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Feeding the City

Feeding the City
From Street Market to Liberal Reform in Salvador, Brazil, 1780–1860

This social and cultural history of the provisioning of Salvador, Brazil, as it moved from colony to independent city encompasses a whole society by looking at a broadly defined occupation—the food trade—and showing the connections between and among social categories.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture, Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Series in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

October 2010
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352 pages | 6 x 9 | 10 b&w photos, 5 maps, 9 tables |

On the eastern coast of Brazil, facing westward across a wide magnificent bay, lies Salvador, a major city in the Americas at the end of the eighteenth century. Those who distributed and sold food, from the poorest street vendors to the most prosperous traders—black and white, male and female, slave and free, Brazilian, Portuguese, and African—were connected in tangled ways to each other and to practically everyone else in the city, and are the subjects of this book. Food traders formed the city's most dynamic social component during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, constantly negotiating their social place. The boatmen who brought food to the city from across the bay decisively influenced the outcome of the war for Brazilian independence from Portugal by supplying the insurgents and not the colonial army. Richard Graham here shows for the first time that, far from being a city sharply and principally divided into two groups—the rich and powerful or the hapless poor or enslaved—Salvador had a population that included a great many who lived in between and moved up and down.

The day-to-day behavior of those engaged in food marketing leads to questions about the government's role in regulating the economy and thus to notions of justice and equity, questions that directly affected both food traders and the wider consuming public. Their voices significantly shaped the debate still going on between those who support economic liberalization and those who resist it.


BRASA (Brazilian Studies Association)Lifetime Achievement Award Murdo J MacLeod Book Prize, Latin American and Carribean Section (LACS) of the Southern Historical AssociationBolton-Johnson Prize

  • List of Tables
  • List of Illustrations
  • A Note on Currency, Measures, and Spelling
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. The City on a Bay
  • Part I. Getting and Selling Food
    • Chapter 2. From Streets and Doorways
    • Chapter 3. Connections
    • Chapter 4. "People of the Sea"
    • Chapter 5. The Grains Market
    • Chapter 6. The Cattle and Meat Trade
    • Chapter 7. Contention
  • Part II: Changed Rules: Reform and Resistance
    • Chapter 8. "The True Enemy Is Hunger": The Siege of Salvador
    • Chapter 9. A Tremor in the Social Order
    • Chapter 10. Meat, Manioc, and Adam Smith
    • Chapter 11. "The People Do Not Live by Theories"
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix A. Purchasing Power over Time in Salvador
  • Appendix B. Volume of Foodstuff Handled at the Grains Market, 1785-1849 (in Alqueires)
  • Notes
  • Sources
  • Credits for Illustrations
  • Index

Richard Graham is Frances Higginbotham Nalle Centennial Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Patronage and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Brazil; Britain and the Onset of Modernization in Brazil; Independence in Latin America: A Comparative Approach; and several edited books, including The Idea of Race in Latin America, 1870–1940 and Machado de Assis: Reflections on the Brazilian Master Writer.


No city feeds itself. Unlike a village or small town, a city depends on a vast array of outsiders to grow or raise food, and most essentially, on people to transport it, and on middlemen and -women to buy and resell it to consumers. Salvador, Brazil—often called Bahia—was a major city in the Americas at the end of the eighteenth century. It invites inquiry not only into such a commercial network, but also into what its workings reveal about the city's social makeup. Street sellers, boatmen, grocers, butchers, cattle dealers, importers; men and women; blacks, mulattos, and whites; slaves, ex-slaves, and free—these are the actors here. Their actions helped forge the city, and their dealings bring its social order, customs, ideologies, and conflicts into relief.

Salvador quintessentially belonged to the Atlantic World, where Europe met Africa in the Americas. The city on the east coast of Bahia province faces an enormous bay, making it one of the few great ports of the South Atlantic. From the rich sugar-, tobacco-, and foodstuff-producing lands surrounding the bay—collectively referred to as the Recôncavo—arrived the goods that fed local people and were exchanged for a great variety of overseas imports in the city's bustling center. Europeans, Africans, people of European and African descent, and a few Indians met in Salvador, establishing tangled links while simultaneously redefining the boundaries that separated them. Governing institutions developed in Europe were here applied to a diverse population and reshaped to fit what must have seemed an exotic place to its Portuguese administrators. People brought up entirely in Brazil argued for or against economic principles or revolutionary doctrines elaborated overseas. Slavery and the slave trade deeply incised the city's social and political being, and its large black population decisively influenced local habits, signs, and symbols. Religious beliefs and practices displayed values derived from both Africa and Portugal. By borrowing from and adapting to each other, city dwellers forged a new culture with its own ways of being. In time the city became unique, as different from other Atlantic cities as they were from it.

