Historical Black Lives Matter: What A Single Story Can Reveal About People & LandscapesHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, racism, emancipation, Brazil
Natascha De Vasconcellos Otoya is a PhD Candidate in environmental history at Georgetown University.
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. 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.
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. 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. As Mr. João de Deus’ letter shows, the basis of modern capitalist enterprises such as oil was, in many instances, unpaid labor.
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