Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

The Confederados

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on July 12, 2020

There have been a lot of articles over the years on the confederados, descendants of the southerners who emigrated to Brazil after the Civil War, hoping to recreate their plantation-based culture in a new region. This included slaveholding, of course, that remained legal in Brazil for another two decades after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in the United States. Most articles have been pretty shallow, treating the confederados like a quaint curiosity, a people and culture caught in a time bubble, a little part of the old Confederacy that survives in an out-of-the-way spot in the Southern Hemisphere. That’s a pretty silly notion, of course; the confederados of 2020 are Brazilians through and through, who attend a Confederate-themed festival every year. They’re like someone who puts on a kilt to go to a renaissance fair every year, but has never been to Scotland, and mainly knows Scots culture from repeated viewings of Braveheart. The annual Festa Confederada in Brazil is history-themed cosplay, Gone with the Wind meets the Carnaval in Rio.

More importantly, the confederados are now facing their own reckoning on issues of race — not the same ones we deal with here in the United States, but their own, very different racial structures and cultural traditions, that are unique to Brazil. It’s pretty fascinating:

Brazilians in recent weeks have demanded the removal of the notorious statue in São Paulo of a 17th-century settler who enslaved indigenous people. Protests for black equality have rumbled through several cities. And in Americana and Santa Bárbara d’Oeste, the cities founded by the Confederates, Brazilians who have never been to the United States are increasingly asking questions piercingly familiar to Americans: Where should the Confederacy be remembered — on a flagpole, or in a museum?

“My mind has been opened to the questions,” said [Marina Lee] Colbachini, 35, whose middle name pays homage to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. She attended the festival for most of her life, but has now stopped going. Despite worrying what her community might think, she has begun asking that the flag be taken down.

“It represents my family’s traditions,” she said. “But in the entire world, in the United States, they know what it also represents.”

The debate has simmered for years. On one side is the Fraternity of American Descendants, the group that throws the annual party, tends to the Confederate cemetery grounds and promotes a Lost Cause orthodoxy reminiscent of the most ardent Confederacy apologists. On the other is the Black Union for Equality (UNEGRO), which has been leading a community charge to strip the festival of the flag considered by many to be a symbol of hate and repression.

In what might be the farthest outpost of the American culture wars, a new battle over the Confederate flag is only just beginning.

A mass exodus in search of land and slaves

The newspapers called it “Brazilian fever.” With the war lost, thousands of Southerners, fearful of living under Northern rule among freed slaves, were seeking other opportunities. Some pushed for Mexico. Others for Venezuela. But Brazil, which wouldn’t abolish slavery for another 23 years, proved to be the most attractive of countries.

Emperor Dom Pedro II, a fierce advocate of the South during the war, tried to induce their immigration, offering free transport, cheap land and an easy path to citizenship. Before long, Southerners sailed out from New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., for Rio de Janeiro. Eventually, between 8,000 and 20,000 immigrated.

“Move here and buy land,” Col. Charles Gunter urged in a letter to the Charleston Mercury newspaper in 1868. “We have here a beautiful place for our village, in the center of rich land, and on a grand river.”

But historians say one of the central draws was a country where Southerners could freeze time and continue a lifestyle that had been put to a violent end in the United States. In journals, one bragged about how inexpensive Brazilian slaves were; another lamented that they couldn’t bring recently freed American slaves to Brazil.

“They came to continue having slaves,” said Luciana Brito, a historian at the Federal University of Recôncavo da Bahia. “They associated the existence of slavery in Brazil with the maintenance of a system of racial subservience.”

Brito and other historians have scoured letters, journal entries and deeds of sale. One researcher found that more than three-fourths of Southerners who wrote to the Brazilian government to inquire about immigration were slaveholders. At least 54 families bought at least 536 slaves upon entering Brazil. Using racial epithets, they expressed fears of an “African government” in Brazil, and black “rulers” in the United States.

“The confederados presented themselves as refugees of a devastated America,” said Jordan Brasher, a geographer at Columbus State University who wrote his dissertation on the confederado communities. “As the downtrodden, poor, defeated Confederate soldiers looking to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

“They also brought the ideology of white supremacy and racial terrorism from the United States South to Brazil.”

In one dark episode, two Confederate immigrants led a mob in the lynching of a police chief who had refused to track down escaped slaves — in front of his family. The confederados were also suspected of assassinating a Brazilian senator who supported emancipation.

In 1888, Brazil became the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, nearly a quarter-century after the United States. But interracial relations in the two countries were different. There were neither draconian racial distinctions in Brazil nor government prohibitions on intermarrying between races. The races mixed, yielding a country of extraordinary diversity. Over time, some confederados adopted new opinions on race.

“One of the changes most evidenced in the Confederados of my youth . . . was their belief in tolerance among the races,” Eugene C. Harter, who was raised among the confederados, wrote in a book about the community. “This they had acquired from the Brazilians.”

The confederados and their descendants assimilated and intermarried. English was largely forgotten. The towns become indistinguishable from their neighbors.

One of the few elements to remain was the yearly Confederate party, with its pageantry, its music and its flag.

And those last lines are the crux of the matter, for me. The confederados are not Confederates, and haven’t been for several generations. They’re Brazilians, who (like the rest of us) have to make their way in the twenty-first century.

Go read the whole thing.

_____

Image: João Leopoldo Padoveze, president of the Fraternity of American Descendants of Santa Bárbara d’Oeste, poses at the Cemitério do Campo in April 2019. (Giovana Schluter Nunes)

 

 

4 Responses

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  1. Neil Hamilton said, on July 12, 2020 at 5:16 pm

    Wow! No escaping history, it seems.

    Thanks for the article, Andy, interesting and entertaining at the same time.

    Sincerely,
    Neil

    • Andy Hall said, on July 12, 2020 at 7:01 pm

      It’s the best piece I’ve seen on the confederados. They are often depicted by “heritage” folks here in the United States as people who have remained true to the cause, unafraid to honor their ancestors, etc., but (of course) the reality is much more complex than that. They live in the 21st century, too.

  2. Kneeling Catholic said, on July 17, 2020 at 3:14 pm

    >>In one dark episode, two Confederate immigrants led a mob in the lynching of a police chief who had refused to track down escaped slaves — in front of his family. The confederados were also suspected of assassinating a Brazilian senator who supported emancipation.<<<<

    Hello Andrew,
    Do you have a source for that story? I know some 'lost causers' I'd like to lay it on…..

    • Andy Hall said, on July 17, 2020 at 3:35 pm

      I don’t, sorry. I do have a book coming on the confederados, and maybe it will be mentioned there.


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