Brazil Enslaved Slavery in Brazil lasted until 1888, longer than anywhere in the Americas. Its final years coincided with the rise of photography. A vast archive of images sheds light on the lives of enslaved women.
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Brazil Enslaved

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Brazil Enslaved

Brazil Enslaved

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Brazil is believed to have one of the largest archives of photographs of slavery in the world. Slavery ended so late in Brazil in 1888 and coincided with the beginning of photography. Many of the pictures are unknown outside of Brazil. One institution opened up their photo library to NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: I'm at the Moreira Salles Institute in Rio de Janeiro, and curator Sergio Bruni arranges 30 images on a large conference table in front of me. The pictures are all really distinctive, but they have one thing in common - they are all photos of enslaved women in Brazil.

SERGIO BRUNI: Some of them are almost staged photographs, and all of them are completely conscious of the photographer.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In most of them, the subjects are staring straight at the camera. They show the three main spheres women occupied at the end of slavery here. They worked in the fields, and Bruni says you can see in one image an enslaved woman is breast-feeding her child surrounded by other fieldworkers who are all barefoot. It was actually not allowed for slaves to wear shoes in Brazil.

BRUNI: You realize, because of the presence of the kids and the women, how this relationship about being a mother in that situation was completely stressful because you would carry to the fields all the young kids, and they would have to be there for probably the whole day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The second were urban slaves. The images from the institute show women selling food on the street. In one picture, a group of three women, who are wearing turbans, sit against a stone wall with baskets of plantains in front of them. The slaves were allowed to sell produce that they may have cultivated on their day of rest as long as the majority of the profit was returned to the master. And then there's the third group of images.

MARIA ELENA MACHADO: So women inside the houses - the domestic workers, the nannies carrying babies.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: To be clear, these women are carrying white babies. That's Maria Elena Machado, one of the foremost experts on slavery in Brazil. In one image, the slave nanny is sitting with her white charge in her lap. She's well dressed in a pristine, white headdress and an off-the-shoulder blouse, wearing bracelets and rings and necklaces. The image was probably commissioned by the family as a memento. Machado says, though, that there are tiny ghosts in these pictures. Where are the black babies of these women? They're rarely seen. Machado says house slaves were much more vulnerable under slavery.

MACHADO: Women were in danger to be raped, to be abused, to have to have children inside the master house.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Machado says she researched the case of one enslaved woman who was being used as a wet-nurse for her white charge.

MACHADO: This nanny - her name was Ambrosina - was a very young girl. She had a son named Benedito, and by ironic coincidence, the white charge was named - is called Benedito as well. And she had to breast-feed these two babies.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Machado says she didn't have enough milk for both of them. Her child was forced to drink unpasteurized cow's milk.

MACHADO: At the end, she was so, so tired, so desperate...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That she put a cloth in the white baby's mouth to quiet it, and it sucked so hard on it that it got caught in its throat and the white baby died. It's not really clear from the records what happened to the woman after she was jailed and put on trial, but Machado says the story shows the incredible stress these women were under when trying to deal with being a mother and a slave. But actually being able to keep your own child with you and nurse it was rare. Machado says research has shown that an overwhelming percentage of enslaved wet-nurses in Rio had been separated from their own child. Many were then rented out by their owners to suckle other children. It was actually a huge industry in Rio, she says. Newspapers at the time regularly advertised the service. In 1888, slavery ended in Brazil, but...

MACHADO: After abolition, the habit to have a nanny inside the house remained.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And this is where the links between slavery and modern Brazil are most obvious, she says. In Brazil today, at least 600,000 people are formally registered as domestic staff - nannies, cooks, cleaners - and of those, 96 percent are women. More than half of those women, according to recent statistics, are from the blacker, poorer sectors of society. The nannies now who work with the wealthy are all obliged to wear white uniforms. And if you look at the pictures in the Moreira Salles Institute, you can see that that tradition began with slavery in Brazil. Sonia dos Santos is a professor and an activist with the black women's group Criola. I showed her the images and I asked her what she thought of them. She said it reminded her of a statistic she'd recently heard.

SONIA DOS SANTOS: Today, 1 in 5 black women works as a domestic worker.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So when you look at these images you see the clear history between what women were doing during slavery and what women are doing now?

DOS SANTOS: Yeah. And now - so this social condition of inferiority that is more than just because they are domestic workers. It's because they are black and because they are women.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says there still needs to be a profound change in Brazil. As for the pictures themselves, curator Sergio Bruni says we know a lot more about the white men who took the pictures - all famous photographers of the era - than about their subjects. Bruni says many show enslaved women who were dressed up and shot in a studio for pictures that were then sold commercially.

BRUNI: You are looking to individuals in a way, and that's very powerful that only photography, sort of like, brings to you. But it's always ambiguous also in the sense that doesn't tell the whole story.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: History has forgotten these women's names, if it ever even knew them. But their legacy - that story - is still being told in Brazil today. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Rio.

SIMON: You can see some of the images from that exhibit at our website,

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