Slavery as Caricature

This article is based on my newest book Brazil Through French Eyes: A Nineteenth-Century Artist in in the Tropics published by University of New Mexico Press (2015).


French artist François-Auguste Biard (1799-1882) arrived in Brazil in 1858, ten years after the abolition of slavery in the French colonies. By that time slave imports from Africa to Brazil had been outlawed since 1831, but the slave trade continued operating illegally until 1850. Moreover, not only the internal slave trade also persisted, but slavery continued to exist all over the country. Biard, like other European and North American travelers of the time, saw Brazil as the black country of the Americas. The streets of Rio de Janeiro and Salvador were full of enslaved, freed, and freeborn black men and women, who performed all kinds of activities.

During the two years Biard spent in Brazil, he produced many drawings representing Brazilian black populations, which later were transformed into engravings that illustrated his travelogue Deux années au Brésil (1862). Some paintings like Proclamation of the Abolition of Slavery in the French Colonies, 27 April 1848 (1849) and The Slave Trade (1840) representing slavery produced by Biard became well-known in the United States. Although these paintings emphasized the horrors of the slave trade and the brutal punishment imposed on slaves, the painter can hardly be considered an abolitionist. Indeed, some of these paintings, which promoted the role France played in combatting the trade and celebrating the abolition of slavery in the French colonies, were aimed at gaining the attention of the art market, because at the time artworks depicting these issues were popular among various audiences.

Once in Brazil, Biard quickly adapted to the local Brazilian slavocratic mentality. Yet, despite containing racial stereotypes, some engravings of his travelogue caricaturing Brazilian enslaved population can help us understanding Brazilian slave society in the mid-nineteenth century. Moreover, Biard was among the only travelers to represent slavery in the provinces of Espírito Santo and Amazonia.

Several engravings of his travelogue are accompanied by satirical comments. For example, in Rio de Janeiro, Biard portrayed in detail the outfits of black female street vendors. Although in the images the black women do not wear shoes, they do wear elaborate head scarves, large earrings, long skirts, and panos da costa (cloth from the Coast) over their shoulders, as was observed by previous travelers. Yet unlike other European travelers who identified enslaved men and women by their place of origin in Africa, Biard does not seem to be able to identify particular African groups.

The engraving Négresses à Rio de Janeiro (Black Women in Rio de Janeiro), for example, features black women’s outfits. He takes a particular humorous approach by focusing on black women’s habit of carrying all kinds of objects on their heads. The artist explains that he saw three black women who were talking and gesticulating: on the head of the first one was a closed umbrella, on the head of the second one an orange, and on the head of the third a small bottle.

Prior to Biard, British travelers, such as James Wetherell (ca. 1823-1858), noted that umbrellas were a very popular “luxurious article” in Rio de Janeiro, even among the black population who had “the shadow’d livery of the burnished sun.” On his end, Biard observes that “it is probably because of their habit of carrying everything on their head that Negresses have shapely bodies, through placing the torso forward and walking with a dignity that many women of the richest white classes would envy.” Here instead of conveying his usual negative comments about blacks, he instead emphasizes the dignity of  black women depicted, stating that they were even more elegant than elite white women.

The text and the engraving of black women carrying objects on their heads seem to be a caricature to amuse the reader. However, they were certainly based on careful observation. Indeed, in one lithograph titled Concours des écoliers, la veille du jour de Saint Alexis (Schoolchildren’s Competition, before the Day of Saint Alexis), by the French artist Jean-Baptiste Debret (1768–1848), we can observe an enslaved woman who was following her master’s daughter in a schoolchildren’s contest, carrying an umbrella on her head. Whereas in West Africa, the use of umbrellas (very often of huge sizes) was restricted to kings, in nineteenth-century Brazil umbrellas were popular articles accessible to people of various social positions.

Moreover, Brazilian photographer Marc Ferrez (1843–1923) took at least one photograph in the 1880s of a black woman wearing a head scarf, a long white skirt, and a pano da costa over one shoulder and carrying a black umbrella carefully placed on her head, confirming that Debret’s and Biard’s illustrations were not the product of imagination.

