Free Birth Law

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Free Birth Law

Free Birth Law (known also as the Rio Branco Law, after its principal sponsor, Visconde de Rio Branco, and as the Law of the Free Womb), a decree passed by the Brazilian Parliament in September 1871 that declared free all children henceforth born to slave women. Enacted after five months of tempestuous and impassioned debate, the law marked a watershed in the history of Brazilian slavery. The freedom of these children was carefully circumscribed, however, for they remained under the custody of their mother's master, who could elect to release them at age eight and be indemnified by the state or retain their labor until they reached majority at age twenty-one. Emancipation of the newborn combined with the earlier suppression of the African slave trade by the Queirós Law in 1850 was intended to force the eventual end of slavery in Brazil by depriving future slaveowners of fresh supplies of slaves, either imported or native-born. The law carried further provisions: (1) an emancipation fund from which to sponsor a limited manumission of adult slaves, and (2) a slave's right to accumulate savings and purchase freedom at a fixed price or in exchange for labor (not to exceed seven years).

Although the standard view locates the law in a series of steps that inevitably led to the final abolition of slavery, other scholars have emphasized that planters and politicians responded out of fear of perceived slave restiveness and a complete collapse of slave-owning authority. The bill simultaneously sought to buttress the position of landowners and placate a restless rural labor force by making individual freedom more accessible. Conservatives and liberals who joined to pass the law refused to give it teeth, leaving the law's execution in the arbitrary hands of planters. The lawmakers had acted cautiously and out of fear; the controversial law satisfied no one.

See alsoChildren; Golden Law; Sexagenarian Law; Slavery: Brazil; Slavery: Abolition.


Robert Conrad, The Destruction of Brazilian Slavery, 1850–1888 (1972), esp. pp. 90-117.

Warren Dean, Rio Claro: A Brazilian Plantation System, 1820–1920 (1976), esp. pp. 125-129, 135.

Sandra Lauderdale Graham, "Slavery's Impasse: Slave Prostitutes, Small-Time Mistresses, and the Brazilian Law of 1871," in Comparative Studies in Society and History 33, no. 4 (1991): 669-694.

Additional Bibliography

Conrad, Robert Edgar. Children of God's Fire: A Documentary History of Black Slavery in Brazil. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.

Mattoso, Katia M. de Queiros. To Be a Slave in Brazil, 1550–1888. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

Rio-Branco, Miguel do. Centenário da Lei do ventre livre. Rio de Janeiro: Conselho Federal de Cultura: Departamento de Assuntos Culturais, 1976.

Vasconcelos, Sylvana Maria Brandão de. Ventre livre, mãe escrava: A reforma social de 1871 em Pernambuco. Recife: Editora Universitária UFPE, 1996.

                              Sandra Lauderdale Graham