Departing to Another Land: Slavery and Death at the Pretos Novos Cemetery, Rio de Janeiro

In this series of posts we’ll explore the history and archaeology of Pretos Novos, a nineteenth century cemetery site for newly arrived captives of the transatlantic slave trade, which was accidentally rediscovered in Rio de Janeiro in the 1990s. This first post provides some context and history regarding the cemetery.


‘Stamos em pleno mar…Era um sonho dantesco…Legiões de homens negros…Horrendos a dançar’

For almost 400 years Brazil remained at the very heart of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Millions of children, adolescents and adults were forcibly transported from Africa to Brazil aboard the infamous slave ships or tumbeiros. The intention was to fulfil demand for forced labour at sugar cane, coffee and cotton plantations, in the country’s mines, and in domestic households.

The ships arriving in Brazil principally bore the Brazilian or Portuguese flag. Unlike many other regions implicated in the slave trade, a significant number of these voyages started directly from their final destination, the ports of Brazil. They returned from Africa packed, often with 200 to 400 people held captive on board (Slave Voyages).


‘Section of a Slave Ship’ from Walsh’s Notices of Brazil (via NYPL)

Those individuals arriving in Brazil were from parts of West Central Africa, the Bight of Benin, and to a lesser extent, Southeastern Africa and the Indian Ocean. On the main route, from Central and West Africa, ships would sail close to the line of the Equator. After a journey of 45 to 60 days they disembarked at the ports of Amazonia, Bahia, Pernambuco, Rio de Janeiro and the southeastern seaboard of Brazil.*

Brazil was the main destination, but many of those captured and taken aboard did not survive the harsh conditions of the Atlantic crossing. Data from Slave Voyages shows that between 1574 and 1856 approximately three and a half million individuals embarked on ships whose principle point of disembarkation would be Brazil. However, closer to three million arrived in Brazilian ports, with an average death rate of 8.7% during the voyage.

The ocean crossing was known as the middle passage, and formed one of the most awful parts of these voyages. The journeys to Brazil were in part facilitated by this passage in comparison to other American destinations, averaging 44.5 days for all the crossings made over the entire period. Even so, this still represented at least a month on the high sea, piled up and restrained in wooden racks. Human beings were treated as commodities, held alongside goods and animals.

If they survived the terrible conditions and diseases which rapidly spread across the ship, they would have ahead an even longer journey to endure – the formation of Brazilian society – a journey of prejudice, resistance and struggle for equality, and one which has had a deep and lasting influence on modern Brazilian culture.


For a time the main port of arrival in Rio de Janeiro was located at Praça XV, where the slave markets and alfândega were based. These were called mercados de carne or ‘meat markets’, and were famous for their inhuman conditions. For several decades these acted as lodgings for new arrivals as they waited to be sold. Conditions could be just as bad as those inside of the tumbeiros. Many of the new arrivals were already debilitated from the voyage, affected by diseases such as diarrhoea, measles, scurvy, flu and tuberculosis, and those who were not could have contracted these at the market itself. The newly arrived sick were taken to Lazareto, far from the city centre, for quarantine. Estimates indicate that around 4% of the approximate three million who arrived died (Slave Voyages).


Rugendas’ ‘Negros novos’ (via NYPL)

The transfer of the Portuguese court to Brazil, and the arrival of the royal family in Rio de Janeiro in 1808 marked a new milestone for the slave trade in Brazil. The new empire’s capital urgently required improved infrastructure, including better buildings, roads and communications networks. This significantly increased the demand for slaves, creating a social paradox where the slaves were needed, but not wanted to be seen. The arrival of the royal family also drove the desire to ‘civilise’ the city (Abreu 1987, 32). The slave markets were associated with disease and social outrage, and thus presented a threat to the progress of society, and as such the presence of one in the Paço region was no longer deemed acceptable. According to the historian Cláudio Honorato a ‘national civilisation project’ was carried out, which resulted in the transfer of the market to the outskirts of the city to a place called Valongo (Haag 2011).

Robert Walsh visited Brazil in 1828 and described the sights of Valongo in “Notices of Brazil in 1828 and 1829” (1832):

“The poor creatures are exposed for sale like any other commodity…buying a dog or mule…They were all doomed to remain on the spot, like sheep in a pen, till they were sold; they have no apartment to retire to, no bed to repose on, no covering to protect them; they sit naked all day, and lie naked all night, on the bare boards, or benches, where we saw them exhibited.”

