Tailor's Revolt

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Tailor's Revolt

Liberty, fraternity, and equality were ideas of the French Revolution spread throughout the Atlantic world. In lateeighteenth-century Brazil, intellectuals read the philosophe s, Enlightenment thinkers whose writing inspired the Age of Revolution. At fashionable salons, the letrados, or intellectuals, gathered to discuss philosophy and the torrent of events unfolding outside of Brazil. Educated in Coimbra, Portugal, alongside the sons of Brazil's wealthiest sugar planters, the letrados understood the ideas of the revolution in largely intellectual terms. Their position of privilege within Brazil's slave society limited the extent to which they questioned the colonial compact. The influence of the French Revolution, however, spread beyond the propertied few with access to university education. Like the slaves and mulattoes of Haiti, working people in the northeastern Brazilian city of Salvador da Bahia interpreted ideas of liberty and equality in profoundly radical terms. In August 1798 a group of free mulattoes, black slaves, and white artisans took part in a movement that sought to actualize on Brazilian soil the goals of the French Revolution.

The Tailor's Revolt, named for the profession of a number of its conspirators, was one of a series of plots that signaled the disintegration of the colonial system that bound Brazil to Portugal. Under the great administrator of the Portuguese empire, the Marquis de Pombal, and his less able successor, Martinho de Melo e Castro, the Portuguese crown carried out a program of imperial reorganization intended to make more efficient the extraction of wealth from its overseas dominions, of which Brazil was the crowning jewel. In the gold mining captaincy of Minas Gerais, the reforms spawned in February 1789 an independence movement led by some of the region's most prominent men, angered over the crown's relentless efforts to collect back taxes in the face of declining gold deposits. Colonial authorities managed to uncover the plot before it was executed and forestalled further discontent by loosening fiscal demands. The Minas conspirators sought free trade and independence from Portugal. The propertied men central to the plot offered freedom to Brazilian-born slaves who would join the insurrectionist forces, but they did not propose an end to the transatlantic trade or slavery itself. Following the outbreak of both the French and Haitian revolutions, the Bahian tailors would envisage far more profound social changes: the abolition of slavery and an end to racial discrimination, goals that extended the ideals of liberty and equality in ways that wealthy slaveholders found untenable.

In August 1798 broadsides announcing revolutionary plans appeared affixed to churches and other public walls throughout the city of Salvador. The tailors' manifestos called out to the "Republican Bahian people" and in the "name of the supreme tribunal of Bahian democracy." They publicly displayed their plans to overturn "the detestable metropolitan yoke of Portugal." Most dangerously, the rebels proclaimed that theirs would be a republic in which "all citizens, especially mulattoes and blacks" would enjoy equal protection: "all will be equal, there will be no difference." The conspirators' cries for "freedom, equality, and fraternity" took on an especially subversive meaning in a slave society. Unlike the wealthy men who planned the Minas conspiracy, the Bahian rebels imagined far more than political independence from Portugal. They demanded true social change: "all black and brown slaves are to be free, so that there will be no slaves whatsoever." The tailors further appealed to the free poor, hurt by rising prices that accompanied the economic resurgence of the sugar economy following the Haitian Revolution. They demanded lower food prices, for manioc and meat in particular. They also called for free trade and an opening of ports to trade with France and other foreign powers.

Public authorities countered swiftly the tailors' open display of revolutionary ideas. Domingos de Silva Lisboa, a professional scribe, quickly faced arrest. When manifestos continued to appear in public, police attention focused on Luís Gonzaga das Virgens, a soldier in the mulatto regiment. On August 26 authorities apprehended forty-seven suspected revolutionaries, among them five women, nine slaves, ten whites, and the rest mulattoes, including João de Deus do Nascimento, a tailor of meager means. Investigations failed to uncover a revolutionary plot. Although several detainees were members of a mulatto regiment, they appeared to have formulated no military plan. If, as authorities feared, the tailors had intended to mount a French-style revolution, they had not progressed beyond hanging manifestos throughout the city. Yet the mere dissemination of revolutionary ideas was enough to convict the conspirators. Governor Fernando José de Portugal denounced the "abominable Jacobin ideas," especially dangerous "in a country with so many slaves." On November 8, 1799, four leaders were publicly hanged in the center of the city. Free mulattoes Lucas Dantes, João de Deus, and Manuel Faustas were beheaded and quartered. Authorities displayed their severed body parts for two days until the superintendent of health petitioned to have the rotting flesh taken down due to public health concerns. Two slaves and five free men of color were publicly whipped and compelled to watch the executions. Together with sixteen other defendants, they were deported to the African coast and forbidden from setting foot ever again in Portuguese territory.

The fact that the Bahian conspirators imagined a world free from slavery and racial discrimination made their plot far more threatening than other preindependence conspiracies in, for example, Minas Gerais and Pernambuco. The Portuguese secretary of state for overseas dominion, Rodrigo de Sousa Coutinho, expressed concern that "the abominable French principles" had "infected" even "the principal people of the city." Authorities, however, quickly exonerated white Bahian letrados found with the same French writings that had cost men of color their lives. The Bahian governor assured the crown that only those of "the lowest orders" had been guilty of treason. "Liberty, fraternity, and equality" took on subversive connotations when voiced by slaves and free men of color. Equality and slavery could not coexist.

See also Haitian Revolution


Allen, Judith Lee. "Tailors, Soldiers, and Slaves: The Social Anatomy of a Conspiracy." M.A. thesis, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1987.

Maxwell, Kenneth R. Conflicts and Conspiracies: Brazil and Portugal, 17501808. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1974.

Morton, F. W. O. "The Conservative Revolution of Independence: Economy, Society, and Politics in Bahia, 17901840." Ph.D. diss., Oxford University, Oxford, U.K., 1974.

Ramos, Donald. "Social Revolution Frustrated: The Conspiracy of the Tailors in Bahia, 1798." Luso-Brazilian Review 13, no. 1 (summer 1976): 7490.

alexandra k. brown (2005)