Deporting Dixie to Brazil

After the defeat of the Confederacy, thousands of Americans decided to emigrate to Brazil. They dreamed of building a new slave-owning society in a country almost as large as continental America with plenty of undeveloped land. Ironically, their presence would highlight slavery as an issue and lead to its eventual abolition in Brazil.

The Economist’s 2013 Christmas Special tells the story of the murder of Joaquim Firmino de Araújo Cunha. The story goes on to show how America and Brazil were “once bound together by slavery, and how the end of the peculiar institution in one country helped, in a roundabout way, end it in another.”

Ruins of Richmond, VA., 1865

For those in favour of slavery, or at least to the way of life that the ‘peculiar institution’ permitted, the defeat of the southern Confederate States of America by unionist forces in 1865 was a calamity. Would they stay in their home states to watch their antebellum way of life destroyed? Or should they move on to find a new and more permissive home?

Some moved west, convinced that if slavery were no longer to be permitted within the United States it was better to live in newly settled lands without a neighbouring and hostile freed black population. For some, however, this was merely a new form of servitude. Those completely wedded to slavery had one real option – to move to Brazil.

The Economist summarises the mindset of these new colonialists, “They looked farther south, to Brazil: a country that, before the purchase of Alaska at the end of the 1860s, was as big as America, and which was one of the few remaining places where a white man could own slaves as was God’s intention, revealed in the book of Genesis.”

The idea was not confined to a handful of crackpot slaveowners. It wasn’t even just defeated Confederates that thought there was wisdom in resettling America’s black population. President Lincoln is known to have favoured various schemes for resettlement, including  considering “the mass deportation of freed African-Americans to the Caribbean”. According to the Economist, the Great Emancipator was, momentarily, “particularly keen on sending them to Belize and Guyana”.

Joseph Withaker and Isabel Norris - two of the first emigrants See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Brazil took on a “powerful appeal to southerners” after their defeat in the Civil War. It promised an enticing combination of new opportunities but also the maintenance of a way of life that had marked out the American south for generations.

Some of the prospective settlers needed guidance on what was, after all, a strange and foreign land. According to the Economist, “in 1866 the Reverend Ballard Dunn published “Brazil, a Home for Southerners””.

Dunn, suitably enough for an episcopal minister, would practice what he preached. He founded a small colony in São Paulo state, naming it ‘Lizzieland’, to commemorate his dead wife.  Around 10,000 southerners followed Dunn’s example and moved to Brazil in the 1860s and 1870s.

As well as the push factors from America, there were enticing pulls from the very top of Brazilian society. Emperor Dom Pedro II was keen to promote immigration, seeing it as a way of turbocharging the moribund Brazilian planter economy. As well as a warm welcome, Dom Pedro’s government was able to offer cheap land, tax breaks and even subsidised transport.

Of course, there was also perhaps the chance to continue owning slaves. This did not seem to the primary motivation of the settlors, who were usually from the bottom rungs of society and moved more out of fear of what would happen in post-war America than out of the desire to own slaves.

In fact, a descendant of one of the original settlors noted that, “maybe ten Confederates in these parts purchases Brazilian slaves, but that’s all. American settlers weren’t pro-slavery die-hards; many were just looking for better economic opportunities.”

Some of the emigrants would be shocked that Brazil was not a carbon copy of the strictly segregated societies they had left behind. Some settlors “imagined they would find in Brazil, a slave-holding country, the same segregation between whites and blacks.”

Jimmy Carter meeting fifth generation descendants of the Confedarados in Brazil

They would soon be disabused of this notion, finding out that “even in that day, within the Second Empire’s society of landed estates and slaves, factors were at work which were to contribute to the peaceful solution of slavery and to the nonexistence of segregation in Brazil.”

There were some successes, with settlers reporting back on the conditions they found in Brazil:

“I have sugar cane, cotton, pumpkins, squash, five kinds of sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, cornfield peas, snap beans, butter beans, ochre, tomatoes and fine chance at tobacco. I have a great variety of fruits on my place. I have made enough to live well on and am better pleased than other.”

Some settlers were not as impressed and many returned to America. But some established themselves and integrated into Brazilian society. Today, descendants of confederate emigrants can still be found in Brazil and their name betrays their American origins – they are known as the Confederados.