SLAVERY & TRANSATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE
At the end of the 18th century, Brazil encountered something of crisis. The economy of the vast and overwhelmingly rural Portuguese colony was totally dependent on agriculture and mining, industries fueled by enslaved African labour. For almost three centuries, Brazil had been locked into the Portuguese mercantilist economic system by which it was forbidden from having any meaningful commercial contact with foreign powers, while it occupied one of the vertices of the ‘triangle trade’, whereby slaves were sent to Brazil from Portuguese Africa, Brazil produced raw materials for export to Portugal, while Portugal provided both Brazil and its African domains with European manufactured goods. This system was dominated by inefficient monopolies and nepotistic cartels, and Brazil was legally prevented from diversifying its economy beyond the natural resources demanded by Portugal (i.e., it was barred from engaging in any meaningful manufacturing). Thus, Brazil’s economy, while large, was developmentally arrested, and highly vulnerable due to its excessive dependance upon a few key sectors and markets, which in turn were built upon the backs of slaves.
Brazil’s elites were starting to grumble about the lackluster and ossified condition of the colonial economy, while the abolitionist movement, which sought to ban both the Transatlantic slave trade, if not slavery itself, was gaining momentum in liberal circles in Europe, including in some quarters in Lisbon (indeed, in 1807 Britain would seek to enforce global ban on the maritime slave trade). Wedded to a fragile economic system that was totally dependent upon slavery, Brazil was in a perilous position. Indeed, any serious limitations on slavery would seemingly pose a mortal danger to the Brazilian society and economy.
Enter José de Azeredo Coutinho and The Brazilian Enlightenment Defense of Slavery
José Joaquim da Cunha de Azeredo Coutinho (1742 – 1821) was one of the brightest stars in the intellectual-political firmament of Portugal and late colonial Brazil. One of the leaders of the Brazilian Enlightenment, he was a groundbreaking economist, historian and philosopher. A native of Brazil, he was one of the first figures to call for the colony to be given more autonomy so that it could reach is economic and social potential, albeit with in the Portuguese imperial system (he was always a loyal subject of the Portuguese crown). His writings were critical in laying the groundwork for Brazilian sovereignty and, as such, he was (intentionally) the forefather of Brazilian independence, which was achieved only the year after his death.
Azeredo Coutinho was born in Campos dos Goitacazes, Rio de Janeiro province, the first son of one of the wealthiest sugar planters in the region. Inheriting the family estate in 1768, a cerebral man, he soon grew bored with rural, agrarian life, and upon transferring the estate to his brother, he left for Portugal to pursue an ecclesiastical-academic career. In 1775, he enrolled at the prestigious canon law programme at the University of Coimbra, which had recently switched to a modern Enlightenment curriculum. Upon his graduation and taking orders, Azeredo Coutinho’s uncommon brilliance was recognized by his superiors, and he enjoyed exceptionally rapid advancement in the church, eventually becoming one of the most powerful and influential figures in the Portuguese Empire. He was appointed Deputy of the Inquisition of Lisbon (1785), Bishop of Pernambuco, Brazil (1794), the interim Governor of Pernambuco (1798), the Bishop of Elvas (1806-1818), and in 1818, as the Inquisitor General of the Holy Office of Portugal.
However, despite his place at the top of the Portuguese-Brazilian establishment, Azeredo Coutinho was unapologetically outspoken, holding many controversial views that led him to have many enemies in government, the colonial commercial oligarchy and the liberal pan-European intellectual establishment (ex. he was despised by the French philosophes, and the feeling was mutual). However, he also had powerful, ardent supporters, including the Prince Regent of Portugal, Dom João. Elected to join the Royal Academy of Sciences of Lisbon (1792), he became one of its most important contributors.
Azeredo Coutinho’s first influential published work was the Ensaio economico sobre o commercio de Portugal e suas colonias (Lisbon: Academia das Sciencias,1794), whereupon he boldly suggested that Brazil should be given more autonomy to develop its economy and trade, while still remaining a loyal part of the Portuguese empire. He also mounted a defense of slavery, although not as forcefully as in the present work.
Azeredo Coutinho’s most important, consequential and controversial work is the present Analyse sur la justice du commerce du rachat des esclaves de la côte d’Afrique, in which he mounts perhaps the most intellectually powerful defense of slavery of the late Enlightenment era. He employs two distinct, but mutually complimentary, strains of argument. First, Azeredo Coutinho made an economic case that, simply put, stated that slavery was integral to the exitance of the Brazilian (and by extension, the Portuguese) economy and without it, the colony would collapse. While he argued that slaves should be more humanely treated, he asserted that there was no possibility that Brazil could adjust to a ban on the Transatlantic slave trade, or any serious restrictions upon the employment of slavery within Brazil.
Second, he made moral arguments, based on relativism, or ‘practical ethics’, that countered the notion the slavery was inimical to ‘Natural Law’, and that the benefits gained from slavery outweighed the injustices. Here he places the French philosophes squarely in his crosshairs, asserting that there is no innate right to freedom, but that the right of man is mitigated by the needs of the society in which he lived. While densely populated, developed Europe had no need of slavery in modern times, rural, relatively sparsely populated Brazil required an enslaved workforce. He argued for the ‘lesser evil’ in that in some places, such as Brazil, some would have to be enslaved, so that the majority could prosper. Countering the popular argument that slavery was a product of the modern colonial world, Azeredo Coutinho noted that slavery had existed in almost all societies since ancient times, and thus it was a necessary and integral part of humanity.