Salvador played an important role for all of Brazil. It thrived as the commercial entrepôt of the entire captaincy (later province) of Bahia, and its merchants, large and small, also traded far beyond its borders. When gold and diamonds were discovered in Minas Gerais, the initial supply route to that area originated in Salvador. Although its role as capital and principal administrative center diminished after 1763, when the Crown transferred the seat of the Brazilian viceroyalty to Rio de Janeiro, its cadres of civil servants—attached to the governor of the captaincy, to civil, criminal, and church judges, and to fiscal offices—continued to exercise a powerful influence over an extensive region. Until the 1750s Brazil's only High Court sat in Salvador, and it continued to hear cases from all the northern provinces until well into the nineteenth century. Brazil's archbishop had his seat there and made Church policy for the entire country. Much of the city's life nevertheless remains uncharted terrain, still to be mapped.

The diet of Salvador's inhabitants rested on two staples: manioc meal, the major source of calories, and meat. Cattle were driven to the city, but manioc meal came on boats from across a large bay, as did the bulk of the city's fruits and vegetables. Those who were better off also consumed items imported from overseas in larger ships, especially wine and olive oil, but also beer, cheese, wheat flour, and a great variety of high-value, low-volume treats. At the other end of the social spectrum, slaves often had little more than manioc meal and a little dried or salted beef to eat. Africans deeply influenced the cooking methods and spices used in most households, with a liberal use of red palm oil, peppers, coconuts, and peanuts.

As we look at the city as it appeared during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the immense variety of its inhabitants, along with their close and multifaceted interconnectedness, is especially striking. Those who distributed and sold food—whether humble street vendors or substantial grocers, butchers or cattle traders, ordinary sailors or captains on boats bringing foodstuffs from across the bay and from ports along the Atlantic coast—were connected to practically everyone in the city. Their occupations were central to urban life but rarely mentioned in the many works on the region that have dealt primarily with sugar planters, international merchants, or slaves, while leaving everybody else unnoticed. People of a middling sort, some better off than others, as well as some very poor and the enslaved, all working hard, filled the city and made it hum. This urban setting allowed the formation of a large intermediary sector of tradespeople with both vertical and horizontal ties to others.

The energy and movement of Salvador's residents display how slave and free, black and white, women and men, the poor and the not-so-poor related to each other, simultaneously exemplifying the laddered ordering of society and challenging our ready notions of how such a society must have worked. Instead of seeing only exploiters and exploited, we find here negotiated encounters along a shifting terrain. As a result, I take particular exception to those who portray blacks, slaves, and women to be, in their essence, just victims, and whites, free persons, and men essentially as oppressors, rather than as persons with multiple concerns and varied relationships, as complex human beings, even if some were privileged and many more severely exploited. Such people occupied social positions along a continuum rather than in sharply separated groups.

In exploring people's lives across a great range of individual experiences, I have looked for specifics, trying to grasp something of the context within which they lived. By focusing on actual practices, a broader notion emerges of how understandings of race shaped behavior or were shaped by law and practice. Similarly, "slave" and "slavery" are terms too blunt to do justice to the variegated experiences they encompassed. There are categories that I, as a historian, impose upon people who did not necessarily think of themselves as belonging to them, but I try to avoid drawing a priori conclusions about individuals from such classifications. In emphasizing particular men and women, and what joined and disjoined them, I look for adjectives rather than labels. To emphasize the particularity of the people who appear here, I often insist on naming them rather than referring to their generic status, even if they surface only once.

The food trade fits within a larger context of concerns that went beyond the question of how food got to peoples' tables to matters of government responsibility for protecting consumers, the proper place of economic regulation, and debates on what makes a society good and just. At least from medieval times, one of the tasks of city government in most of the Western world had been to ensure adequate and safe food supplies at affordable prices to urban residents. Salvador's city council, following Portuguese precedents, took this responsibility seriously. Attempting to apply a rational order to this task led to the creation in the early 1780s of two publicly owned institutions—a central grains market and a slaughterhouse—that crucially touched on food traders' work. Beginning at that very time, however, some writers and public officials began to criticize the older view of the state and its relationship to the individual, proposing a more freewheeling approach to the economic activity of food traders and less attention to protecting buyers.

