The Rise and Fall of an Afro-Brazilian Publisher

Colonial style architecture and souvenir shop at the historic “Pelourinho” in Salvador da Bahia, October 26, 2016, Salvador, Brazil (Shutterstock)

Francisco de Paula Brito (1808-61), an Afro-Brazilian man of letters, “a son and grandson of freedpersons,” catalyzed critical transformations in Rio de Janeiro’s publishing world (1). His entrepreneurial and political acumen enabled an influential, thirty-year career in public life, where he circled among merchants and statesmen, novelists and playwrights, and the Brazilian emperor. Paula Brito also lived among a range of unfree people, who included the enslaved and liberated Africans that kept his home and were hired at his businesses.

Cogently, historian Rodrigo Camargo de Godoi’s biography captures the multiplicity of Paula Brito’s worlds, and most importantly, their interconnections. A Black Publisher powerfully demonstrates that to “understand the historical circumstances that converged to bring the emergence of the publisher,” we need to account for the braided histories of print, slavery, and the state (3). As such, this study is also a touchstone for reflections on race and public life, for grappling with the permeabilities and predicaments of Blackness in the nineteenth-century Atlantic world. Paula Brito’s ascent, after all, occurred amid major developments in the history of African slavery. His rise in the 1830s and 1840s transpired as the illegal transatlantic slave trade boomed. The vast majority of the 700,000-plus Africans taken to Brazil in those two decades disembarked in Paula Brito’s Rio. The close of the slave trade in 1850, meanwhile, opened new capital flows, and the expansion of Paula Brito’s businesses reflected these dynamics. This book, then, allows readers a glimpse into the contingencies of running a print shop, participating in the book trade, and supporting a wide array of political newspapers in a context where Rio accounted for the largest urban slave population in the Americas. 

Originally a doctoral dissertation defended at São Paulo State University at Campinas (UNICAMP) in 2014 and published as Um editor no Império in 2016, A Black Publisher amplifies Vanderbilt University Press’s vibrant list in African-American and Diasporic studies. The Research Foundation of the State of São Paulo  (FAPESP) financed this elegant and expert translation by H. Sabrina Gledhill, a self-defined “British Brazilianist.” Gledhill earned a PhD from the Federal University of Bahia’s Center for Afro-Asian Studies and authored a 2018 book about Booker T. Washington and Manuel R. Querino, their anti-racialist trajectories, and contributions to the study of Black life and culture in the Atlantic world. This translation is part of the robust research happening in the Brazilian academy on Black thought in the nineteenth century.1

Divided into four parts, the book focuses on the prime of Paula Brito’s career, analyzing his ascent during the politically charged 1830s through his debt-ridden final years and death in 1861. Godoi is careful to place Paula Brito among a “generation of educated men of color who were born free between the end of the eighteenth century and the first decade of the nineteenth century,” and who played important roles in Brazilian state-building (20). Parts one and two explore Paula Brito’s entrance into the publishing world, while the second half of the book concentrates on the ups and downs of his commercial ventures in the 1850s.

Paula Brito’s start in printing began in his teens, as an apprentice for the National Press. Under the care of his free, African-descended grandfather who had been a sergeant major of a pardo (mixed-Black) battalion, he settled among a wider community of literate artisans in Rio. He also worked for the Plancher family, who in 1827 founded the Journal do Commercio. The connection to the French family accelerated Paula Brito’s interests in the language and culture—he would soon translate plays and short stories—and it was in working with what became Brazil’s paper of record that he gained an appreciation for how the press created literary markets (33).

Paula Brito’s business and political sensibilities took shape in the mid-1830s, after experiencing the hyper-partisan years that followed the abdication of Brazilian emperor Pedro I in 1831. In 1835 he founded the Brito Impartial Press to seemingly stay above the political fray. Yet, Godoi carefully traces Paula Brito’s networks to show his numerous relationships with leaders of the emerging Conservative Party. These relationships proved important for securing contracts with local government, and beyond financially, it assured Paula Brito a cultural and public reputation.

The Impartial Press flourished as the wider world of print also grew notably. From the twelve print businesses advertised in the city’s papers in 1831, to the 20 listed in 1848, we see that the number of shops nearly doubled; we have to infer that a growing cross-section of society sustained this expansion.2 We can extrapolate from Godoi’s work, and have evidence from a study of print workers in Mexico, that those operating the machines, and distributing books and supplies across town were integral to the circulation of information. For its part, the Impartial Press published approximately twenty-eight newspapers between 1835 and 1851, maintaining its signature “political diversity…[that included] printing opposition and government newspapers” (86).  Godoi also found that Paula Brito’s press kept tight links with the School of Medicine in Rio de Janeiro, printing in the mid-1840s the greatest number of medical theses of anyone shop in the city (90).

