Sunday, April 28, 2013

Lady in a litter being carried by her slaves, province of São Paulo in Brazil, ca.1860

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 These are actually manumitted slaves. They borrowed the clothes and the picture is actually a sign of wealth rather than the clothes themselves. Furthermore, it's actually a reversal in that the woman is sitting in the litter as an act of freedom and success after slavery (to be sitting where her oppressors once sat). It's a posed photograph and statement about being manumitted rather than a picture of a woman posing with her slaves.

Interestingly, there was a law in place for quite some time that freed slaves could not disrespect their former owners or else their manumission would be declared void and they'd go back into slavery, this was one way of sticking it to the man.

To answer the question of why they are dressed up but shoeless - it's part of the old custom of using shoes to denote class, position, or wealth. It was highly traditional that slaves be barefooted. Some countries went so far as to mandate that slaves always be without shoes.

Freedom, of course, did not alter much of the external appearance of African-born ex-slaves; they could not be easily distinguished from their enslaved counterparts, who constituted the majority of the African-born population. Whether enslaved or freed, most had been born free in Africa, and their shared cultural otherness distinguished them from the Brazilian-born population of African descent. There were only a few visible signs of their newly acquired free status. First, ex-slave street laborers who worked in gangs, as porters, transporters, and artisans were not chained at the ankle or neck. Second, ex-slaves were entitled to wear shoes; the British lady Maria Graham describes shoes as the "mark of freedom" in her travel journal. Perhaps with their shoes on, African-born slaves of both sexes continued to work with their co-workers of African birth, both slaves and ex-slaves, side by slide, and were engaged in the same occupations as when they had been enslaved. Their jobs could have been stigmatized by association with slavery, and the free-born population may not have wished to take them up. But it was African-born people's unique occupational skills that enabled them to earn extra money as slaves and to purchase their freedom in the end.
Reference: Slavery and identity: ethnicity, gender, and race in Salvador, Brazil, 1808-1888 by Mieko Nishida

 Fun Fact: When a litter has a roof, it's called a palanquin

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