‘Pretos’ and ‘Pardos’ between the Cross and the Sword: Racial Categories in Seventeenth Century Brazil

‘Pretos’ and ‘Pardos’ between the Cross and the Sword: Racial Categories in Seventeenth Century Brazil

European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Number 80 (April 2006) Constructing Ethnic Labels
pages 43-55

Hebe Mattos, Professor of History and Coordinator of the LABHOI/UFF Memory of Slavery Oral History Project
University Federal Fluminense, Brazil

This paper discusses the meanings of ‘race’ in the Portuguese empire on the basis of two historical case studies. The twin processes of miscegenation, in the biological sense, and cultural intermixing has engendered intermediate strata that have long stimulated the imagination of historians. In Brazilian historiography, considerable emphasis has been given to the invention of the ‘mulato’, as proposed by Alencastro (2000, 345-356), and the ethnogenesis of the ‘pardo’ in Portuguese America, as described in an article by Schwartz (1996). Compared to these interpretations of the emergence of these intermediate categories in Portuguese America, the two cases presented here appear to suggest a more central role for the early demographic impact of access to manumission in colonial society and the possibilities for social mobility among the free peoples of African descent.

Europeans and Africans in the Portuguese Empire

Mixing between Europeans and Africans in the Portuguese Empire produced hierarchical categories for racial gradations during the seventeenth century. Only in this period were the categories ‘mulato’ and ‘pardo’ included in the regulations for Purity of Blood (Estatutos de Pureza de Sangue), which determined who could have access to the same honours and privileges that the old Christian Portuguese received. From the seventeenth century onwards, those regulations stipulated that ‘no one of the race of Jew, Moor or Mulato’ (Raça alguma de Judeu, Mouro ou Mulato) was eligible to receive certain honours and privileges from the crown (Carneiro 1988, cap. 2; Lahon 2001, 516-520).

At least up to the second half of the eighteenth century, the expansion of the Portuguese empire was based on a corporativist conception of society and power. Society was considered an integrated organism, with a natural order and hierarchy created by divine will. The king, as the head of this body, was responsible for distributing favours according to the functions and privileges of each of its members, thereby exercising justice in the name of God. According to Xavier and Hespanha (1993, 130), ‘from a social point of view, corporativism contributes to the image of a strictly hierarchical society, because in a naturally ordered society, the irreducibility of social functions leads to the irreducibility of legal and institutional statutes’.  In historical reality, the continuous expansion of Portuguese society in the colonial period tended to create a myriad of subdivisions and classifications within the traditional representation of the three medieval orders (clergy, nobility and the common people), by expanding the nobility and its privileges, redefining functions, and subdividing the common people into ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ states (the latter included the ofícios mecânicos, or manual trades).

This ongoing transformation was not limited to territory in Europe, but had ramifications throughout a vast empire, which expanded in the name of spreading the Catholic faith. In this process of contact with other peoples, legal concepts were developed to deal with the new groups who converted to Catholicism and thus integrated into the body of the empire. Since at least the fifteenth century, in addition to restrictions on those who practiced the ‘manual trades’, the concept of cleanliness of blood determined differentiations among the common people and limited the expansion of the nobility, imposing a range of restrictions on the descendants of Jews, Moors and Gypsies. The restrictions based on the ‘purity of blood statutes’, enacted later in Portugal than in Spain, date back to the Ordenações Afonsinas of 1446-7 (Carneiro 1988, chap. 2; Lahon 2001, 516-520)…

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