A turning point was the year-long war for Brazilian independence from Portugal in 1822-1823, the outcome of which turned on an ultimately successful siege in which boatmen cut off Salvador's food supply. Not only did wartime disruptions themselves cause immediate shifts in many people's lives, disturbing the social order, but the reforms that ensued after independence, inspired by models borrowed from across the Atlantic, had major long-term effects on the activity of those engaged in buying and selling foodstuffs. These liberalizing measures did not succeed in solving the subsistence problems of the great mass of the population, and many of the new policies were resisted, sometimes violently, and gradually watered down or entirely abandoned. The debate on the new philosophy of government can be read as residents reflecting and commenting on themselves and their society, giving voice to their notions regarding its categories and defending values they held dear.

Everyone is daily enmeshed in institutional frameworks with rules that guide behavior, and some of them leave records that provide historians with rich documentary lodes to be explored. Connections between historical actors are often vividly captured in seemingly unlikely documents produced by impersonal government agencies, the actions of which critically impacted thousands of individuals. The institutions that oriented the food trade—the public grains market and slaughterhouse—stand out especially in this account because they influenced the actions of so many. Wills and estate inventories crucially reveal exchanges between people placed in differing social positions, without for a moment casting doubt on the existence or tenacity of such divisions. They form another source on which I rely, especially given the relative absence of diaries and personal letters among Brazilians, and the fact that inheritance law—by forcing the division of goods among legally prescribed heirs—touched even humble households. The opening phrases of last wills and testaments are often formulaic, but from then on they vary enormously and shed much light on affective ties, business connections, and understandings and expectations about others' behavior, as well as details about, for instance, a favorite saint or the testator's past. They speak of friends and the children of friends, of concubines and godchildren, of love and rivalry.

In the first part of this book I write about the people who participated in the food trade, without much attention to alterations over time, whereas the second part is specifically about change and explores the political context within which traders worked. In the initial chapter I describe the physical, social, cultural, and political setting of their lives. The next two chapters discuss street vendors and grocers: Chapter 2 establishes who they were, what they sold, where they sold it, and looks at how they lived—that is, their housing, furnishings, and clothes; Chapter 3 concentrates on their social world—their families, friends, and neighbors—as well as their business contacts and how they fit in as patrons and clients, borrowers and lenders. Chapter 4 focuses on the captains and sailors aboard the boats and ships delivering foodstuffs to Salvador; their wealth or lack of it; their legal status as free, freed, or slaves; the types of craft they sailed; their cargoes; their special skills; and the implications of their geographical mobility. The grains market where all the corn, beans, rice, and manioc meal entering Salvador were required to be placed for sale first is the subject of Chapter 5. After discussing the market's creation and its staff, I turn to the traders themselves—women and men, Africans and Portuguese—before examining the stevedores and porters employed there who successfully struck in early 1837 over newly imposed requirements that they found demeaning. In Chapter 6 I examine the cattle and meat trade and its three nodes: the stockyard, slaughterhouse, and butcher shop. The social positions of those involved and, especially, the tensions that surfaced in their interactions—culminating in a strike of slaughtermen defeated through the use of slaves—are the central points of Chapter 7.

Whereas Part 1 presents close-up portraits of many individual traders and their work, Part 2 broadens the perspective to encompass, first, a major political event—a war—and, then, more broadly still, conflicting ideas on governmental policy regarding the food trade. It begins with Chapter 8, which focuses on Brazil's War of Independence from Portugal (1822-1823), recounting how the crucial issue for both the insurgents and the Portuguese was how to secure food for one's own forces while denying it to the enemy—a demanding and complicated task. In Chapter 9 I turn to the ways by which these events caused a shock to the social system: first by provoking an enormous physical dislocation of residents, and then by weakening notions about hierarchy, even among those at the top, by enhancing the power of ordinary sailors and unsettling the expected ties between slaves and masters. Chapter 10 backtracks chronologically to examine policy prescriptions developed before the war as leaders in Portugal and Brazil slowly moved toward a conviction that releasing the market from government control would benefit everyone. Chapter 11 traces a movement in the opposite direction after the war, as the application of those liberal principles failed to produce abundance and lower prices, leading instead by the 1850s to riot and rebellion.

When I began this project, I expected to find a stable and rigidly hierarchical society firmly glued together by a paternalistic culture in which protection was exchanged for obedience. But, as I focused on individuals, most of whom were far from the top ranks, I found a remarkable stretchiness to social categories, with much nuance, negotiation, and flexibility. Salvador was at one and the same time a city of orders and the locus of competition, rational decision making, fluidity, and opportunity. Nothing was immutable, nor was change unidirectional.


“This is an exemplary work of social history that would benefit scholars interested in both slave societies and urban provisioning.”
Journal of Social History


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