The Politics of Race in Independence-Era Bahia: The Black Militia Officers of Salvador, 1790-1840
Relations with the state have long posed especially difficult questions for Afro-Bahians. From the 1790s to the end of the 1830s, one group of black men, the officers of Salvador’s black militia regiment, struggled to define their place in the Brazilian state during its transition from colonial absolutist regime to independent and nominally liberal empire. With one foot in the white world of the state apparatus and another firmly planted in the urban free black community, these men straddled one of the deep divides in colonial society. Products of the corporate model of colonial society by which the state sought links to elites through the militia, black officers viewed with suspicion the liberal ideals that gradually undermined the colo nial compact. To be sure, liberalism promised an end to the discrimination embodied in the colonial regime but it also threatened their special status. Justifiably suspicious of elite spokesmen who suddenly advocated such ideals, black officers envisaged an independent Brazil in which they, by virtue of their patriotic services during the independence war, would play a special role as leaders and representatives of Afro-Brazilians. For a brief period, the Brazilian state appeared to adopt such a populist policy but, in the late 1820s, it collapsed under the impact of liberal reforms that resulted in the abolition of the militia in 1831. Such liberal reforms, rather than opening the state to free black Brazilians, further marginalized them, prompting Bahia’s black officers to rethink their support for the Brazilian empire and to redefine their ideology. During the 1830s, they bitterly con demned elitist upper-class liberalism and called for the restoration of black
military institutions to defend their version of a more inclusive liberalism. After attempting to implement their program in the Sabinada Rebellion of 1837-38, Bahia’s black officers were brutally repressed and excluded from the historical record, although they lived on in popular memory. Known as Henrique Dias Regiments, or more simply as the Henriques,
after the black hero of the seventeenth-century wars against the Dutch, black militia regiments were common in late-colonial Brazilian cities, exist ing alongside white and mulatto regiments.1 Militia expansion was part of the colonial state-formation process in which the Portuguese monarchy con ferred military status on Brazilian elites and sought to turn them into state agents, a process that turned colonial government into a condominium be tween local elites and the crown.2 In their own way, subordinate to the larger structures of racial discrimination and segregation integral to the colonial regime, the black artisans (an important urban Afro-Bahian elite) appointed to posts in the militia thus participated in the state-formation process. This article analyzes the personal, professional, and political trajectory of
a black elite during a period of rapid social, political, and institutional change. Those searching for heroes in the past will find the story of Bahia’s black officers troubling; their opposition to political movements that sought profound transformations of Brazilian society in the 1790s and 1820s might lead readers to dismiss them as simply the product of military segregation or apartheid. To do so, however, would be to miss an opportunity to under stand the complex dynamics of Brazilian racial politics and the ways in which class, status, and national origins structured Afro-Bahia. The paucity of black institutions in Brazilian society-often cited as an explanation for the weakness of the black movement in that country, as compared to the United States-makes a study of the black militia all the more important. Bahia’s black officers calculated that maintaining black institutions was better than achieving an abstract liberal ideal of equality at the cost of black military power; the Brazilian government’s abolition of the militia in 1831 turned them into leaders of a black “movement” that culminated in the Sabinada Rebellion.