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Research project

‘White Slavery’ in Brazil? Swiss Migration between Free and Forced Labour in Coffee Plantations, c. 1840-1860

This research project examines the class, race, and gender intersections in Swiss colonial settlements in Brazil during the mid-nineteenth century. It aims to reconsider the history of European migration and global capitalism in the transition from forced to free labour in coffee plantations. The analysis will be based on thousand letters, diplomatic documents and press sources stored in the Swiss, German and Brazilian Archives.

This project has been funded via the EUI Early Stage Researchers (ESR) call 2022.

Between 1840 and 1860, thousands of Swiss and German migrants settled in the agricultural regions of Brazil. Supported by local capitalists, families arrived to work in coffee plantations, given the relatively scarce population for free labour. Until the 1850s, Brazil largely profited from slavery, which made up the workforce needed for large-scale export agriculture. As slavery came under increasing attack by the mid-nineteenth century, some São Paulo coffee planters began introducing Europeans to replace enslaved labour. This situation also benefited from increasing impoverishment among peasants in the German states and Switzerland. However, after a short period, colonial settlers started to complain about the unfair labour conditions, which the European press called “white slavery.” The Swiss State, in particular, decided to resolve the situation by diplomatic means, sending the scientist Johann Jakob von Tschudi. The introduction of free labour in São Paulo agriculture by means of European migration under conditions of potentially scarce labour supply is a paradigmatic case to explore old and new forms of division of labour in a changing capitalist world-economy.

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