Biard also commented with words and images some popular religious festivals in which most of the participants were black individuals. In Rio de Janeiro, he attended a procession for a feast day that was probably one of the June festivals, such as those celebrating Saint Anthony, Saint Peter, and Saint John the Baptist. He explains that the procession included charming girls from eight to twelve years old, who according to him were dressed in Louis XV fashion with coats of silk, velvet, and huge crinolines: “They danced by moving forward coquettishly, seeming already to know that they were the most beautiful ornaments of the festival. By contrast, several of them were accompanied by individuals, probably their fathers, who were walking almost as proudly, wearing smocks of all colors, their umbrellas in hand, a cigar in their mouth.”

Biard also observes other participants, like the officers of the national guard, with their bearskin military hats, or shakos, under their arms and who were wearing the badges of male and female saints. In addition, a drum major, “all in red from head to toe, preceded the soldiers wearing their tiger overalls. At the rear, the Negroes shot firecrackers at the legs of the curious.”

Although he does not describe the parade participants  as black men and black girls, but the reader finds out this information in two small illustrations accompanying the text, including the engraving Nègre gandin à Rio de Janeiro (Negro Dandy in Rio de Janeiro). This portrait depicts a black man who, Biard speculates, was probably the father of a girl marching in the procession. The illustration conveys the stereotype of the gandin (dandy). This term was very popular in Paris by 1855 and referred to the habitués of De Gand Boulevard (today Italians’ Boulevard). Here Biard used the word gandin in its traditional sense of an elegant young (black) dandy, which became popular in London in the 1770s.

But by employing this term to describe black men in Brazil, the painter establishes an unexpected association between modern European capitals like London and Paris and the slave society of Rio de Janeiro. The stereotype of the vain black man contrasts with the image of the black worker, present in other engravings of Deux années au Brésil. Though the satirical (and why not racist element here) is that the illustration does not show an elegant black man. Instead, it shows a barefoot black man, wearing pants and a hat, smoking, and carrying his umbrella on his shoulder. In profile view, his lips and his nose are exaggerated, giving the engraving a caricatural element. Although stereotyped, this kind of approach is also found in Biard’s illustrations representing white and indigenous individuals.

Like other European travelers such as Debret and Ewbank, Biard observed Brazilian Carnival, known as Entrudo. During the festivities, Rio de Janeiro’s population, especially black men, women, and children took to the streets and participated in battles with buckets of water and limões de cheiro, scent-filled wax balls. In Deux années au Brésil, Biard also notes this popular custom during Rio de Janeiro’s religious festivals and other festivities. He explains that there were days when it was impossible going anywhere without being targeted by these objects, to the great joy of many blacks : “I laughed at seeing their wide-open mouth, their white teeth, and their expression of satisfaction; I said to myself softly: ‘poor slaves, this pleasure should not be envied.’ . . . These Negroes of Rio are very funny, in a country where they are [comparatively] less unfortunate, I believe.”

In expressing compassion for Brazil’s enslaved population, Biard also empathizes with the way enslaved individuals socialized in the streets of Rio de Janeiro. But his was misled by the appearance of joy. The existence of spaces of sociability where slaves could play, dance, and sing, led him to conclude that although enslaved, these men and women were less unfortunate than their counterparts in other parts of the Americas. In his conclusion, he ignores the distinctions between the living conditions of slaves in urban and rural areas. And even in the urban areas, the lives of slaves could not be equated with their hability to enjoy some free time.

Confronted with slavery on a daily basis while in Rio de Janeiro, Biard made another brief comment about the institution. Even though, of course, his criticism is not very elaborate. The painter explains that the entire city of Rio de Janeiro was up on September 7 1858 to celebrate the anniversary of the independence of Brazil, and he mentions that there was a solar eclipse that day: “Hundreds of Negroes shouted with all the force of their lungs: Viva a independência do Brasil! Thus the poor Negroes, without understanding what they were saying, proclaimed the independence of a people to whom they are slaves.” Biard’s commentary, hidden discreetly in a narrative of Brazilian independence celebrations, can be interpreted as a criticism of Brazilian slave society. At the same time, his observation shows that despite not having access to full citizenship, the local black population (enslaved or not) at some extent saw Brazil as their country. Yet, Biard’s use of the term Negro as a synonym for slave shows his inability, or rather unwillingness, to distinguish among enslaved, freed, and freeborn black individuals, as during this period Rio de Janeiro had large freeborn and freed black populations.