And yet, in posing the important question—“who composed, printed, and distributed these publications”—Godoi demonstrates that “slave labor was widely employed in Rio’s printing presses” (104, 241). We learn, for example, that the enslaved were part of the printers’ social networks, as shown by the inclusion of an enslaved compositor in a mutualist society of Rio’s printers in 1846. We also learn that Paula Brito hired the escaped person, Francisco, in 1858, and that over the 1840s he had been allocated the services of seven liberated Africans, people rescued from the illegal slave trade. Liberated Africans were contracted out for up to fourteen years. As Godoi reminds, Paula Brito’s ability to secure the labor of liberated Africans attests to his visible and well-connected status. And yet, his ties to slave-owning were also a point of public critique: the slave ad he placed in 1837 for the escaped woman Maria Conga prompted printed rebuttals from adversaries calling out his reputation for “treating his slaves very harshly” (107).

Paula Brito’s business peaked in the 1850s, when he owned Brazil’s largest publishing house. The shop also hosted the meetings of the Petalogical Society, the most influential cultural association in the Brazilian capital. Pointedly, Godoi situates Paula Brito’s new venture with the Dous de Dezembro Company as illustrating the wide-ranging financial initiatives emerging in the context of the post-1850 ban on the slave trade. He notes, for example, that the Dous de Dezembro was one of the “76 corporations and 515 limited partnerships…registered in the city’s Business Tribunal” between 1851 and 1865 (136). 

The regular meetings of the Petalogical Society at the business fueled the buzz around the Dous de Dezembro. Contemporaries, like the famed Afro-Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, described the Petalogical as a place “where petalogicians would come and go there, just passing through, picking up and spreading gossip, analyzing rumors, sniffing out news, all that without taking a minute away from their own business” (189). Godoi carefully recreated the profiles of a quarter of the nearly 100 members from newspapers, showing the names of other Afro-Brazilians who circled in these upper echelons of influence. And as associational culture dictated,  the Petalogical Society periodically raised subscriptions to buy the freedom of enslaved children.

Paula Brito died deeply indebted after the market crashes of 1854 and 1857 that upended much of the publishing sector in Rio. His wife, Rufina, whom Godoi speculates “must have been familiar with the workings of the press and bookstore, playing a role…that the sources hid until his death,” carried on the family shop, if in a diminished capacity, for about another decade (233). Their daughter, also Rufina, obtained a teacher’s license in 1875—suggesting the family’s inter-generational stability. These two intriguing aspects of Paula Brito’s family offer excellent starting points for further research into gender, slavery, and the public sphere. There remains much to be analyzed about the relationships between female entrepreneurship, the gendered political economies of slavery, and the terms of access and representation in public life.

  1. A sampling of this scholarship from just the last five years: Marialva Barbosa, Escravos e o mundo da comunicação: oralidade, leitura e escrita no século XIX (Rio de Janeiro: Mauad X, 2016); Rafaella Valença de Andrade Galvão, “Felippe Neri Collaço: um homem de cor, de letras e de números, Recife, 1815-1894,” Master’s thesis, Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, 2016; Marcelo MacCord, Carlos Eduardo Moreira de Araújo and Flávio dos Santos Gomes, eds., Rascunhos cativos: educação, escolas e ensino no Brasil escravista (Rio de Janeiro: Editora 7 Letras, 2017); Ana Flávia Magalhães Pinto, Escritos de liberdade: literatos negros, racismo e cidadania no Brasil oitocentista (Campinas: Editora da UNICAMP, 2018);  Maria Helena Pereira Toledo Machado, ed., “Tinta negra, papel branco: escritas afrodescendentes e emancipação,” Dossiê in Estudos Avançados 33:96 (May-August 2019): 93-224; Ana Flávia Magalhães Pinto and Sidney Chalhoub, eds., Pensadores negros, pensadoras negras: Brasil, séculos XIX e XX (Belo Horizonte: Editora Fino Traço, 2020); Kim Butler and Petrônio Domingues, eds., Diásporas imaginadas: Atlântico Negro e histórias afro-brasileiras (São Paulo: Editora Perspectiva, 2020).
  2. For a broader reassessment of literacy, circulation, and the nineteenth-century press, see, Hendrik Kraay, Celso Thomas Castilho, and Teresa Cribelli, eds., Press, Power, and Culture in Imperial Brazil (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2020).
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Celso Thomas Castilho

Celso Thomas Castilho is an associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University, where he directs the Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latinx Studies (CLACX). He most recently co-edited, Press, Power, and Culture in Imperial Brazil, with Hendrik Kraay and Teresa Cribelli (New Mexico, 2020). He tweets from @celso_thomas.