of the top window of the mansion rather than be punished. The poor woman died on the spot. Francisco didn’t mince his words and had the woman’s belly cut open in search of the jewel. He was disappointed not to find what he was looking for, much to the amazement of the English consul.”

Take a look at this anonymous denunciation in the pages of the Diário de Pernambuco on 29 August 1856 in the Página Avulsa section:

“It is pitiful to see a slave of such a master! Scratched, skinned and stretched out, they look like furies; their macerated and sodden bodies serve as pastures for vermin, and barely covered, they lie on public display when they go out at the behest of such a harpy. Just three days ago he beat a slave girl over 50 years old so badly that she pierced her eye.” (Quoted in the text by Ezequiel David do Amaral).

It’s curious, not to say symptomatic, that such violence doesn’t pass through Gilberto Freyre’s work. And he did a lot of research in newspapers. I’ve already written about the short-sightedness of the writer’s work in softening violence against slaves.

Maria Graham, the worthy writer who visited Pernambuco in 1821, saw it.  I quote the Englishwoman’s words:

“The dogs had already begun an abominable task. I saw one dragging a black man’s arm out from under a few inches of sand, which they had been made to throw over their remains. It is on this beach that the measure of the insults meted out to the poor blacks reaches its maximum. When a black man dies, his mates put him on a board, carry him to the beach where, below the level of the high tide, they spread some sand over him.”

But in Gilberto Freyre’s dangerous writing, the very same picture is told like this:

“It was on a beach near Olinda that Maria Graham, returning on horseback from the old town to Recife, saw a dog desecrating the body of a black man who had been badly buried by his owner. This was in 1821. Olinda seemed extremely beautiful to the English woman from the isthmus and the beach by which, traveling from Recife, she reached the foot of the hills of the first capital of Pernambuco”.

You read it: horror occupies a single line in Gilberto Freyre, lost in the beautiful view of Olinda. If you want to check it out, you can find this concealment of reality in his Olinda, Guia Prático, Histórico e Sentimental de uma Cidade.

Let’s go back to the book “Places of Memory of Slavery and Black Culture in Pernambuco”.  Professor Rosely Tavares de Souza impressively criticizes the lack of practical compliance with Law 10.639/2003 in basic education:

“When discussing ethnic-racial issues, taking as a reference the memory of slavery in Recife and its metropolitan region, we observe an abyss between what we know so far and the appropriate updating of the subject in teaching. During my experience as a fundamental school history teacher, I analysed the textbook collections for the subject in depth. I noticed that the theme of the slavery period in Brazil is dealt with through repeated and old commonplace approaches when dealing with the practices of enslaved black men and women in the country. Worse still: the places and images that illustrate the historical period, which we are referencing here, are limited to only a few regions, such as Rio de Janeiro and Salvador, while Recife is neglected in the chapters dealing with this content. What’s more:

When teaching a short course and workshops on ‘analyzing history textbooks’ for history teachers, we asked the teachers as an activity to observe whether the textbooks they were analyzing took into account Law 10.639/2003. When asked about their knowledge of this law, I was surprised to find that most of the teachers were unaware not only of the document, but also of the up-to-date historiography on the subject of slavery.”

This comes more than 20 years after the law came into force:

In primary and secondary education establishments, both official and private, it becomes compulsory to teach about Afro-Brazilian History and Culture.

+ Paragraph 1 The syllabus referred to in the caput of this article shall include the study of the History of Africa and Africans, the struggle of black people in Brazil, black Brazilian culture and black people in the formation of national society, rescuing the contribution of black people in the social, economic and political areas pertinent to the History of Brazil.

+ Paragraph 2 – Content relating to Afro-Brazilian History and Culture shall be taught throughout the school curriculum, especially in the areas of Art Education and Brazilian Literature and History.

Art. 79-B. The school calendar will include 20 November as ‘National Black Awareness Day’.”

Art. 2 This law comes into force on the date of its publication.

Brasília, 9th January 2003; 182nd of Independence and 115th of the Republic.


This shows, unfortunately once again, that the historical process of Brazilian society goes beyond the legal. It’s as if the law in relation to black people “didn’t apply”. As if the civilisation put into law by President Lula wasn’t valid. It’s revolting. In fact, it’s as if the slave trade wasn’t over yet. Both because of the documents that have yet to be revealed, because of the erasure of the history of black people in the cities, and because of the torture and deaths of worthy citizens, it’s as if human trafficking is still going on.

Places of Memory of Slavery and Black Culture in Pernambuco is a book to be discussed everywhere, in schools, universities, congress and parties. To set fire to ignorance and barbaric prejudice against black people in Brazil.

Uriarano Moto is author of the novel “Never-Ending Youth.”