The story behind the publication of the Analyse is fascinating. Azeredo Coutinho completed his manuscript in 1796, and submitted it to the Lisbon Academy of Sciences for printing. However, the society’s censor refused to publish it, which also meant that it was backlisted throughout Portugal. The reasons for the censure were that, with abolitionist sentiment on the rise in Europe, the Portuguese authorities (who wished to avoid anything that would encourage international attention upon their country’s massive role in the global slave trade) simply did not want to fan the flames with such an explosive work. It was moreover felt that even if slavery was necessary, it was still a ‘cause that inherently defended itself badly’, and thus silence was golden. The Academy was clearly quite adamant that the book should be supressed, as they were silencing one of their most prominent members, who happened to hold the high office of Bishop of Pernambuco.
Azeredo Coutinho, then translated his work into French (a language then read by the majority of the European elite, including those in Portugal), so that it could reach the largest possible audience, and had it published in London, as Britain had lax censorship laws (which was a touch ironic, given that Britain was then on the forefront of banning the slave trade). Thus, the present first edition appeared in 1798, off the press of T. Baylis, a Holborn printer who specialized in French language publications (there were many Gallic authors in London, exiled by the French Revolution).
It was not until 1808 that the Portuguese authorities allowed the second edition, issued in Portuguese, as the Analyse sobre a justiça do commercio do resgate dos escravos da costa da Africa, novamente revista, e acrescentada (Lisbon: Na Nova Officina de João Rodrigues Neves, 1808), to be pushed domestically. Their change of heart was due the different political circumstances brought about by the hangover from the French and Haitian Revolutions and the brief but traumatic French occupation of Portugal (November 1807 to August 1808), which caused the Portuguese elite to seek solace in tradition and conformity. Azeredo Coutinho’s defense of slavery were seen being in line with the ethic of ‘continuity’.
Azeredo Coutinho’s Analyse proved to be massively influential. Its first appearance in 1798 ignited a firestorm in academic and government circles across Europe and in Brazil. It gave succor the beleaguered stakeholders in the Portuguese and other empires who depended upon slavery for their livelihoods, while the bishop’s ingenious and methodical ‘takedown’ of the hitherto unassailable moral arguments against slavery outraged abolitionists and philosophes alike. The appearance of the Portuguese edition in 1808, the year after Britain announced its intention to ban the Transatlantic slave trade, only renewed the furor.
The Analyse had a profound and enduring legacy in that in Brazil during the pre- and post- independence eras, it provided those who favoured the continuation of slavery with what would have contemporarily been considered compelling practical and moral arguments in their favour. In line with the ideological fervour for ‘liberty’ that came with the Brazilian independence movement, especially in the major cities, there developed a growing clamour for the abolition of slavery, or, at the very least, severe curbs on the institution. Azeredo Coutinho’s writing powerfully countered these sentiments, such that slavery become a cornerstone of the newly independent nation, such that Brazil would became the last major country to liberate its slaves, in 1888, ninety sears after the Analyse appeared.
A Note on Rarity
While we can locate around 15 to 20 examples of the present first edition (London, 1798) of the Analyse, held by institutions worldwide, the work is exceedingly rare commercially. We cannot trace any sales or auction records from the last 25 years. It seems that many of the institutions that today hold the book acquired them many years ago when examples were still obtainable. The second edition (Lisbon, 1808) is also rare. It is worth noting that the present example is stellar, in excellent condition, preserving in its contemporary wrappers.
References: Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal (2 examples): S.C. 7409//6 V. and S.C. 11805//3 P.; Universidade Federal da Bahia: 326.1(469) C871; Bibliothèque Nationale de France: 8-H-14341 (18); Princeton University: 7890874; John Carter Brown Library: 1-SIZE C798 .C972a; Yale University: 2013 951; New York Public Library: Sc Rare 326.1-C (Cunha de Azeredo Coutinho, J. J. da. Analyse sur la justice); Library of Congress: HT1322 .C83; University of California-Los Angeles: RLF ; HT1322 .C91a; OCLC: 6476384 and 520871228; Cornell University: Rare Books HT1322 .C87 1798; Senate House Library, University of London: [G.L.] 1798 17422; BORBA DE MORAIS, Bibliographia brasiliana, 1, 231; Goldsmiths’-Kress no. 17422; INNOCÊNCIO, IV, 385; SACRAMENTO BLAKE, IV, 477-8; Kirsten SCHULTZ, Slavery, Empire and Civilization: A Luso-Brazilian Defense of the Slave Trade in the Age of Revolutions, Slavery & Abolition, vol. 34, no. 1 (2013), 98-117; Maria do Rosário PIMENTEL, O bispo de Elvas D. José Joaquim da Cunha de Azeredo Coutinho e a defesa da escravatura (Évora, 2011), pp. 193-208; Ronald RAMINELLI, ‘Reformadores da escravidão: Brasil e Cuba c. 1790 e 1840’, Varia Historia, Belo Horizonte, vol. 37, n. 73, p. 119-154.