Another passage shows how insensitive the painter was to the horrible conditions of slavery. He compares the living conditions of the enslaved population to that of European immigrants by saying, “I do not know exactly what should be done to make life possible for the immigrants in their first years, but I have seen immigrants who were not given enough, hence I conclude that in general the plight of Negroes in Brazil is preferable to that of the colonists.” The fact that Biard arrived at this conclusion just a few months after his arrival in Rio de Janeiro suggests that he quickly adopted a slavocratic mentality. He subscribed to the idea, promoted in several nineteenth-century European travelogues, that Brazilian slavery was in fact lenient and that the hardships suffered by enslaved Africans and Afro-Brazilians were indeed comparable to the tribulations experienced by white European immigrants.


During his time in Rio de Janeiro, while Biard stayed in the imperial palace he was able to observe and satirize the maneuvers and the uniforms of the soldiers of Dom Pedro II’s National Guard uniforms: “I could see at my ease the soldiers and the officers parading, carrying under their arms their bearskin shakos. Before my eyes they performed clever maneuvers in which I noticed with pleasure the precision that characterizes national guards everywhere.” He explains that like Dom Pedro II’s official garb, the soldiers’ uniforms bore several national symbols, including representations of coffee and tobacco leaves, which emphasized Brazil’s tropical dimension. According to Biard, the uniforms varied according to the various regiments, some imitating tiger skin and others decorated with oil paintings of the two national plants.

The uniforms are represented in the illustration Les sapeurs de la garde nationale de Rio de Janeiro (The Soldiers of the National Guard of Rio de Janeiro), shedding light on the physical traits and uniforms of the four black soldiers of the regiment of sappers, or military demolitions specialists (porta-machado).

Like the black dandy in the previous illustration, the sappers are portrayed in a caricatural manner. The soldiers are wearing gloves, shakos, and aprons, a caracteristic element of the uniform of the sappers of the National Guard. Instead of bearing rifles or spears, the members of this regiment carry axes, also depicted on their aprons. Their physical traits, especially their lips and their noses, are overemphasized. The head of one soldier (on the left) evokes the heads depicted in the first anthropometry studies, which associated the profiles of black individuals with those of monkeys, thereby promoting racist ideals.

Biard never openly criticizes slavery. But shortly after his arrival in Rio de Janeiro he expressed surprise that people of modest means were followed by slaves even when there was no need for them: “There was a very small embarrassment that has already arisen several times in Rio. In slave countries, it is customary to carry nothing; I have seen people both very well and not so well dressed being preceded by a Negro carrying packages so small that they could be put in one’s pocket. As time passed though, Biard quickly understood that in Brazil owning slaves was also a matter of social prestige. Carrying objects and packages was perceived negatively in a society where only enslaved men and women performed manual work.

Because of Biard’s relationship with the Brazilian monarchy, the only way he could criticize Brazilian slave society was through a humorous approach. In Deux années au Brésil, the painter never condemns slavery directly. Still, this humorous approach contributes to the construction of an audacious and original satirical commentary that could not be conveyed in the text. Although the information about Deux années au Brésil’s reception in France is very limited, it did become quite popular in French circles.

According to contemporary accounts the Brazilian expatriates living in France felt embarrassed by the way Biard mocked their home country and its inhabitants; this suggests that the image of Brazil conveyed in the travelogue was largely disseminated by the time it was published. Yet given his collaboration with the monarchy, Biard evidently did not intend to offer any serious comment on Brazilian society and its elites. But his satirical representations of Brazilian daily life and slavery, sometimes also ridiculing individuals of European origin, can be seem as powerful and unexpected means of criticism.


About Ana Lucia Araujo

I am a cultural historian of Latin America and the Atlantic World. I am Full Professor in the Department of History at Howard University. My work explores the history and the memory of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery and their social and cultural legacies. I am particularly interested in the public memory, heritage, and visual culture of slavery. To know more about my research and publications, visit my personal website or my webpage at Howard University.