(The Root) — This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.
This image permits a vivid glimpse of slavery in Brazil as it existed along the rough trails of its interior nearly 200 years ago. The painting, of modest dimensions but full of detail, depicts the arrival of a mule train at a rancho, or rest station, in the southeastern part of the country.
It was painted by Charles Landseer, a young British artist who spent much of 1825 and 1826 in Brazil. He accompanied Charles Stuart, a diplomat charged with negotiating a treaty establishing the independence of Brazil from Portugal. While there, Landseer made hundreds of drawings of what he had seen. Upon his return to Britain, he made several paintings from those visual notes, including this work.
Landseer has faithfully recorded the hierarchical nature of the mule train. The light-skinned man in the foreground sits with detached assurance on a leather-covered chest. His fashionable attire indicates his status as the tropeiro, or owner of a large-scale shipping enterprise. Behind him, a black man removes the saddle of the tropeiro’s horse. Though not as well dressed as the owner, he is still fully clothed and wears an elegant fur hat with plume.
His role is most likely that of the arrieiro, the man actually responsible for the overall well-being of the mule train. Behind the arrieiro, another black man leans against one of the posts of the rancho, smoking a pipe and looking out over the trail as the rest of the train arrives. He wears only a pair of striped shorts and a pointed cap and is one of the many camaradas who directly tended the animals. The mule train winds out of sight in the distance and probably extends far beyond.
Though workers in this profession were often free, contemporary documents reveal that the use of slaves was also common. The scale of the operation therefore provides a glimpse into the varied situation of slavery in Brazil during the last decades of its practice.
The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.