Keeping Memory Alive: Brazil, Confederados, and the Legacy of Slavery

By Nick Tarchis ’18

The Fourth of July is the most recognizable celebration of American identity. In the midst of the summer heat we wrap our homes in red, white, and blue; come together to watch fireworks; and celebrate the birth of our nation. In some parts of the world, however, American identity is represented by a different time and creed. Such is the case with the city of Americana in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where celebrations of the United States are overshadowed by Confederate memory. Some of our readers may have heard of the Confederados, a group of former Rebels who fled to Brazil in the aftermath of the Civil War to rebuild their dream of preserving the American South. But why did they choose Brazil, and how did they create an identity that is still present today?

In the last days of the war, Northern and Southern leaders turned their thoughts toward the nation’s future with the imminent Confederate surrender. Union politicians and military leaders wondered what they were going to do with the leaders of the rebellion; would they welcome back their former countrymen with open arms or take action against the traitors? Jefferson Davis and other Southern leaders carried on their cause, avoiding Union troops in hopes of re-establishing the Confederate Government. Some Confederates continued to fight, holding out against the Federals until they ran out of ammunition or escape routes.

At Appomattox, Grant offered a pardon to the Army of Northern Virginia; men returned home, as did officers, as long as they took an oath of loyalty and promised to never raise arms against the American people again. However, some Confederate leaders still fled. Many former officers had been members of the Southern gentry, so they took their families and what remained of their past lives and chose to find new homes in the hope of continuing the spirit of the old South. The aristocracy of the antebellum South had been shattered at the outbreak of the war, as Federal blockades prevented many plantation owners from exporting cotton and other goods, and as the war dragged on, the economy and population plummeted. Thus, some former officers and gentry had no interest in starting a new life in a devastated South where slavery was now illegal and they would not be able to reclaim the political and socio-economic status they enjoyed prior to the war.

Many former Confederates fled to Egypt and Mexico, but the largest group of Confederates settled in Brazil. Some wanted to put distance between themselves and the United States to avoid the eye of the Federal Government, while others hoped to find economic success. Those who went to Egypt looked to continue their military careers. However, Brazil was the ideal location for most of these families, as it was a planter’s paradise with rich soil and legalized slavery. Confederados and Brazilians both acquired slaves through importation as well as through domestic human trafficking. Experienced planters had the potential to regain the economic bounty that they had in the antebellum South, and some did, prospering for a number of years until 1888, when slavery was abolished in Brazil.

While they might not have achieved all their fiscal goals, the Confederates who fled to Brazil had much better lives than their counterparts who stayed in the states. Before 1865, Southerners’ slave-based economy not only granted them domestic economic dominance but also stood placed them at the forefront of the international cotton trade. The real reward for the former Confederates now in Brazil was that they could maintain their Confederate identities by continuing to exploit slave labor and bringing themselves back to economic prominence, whereas their American counterparts had to rely on free labor. Doing so, Confederados kept themselves closer to their prewar identities by continuing to use slave labor without any disturbance from the Brazilian Government, as the Emperor welcomed them in the aftermath of the war with open arms, recognizing the economic opportunities they brought with them to Brazil. With a government-sanctioned welcome, the Confederados could start the new life they sought.

confederados
Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

If the goal of the Confederados was to keep Confederate memory alive, they were extremely successful. Confederate memory, or the version that Brazilians were exposed to, seems to have persisted to the present day with an annual festival held in Americana reflecting Confederate Memory the way Brazil remembers. Every year in Sao Paulo, the descendants of the Confederate immigrants meet to celebrate their heritage in ways similar to our own Civil War community. There are period-themed dances and other activities, and, of course, people wear the gray that their ancestors once did. We might recognize this from our own celebrations, such as reenactments and Civil War dances. Those who chose to flee to Brazil did not know what the process of reconstruction and reconciliation would look like in the 19th century or how they, as ex-Confederates, would be contested in history and memory 150 years later. There are parallels in modern-day Brazilian and American attitudes; in both countries, there seems to be a rallying cry to preserve history and heritage above all else, despite opposition claiming that we should not remember the Confederacy in such a positive light. When questioned about the issue of slavery, the residents of Americana had no response; they did not see slavery and the Confederacy as one and the same. Many claimed they did not want to make their ancestry political.

confederados ii
Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

Over the last several years, the area of Sao Paolo has been plagued by a number of issues, namely illegal labor and immigration. The government raided a series of factories and warehouses where they found hundreds of Bolivian immigrants working in sweatshops in inhumane conditions. However, the people of Americana continue to keep the memory of their ancestors alive with Southern ballads and plenty of grey. At the same time, in their back yard, a form of modern-day slavery has taken hold, exposing the irony that over 150 years later, slave labor is used to try to bring economic prosperity to the area. Unfortunately it seems that the area of Sao Paulo is still grappling with the use of illegal labor as the government is still combating illegal labor and the issues of illegal immigration. While they do not wish to bring politics into their ancestry, if they are going to wear the grey and display Confederate memorabilia, they should be prepared to discuss the continuing issue.


Sources:

Dawsey, Cyrus B. The Confederados: Old South Immigrants in Brazil (Tuscolosa, University of Alabama, 1995).

Dwyer, Mimi. “The Brazilian Town Where the American Confederacy Lives on.” Vice. February 5, 2013.

Esposito, Karina. “Confederate Immigration to Brazil: A Cross-Cultural Approach to Reconstruction and Public History.” Public History Review 22 (2015.)

Ibercio-Lozada, Lucas. “In Sweatshops, the ‘Brazilian Dream’ Goes Awry.” Reuters. September 1, 2013.

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