In the mid-1990s, Roquinaldo Ferreira was working on an M.A. in socio-cultural history at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Immersed in the study of the Portuguese empire and the relationship between colonial Brazil and Angola, Ferreira jumped at the chance to travel to Angola and Portugal on a research grant.
“Slavery studies is a very active field in Brazil, but at the time there was little information on the African side of the slave trade. I was interested in the impact Brazil had on Angola — especially from the point of view of Africans,” says Ferreira, Brown’s new Vasco da Gama Associate Professor of History and Portuguese and Brazilian Studies. “The close social, cultural, and economic relationship between the two colonies had not been fully investigated. There was a big gap in the scholarship.”
Of Brazil’s 5 million African slaves, 75 percent came from Angola and the Congo, he estimates. Brazil had by far the largest slave trade in the Americas, importing half of the 10 million African slaves brought to North and South America, and 10 times the number brought to the United States.
Although conditions in Angola were difficult because of the ongoing civil war — he often had no electricity or running water — Ferreira’s archival research paid off. “I was able to access primary sources, such as colonial era court cases and petitions by Africans, that no one had ever studied before,” he says. It quickly became clear that the documents would tell a different kind of story than had been told before, giving voice to the African perspective on the colonial experience and slavery.
“Previous histories are too top-down. There is very little written about how slavery affected real people — slavery is almost faceless in these accounts,” says Ferreira, who went on to pursue a doctorate in the history of central Africa at the University of California–Los Angeles, earning his Ph.D. in 2003.
“I try to write micro-histories, from below. The local archives are full of information about Africans’ daily lives — how they were victimized, yes, but also how they struggled against slavery, how they sometimes worked the colonial system to their own advantage, and ultimately, how some Africans regained their freedom,” he says.
Ferreira’s first book, Cross-Cultural Exchange in the Atlantic World: Angola and Brazil during the Era of the Slave Trade (Cambridge University Press, 2012), explores Angolan slaving and the social and cultural interactions between Angola and Brazil from the late 17th to the early 19th centuries.
“My book brings ordinary people’s lives into the spotlight,” says Ferreira, who scoured the archives in Angola and Portugal on his many subsequent research trips. For example, he recounts the fascinating case of an African woman who filed a lawsuit challenging the enslavement of her two children, taken into slavery as they played on the street. A former slave who had regained her freedom, the woman went before a colonial judge to argue — successfully — that her children had been born into freedom, not while she was still a slave, as the kidnapper claimed.
“The fact that Angolans could use the colonial legal system to challenge slavery complicates the narrative that Portuguese enslavers simply grabbed helpless Africans and put them on slave ships,” says Ferreira. “The reality, though devastating, was more nuanced and complex.”
Having lived and worked abroad for many years, Ferreira has published more than a dozen scholarly articles and book chapters in the United States, Brazil, England, Germany, and Portugal and has several more publications forthcoming in 2013 and 2014. He is working on a second book, provisionally entitled Pathways to Colonialism: Abolitionism, Territorial Sovereignty, and the Persistence of Unfree Labor in Angola (ca. 1830s-1880s), a study of early Portuguese colonialism in Africa that takes into account the wider Atlantic context.
Ferreira taught in Brazil for a year and at the University of Virginia–Charlottesville for seven before accepting the position at Brown. His move to Providence was motivated by the stellar reputation of the Department of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies here. “The department is internationally renowned; Brown is absolutely at the center of Lusophone studies,” he says.
The presence of the John Carter Brown Library, which holds one of the world’s finest collections of colonial-era Portuguese and Brazilian books, was another major draw. The new Center for Slavery and Justice, officially launched this year, was also a selling point. “It is exciting to be in place where something new is being created. The center will draw scholars working on the African diaspora from many different disciplines.”
This fall, Ferreira is teaching a course that examines the rise of abolitionism and colonialism in the Atlantic world in the 18th and 19th centuries. “We have already had some exciting debates in the class,” says Ferreira. He is looking forward to teaching a spring survey on the history of the Portuguese empire, titled “The First Globalization: the Portuguese in Asia, Africa, and the Americas,” a teaching opportunity that piqued his interest in the position at Brown.
After commuting to the University of Virginia from abroad for some time, Ferreira, his wife, Julie Thompson, and son have happily settled into their new home on the East Side. “We are enjoying being in a diverse and cosmopolitan place like Providence,” Ferreira says.