Abolitionist Art in Hands of the Slave Owner


Catalogue description:

Commemorative Medals By Subject. Slavery [ Brazil ], Morro Velho Gold Mines, Silver Slaves Medal for Good Conduct, c.1848, bare- footed slave stands with one hand outstretched, the other resting on anchor, rev MORRO VELHO – PREMIO DE BOA CONUCTA , 38mm (Cavalcanti 59). Very fine with deep tone, ‘clip’ mark to top edge from where suspension loop has been removed, extremely rare . A note with the medal states, “Morro Velho slave medal of Freedom … given by dying slave to a missionary. Given to me by an Old Lady as a parting gift when leaving Chiswick”. The image of the slave derived, perhaps, from C F Carter’s 1834 medal to commemorate the Abolition of Slavery. Viscondessa de Cavalcanti’s Catalogo das Medalhas Brazileiras , lists the medal under “Abolition of slavery” and attributes it to 1848. She also quotes “Sr Hopkin, president of the company in 1888” who said that by 1882 all but 28 had been emancipated. Morro Velho is a complex of gold mines located near the city of Nova Lima in the Minas Gerais state of Brazil , in operation since 1835, it is the world’s oldest continuously worked mine. The English-owned St John del Rey Mining Company was the largest slaveholder in the Brazilian province of Minas Gerais during the second half of the nineteenth century. The explorer Sir Richard Burton and his wife Lady Isabel, visited the mines and his account, Explorations in the Highlands of Brazil , published in 1869, tells of the fortnightly Slave Muster. He describes how on every other Sunday, early in the morning, over a thousand slaves, men, women and children, all dressed in a special wardrobe assigned by the superintendent (but bare-footed), gathered in front of the Casa Grande (big house) where the selected few were given medals, awards, and public recognition by the overseers.

Here’s Burton’s description (image below).  Notice how he works on the theme of how much better life is for the slaves than it used to be and how much better they are then their unenslaved kinsmen.  The medal draws on abolitionist imagery, substituting the promise of freedom for the actual thing.  [Cf. Images such as this. and this.] The medal is thus an instrument of control.   It and other instruments of control are celebrated by Burton as part of good practices of the British Mining company.  Strangely, the Wikipedia entry for the mine has no mention of its infamous use of slavery….

Image :

The Latin that heads the chapter is from Caspar Barlaeus‘ poem, Mauritius Redux.

3 thoughts on “Abolitionist Art in Hands of the Slave Owner”

  1. Thank you for the lovely-toned and erudite exploration. Please see upcoming March 15 2017 Dix Noonan Webb Sale https://www.dnw.co.uk/ lot 1083 for an example of this bizarre medal in considerably better condition than the Baldwin’s piece cited (I am the consignor). Perhaps you have found additional information since this blog was published?

  2. Thank you for the reference. Yes I’ve done more research on this since. I have a journal article under peer review presently on this and related numismatic iconography. Until that article appears, the best resource I can direct you to is M. D. Childs, ‘Master-Slave Rituals of Power at a Gold Mine in Nineteenth-Century Brazil’, History Workshop Journal 53 (2002), pp. 43-72.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s