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Slavery, Science, and the End of the Old Regime in the Luso-Brazilian Empire


This paper provides a preliminary examination of some of the late eighteenth-century bases for the reception of liberalism and debates on slavery, specifically the Luso-Brazilian engagement with natural science and the work of the Lisbon Royal Academy of Sciences. The Academy’s work most directly concerned with the question of slavery and the slave trade appealed to economic principles of utility, efficiency and productivity to identify ways to reform the practice of enslaving Africans in the interest of increasing the wealth generated within the colonial and imperial economies. Thus, even as slavery was being assailed internationally on both philosophical and religious grounds, Luso-Brazilian Academic writing insisted it was an economic rather than moral problem. At the same time, however, Academic inquiries into the question of human difference often undercut claims about Africans that were invoked elsewhere in the Atlantic world to justify the perpetuation of slavery and the slave trade. As Academic reformism thus grappled with the humanity of Africans, civilization and barbarism emerged as privileged categories of analysis for discerning the future of slavery, reasserting the moral dimensions of the institution.

The paper was presented at the conference on The End of the Old Regime in the Iberian World sponsored by the Spanish Studies Program and the Portuguese Studies Program of UC Berkeley on February 8-9, 2008.

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