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The Tangle of Enslavement, in Brazil and at Harvard

Martine Jean
Courtesy of Martine Jean

Martine Jean joined the Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery initiative as a research fellow late last year. A historian of 19th-century Brazil, slavery, emancipation, race, and citizenship in the Atlantic world, she completed her doctorate in history and African American studies at Yale University and worked as an assistant professor of Latin American history at the University of South Carolina. She previously held fellowships from the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment of the Humanities, the Social Science Research Council, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, and the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Jean has published research in Atlantic Studies: Global Currents, the International Review of Social History, the Journal of Social History, and Slavery & Abolition. Her book manuscript, titled Policing Freedom: Confinement, Labor, Race and Citizenship in Nineteenth-Century Brazil and currently under review at the University of Texas Press, probes the entanglement of human trafficking, slavery, abolition, and mass incarceration in postcolonial Brazil. A second book in progress investigates the legal case to emancipate 423 enslaved Africans from the slaver Maria da Gloria, which was adjudicated in Rio de Janeiro and Sierra Leone in 1833–1834.

We spoke to her about her work and how it aligns with the initiative.

What drew you to the study of slavery and associated citizenship issues—and especially in 19th-century Brazil?

I became interested in studying Brazil because it received a majority of the estimated 11 million enslaved Africans from the slave trade. Brazil is also significant as the last country to abolish slavery in 1888. As a result of the slave trade, Brazil has the largest population of people of African descent outside of Africa. It is an important cultural landscape of the African diaspora and a significant site to study transformations in slavery over time as well as the problems of citizenship for ex-slaves and their descendants. Many of the legacies of slavery that we are familiar with in the United States—structural racism; income, health, and educational inequality; violent policing; and racialized mass incarceration—are also very much part of the reality for Afro-Brazilians despite some locally distinct manifestations of these problems.

"Harvard University is an old institution whose history, like that of the penitentiary in Brazil, is entangled with the history of colonization, slavery, and its abolition as well as the aftermath of emancipation, when citizenship and racist ideologies became important issues."

Can you discuss the connections between your area of study and the work going on at Harvard?

I just completed my book manuscript, Policing Freedom, on the entanglement of slave labor and the construction of Latin America’s first penitentiary in Brazil. The prison was not only a site to punish the enslaved but was also built by its residents, which included free persons and enslaved Africans, a segment of whom were known as liberated Africans and were transferred from slave vessels to the prison. Slave labor was central to the construction of the penitentiary in Rio and was vital to the economic, administrative, and political life of Rio as then the Brazilian capital. I see the work that I do with Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery as an extension of my vested interests in contributing to public history projects that demonstrate the significance of colonization and slave labor to the development of institutions that we do not readily associate with that history, such as penitentiaries, museums, and universities. Harvard University is an old institution whose history, like that of the penitentiary in Brazil, is entangled with the history of colonization, slavery, and its abolition as well as the aftermath of emancipation, when citizenship and racist ideologies became important issues. 

What are your hopes for this initiative and its impact at the University and beyond?

Under the leadership of Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, our goal is to produce a report that demonstrates the University’s entanglement with the history of colonization and of slavery in the United States and other places in the Americas that thrived on chattel slavery. This is, as you know, the continuation of previous initiatives to recognize this history, starting with Sven Beckert’s undergraduate seminar on the legacy of slavery at Harvard and other research activities that focused on specific schools. The current initiative builds on this previous research but aims to be comprehensive by discussing the legacy of slavery throughout Harvard’s historyStudents come from throughout the world to get a world-class education at Harvard and many of them become leaders in their own communities. One of my hopes is that this report and other activities associated with it transform the Harvard experience for students, alumni, and faculty alike, and that we can recognize and honor the memory of those whose blood and sweat produced the wealth that contributed to the University’s success. Since the report will also address the complicity of scientists at Harvard in the development of race science in the 19th century and in shaping policies to deny African Americans citizenship, my hope is that this history also becomes part of the University’s curriculum and its commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Interview was edited for clarity and length.

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