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Dutra’s World: Wealth and Family in Nineteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro

Author(s):Frank, Zephyr L.
Reviewer(s):Eakin, Marshall C.

Published by EH.NET (December 2005)

Zephyr L. Frank, Dutra’s World: Wealth and Family in Nineteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004. xv + 256 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8263-3410-5; $23 (paper), ISBN: 0-8263-3411-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Marshall C. Eakin, Department of History, Vanderbilt University.

For most of the history of slavery in the New World, Brazil had the largest slave population in the Americas, and the largest urban slave community was located in nineteenth-century Rio de Janeiro. Probably one-third of all slaves arriving in the Americas between 1492 and 1850 — some four million Africans — landed on the shores of Brazil. Despite the fascination with slavery in North America, probably less than 700,000 African slaves entered what eventually became the United States. The largest concentration of slaves in an urban area in the U.S. (some 25,000) was in New Orleans in the 1840s. In 1850, nearly 80,000 slaves lived and worked in Rio de Janeiro, about forty percent of the population of the city. As Zephyr Frank points out, Rio de Janeiro was the “busiest slave port in the world in the nineteenth century”(p. 23). An assistant professor of history at Stanford University, Frank skillfully analyzes slaveholding, wealth, and family in nineteenth-century Rio de Janeiro in this concise and well written book.

Despite the sometimes dense discussion of numbers and nearly two dozen figures and tables, the book could work well for classroom use. The quantitative data are nicely integrated into a discussion of key issues and themes throughout the book. A concise and clear introduction lays out the main arguments, and the second chapter is a very nice overview of the economy and social structure of Rio de Janeiro in 1820. The following chapter lays out “Dutra’s world” some thirty years later, and chapter 4 then looks at Rio’s social structure beyond the 1850s. Chapter 5, “Pathways to Wealth in Rio de Janeiro, 1815-1860,” would probably be the most daunting to students who fear numbers, but the next two chapters, on “Death and Dying” and “Family and Gender” are also excellent overviews of key issues. A brief conclusion does a fine job summing up the book and its arguments.

Frank manages to weave his numbers into a elegant and clear analysis, in particular, using the life and death of Antonio Jos? Dutra as his window into the world of the middle sectors of society in Rio during the first half of the nineteenth century. (Frank prefers to use the term “middling groups.”) He defines the middle groups, or middling wealthholders, quite simply as “the middle 60 percent of the distribution of wealthholders in my estate inventory samples” (p. 9). The book is built on an analysis of more than 1,100 estate inventories. These postmortem inheritance records were a common legal document filed on the death of Brazilians with enough wealth to justify a division of their assets. Not everyone filed an inventory, and certainly not the poor or slaves. Frank estimates that his sample includes records for about “8 to 11 percent of the decedent population that was likely to be inventoried (adults and heads of households and their spouses respectively)” (p. 39). The records are rich and detailed tallies of all the assets of the deceased. Although others have mined these documents for the period, no one has examined them more carefully, more productively, or as cautiously (adjusted for bias, cost of living indexes, and self censoring) as Frank has done in this book. This is very sophisticated quantitative history with a clear and tough eye for problems and possibilities. (An excellent appendix discusses “sampling procedures and sensitivity analysis” at the back of the book.)

Frank is most interested in how his quantitative data illuminate changing social structure in nineteenth-century Rio, and more precisely, how the lives of the middle groups changed over the course of the century. The principal objective of his book “is to describe the conditions of this middle ground and to explain its relative rise and fall over the first decades of Brazilian independence”(p. 31). Building on the landmark work of Mary Karasch (Slave Life in Rio de Janeiro, 1808-1850, Princeton University Press, 1987), Frank makes it clear that we must avoid the traditional vision of Brazil as slave society dominated by large landowners and plantations. In Rio de Janeiro, “perhaps half of all slaves lived under the roof of small-to-middling owners … Yet no detailed and systematic treatment has been offered on the history of middling slaveholders over time, and on the former slaves among them in particular”(p. xii). This book is a very fine effort to begin to redress this gap in the historiography.

Frank effectively and concisely conveys his quantitative and structural analysis through the example of Antonio Jos? Dutra, a fascinating and emblematic figure. Born in Africa, a survivor of the Middle Passage, Dutra was a barber, musician, small businessman, and freed slave who became “an extraordinarily diversified entrepreneur,” owning thirteen slaves on his death (six of whom formed a band of musicians for hire), two urban residences, and a significant amount of wealth that was distributed by the courts to his six children. Frank’s central argument is that “Dutra was not a particularly unusual wealthholder for his time — in fact, with the important exception of his slave background, he was representative in many other ways — but his world itself was ephemeral” (p. 1). Dutra was also a lucky man. In the story Frank traces, Dutra and other members of the middle sectors had slightly greater opportunities for social mobility than earlier or later generations in the nineteenth century. The decades from independence in 1822 to mid-century, “a period of moderate economic growth, relatively inexpensive slaves, and rapid urbanization,” produced a trend toward “slightly greater equality among the free population and social mobility in Rio de Janeiro based largely on slaveholding.” After mid-century, “rapid export growth, railroad construction, high slave prices, and increasing inequality” diminished opportunities for social mobility for Dutra’s children, and others in the middle sectors. “Economic change and external shocks to institutions,” Frank asserts, “matter … yet, it appears that the most powerful explanation for the form social structures took in Rio de Janeiro as late as the 1850s resides in the initial endowment of institutions and social structures circa 1820″ (p. 13). Dutra and his cohort in the middle sectors, ironically, lived in the best of times — while the colonial heritage still mattered, and before the dramatic shift toward “modernity” in late nineteenth-century Brazil.

At the core of the book and Frank’s analysis is an extremely important observation about Brazilian slavery. From inheritance records it is clear that nearly nine out of ten wealthholders held slaves. “Slavery was truly ubiquitous in Brazilian life in the early nineteenth century” (p. 41). Nevertheless, Frank’s analysis clearly shows that “Slavery was far more important for middling wealthholders than for their wealthy counterparts” (p. 42). “Slaves were the most evenly distributed form of wealth, and the most important for the middle sectors of Rio de Janeiro’s social hierarchy” (p. 44). Ironically, “slavery provided the most common pathway to social ascent for middling wealthholders” (p. 121) in the nineteenth century, even former slaves like Antonio Dutra. Ultimately, the true marker of wealth was not slaves, but residential real estate. Slaves were less expensive, and thus the principal pathway to wealth and social status for the middling groups, while residential real estate was the true mark of the wealthy. With the demise of the slave trade in 1850, “slaves became scarce and expensive,” (p. 93) and the middle groups found their main pathway to social and economic mobility increasingly out of reach.

Dutra’s World is a very clear, concise, and nuanced analysis of slavery, social structure, economic trends, and institutions in nineteenth-century Rio de Janeiro. Zephyr Frank’s sophisticated quantitative analysis of postmortem estate inventories and his subtle, but elegant, handling of social life combine to produce “a history that is quantifiable and that generates falsifiable claims, yet also contains that smell of flesh that Marc Bloch so famously noted in the pages of History” (p. 14).

Marshall C. Eakin is Professor of History, Vanderbilt University, and the author of Tropical Capitalism: The Industrialization of Belo Horizonte, Brazil (Palgrave, 2001).

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):19th Century