Maria Graham, a British writer who also visited Valongo and described:

“rows of young creatures … sitting, their heads shaved, their bodies emaciated, and the marks of recent itch upon their skins…If I could, I would appeal to their masters, to those who buy, and to those who sell, and implore them to think of the evils slavery brings.”

These markets were chosen by artists such the painters Jean-Baptiste Debret and Johann Moritz Rugendas (Rugendas 1989) to portray XIX century Brazilian society; and so we have pictoral evidence.

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Debret’s ‘Boutique de la Rue du Val-Longo’ 1834 – 1839 (via NYPL)


‘…And before I’d be a slave…I’d be buried in my grave…’

The transfer of the market from Praça XV to Valongo was not limited to simply an open space, but included a range of functions such as a cemetery. In 1769 a cemetery was created on the orders of Luís Melo Siva Mascarenhas or Marquis Lavradio.

The cemetery was called ‘Pretos Novos’, meaning ‘new blacks’, referring to both their newly arrived status – ‘novos’, indicating a social condition and status of transition. This was no ordinary cemetery, as the main function of Pretos Novos was to receive the dead bodies of recently arrived captives who died at the market. Around 95% of the individuals buried there were newly arrived Africans (Pereira 2007).

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Map of the location of Valongo and Pretos Novos (marked ‘x’ and with arrow) in modern Rio de Janeiro and on a map of 1812 (via OpenStreetMap contributors and Anais da Biblioteca Nacional)

Pereira, in his book on the cemetery (2007), notes that the location was not casually chosen: being beyond the city walls, and close to Valongo. The construction of the market and the cemetery delimited Valongo as the exclusive location for such activities, and prohibited the burial of ‘pretos novos’ in the traditional cemeteries of Santa Casa and Largo de Santa Rita (Cavalcanti 2005, 49). The traveller G. W. Freireyss described the cemetery, and the lack of respect for the bodies in his accounts of the early nineteenth century (1906):

“In the middle of this space [50 fathoms] was much land which, here and there, the remains of corpses were uncovered by the rain that had carried away the earth, and there were still many corpses on the floor that had not yet been buried”

They were just wrapped with a belt, tied above the head and below the feet. Probably they proceed to burial only once a week, as the bodies easily decompose and the bad odour is overpowering. Finally we came to a better understanding of burning time to time a lot of corpses semi-decomposed.

On the bottom side is all open, divided the backyard of a neighbouring property by a fence mats, and the other two sides with very low brick wall, and in the middle a small cross of very old rough sticks, and the land of the field upturned and littered with badly burned bones.”

According to Freireyss, there was some figment of religious aspect to the proceedings in 1814, however, this may have ceased in the 1820s when a judge visited and commented that he did not see men dressed as priests at the site (Medeiros 2012).

In Brazil the peak of the slave trade, was between 1826 and 1830, when close to 300,000 individuals arrived in Brazil. This coincides with the burial of approximately 6,119 individuals at Pretos Novos in just the six years between 1824 and 1830, according to death records from the Santa Rita parish (Pereira 2007). Over the 61 year lifespan of the cemetery it is estimated that between twenty to thirty thousand people were buried there (Museus do Rio).

The use of the cemetery for this specific purpose represents the strong distinction of social class in life and death in eighteenth and nineteenth century Brazil, creating a separation and demonstrating inequality between the dead and the dead (Pereira 2007, 19). From this perspective the cemetery has been compared by Medeiros (2012 ,182), to “places of symbolic reproduction of the social universe” (Urbain 1978), with the bones of slaves left jumbled, and burned with different degrees of exposure to fire and the elements.

At the end of the 1820s, a new concern for urban planning and hygiene drove a series of transformations of the urban area and new municipal ordinances regulating public places in an attempt to reduce the number of epidemics sweeping the city. The city sought to create cemeteries beyond the urban area to remove odours and ‘miasmas’ (Medeiros 2012, 180). At this time Pretos Novos became the focus of increasing complaints regarding the open display of cadavers and the strong odour of death and decomposition, exacerbated by the hot and humid climate (in Pereira 2007, 79).

The trade was already under pressure at this point, and the cemetery was most likely closed from 1830. After this the numbers of slaves entering Brazil were greatly reduced following the creation of the 1831 Feijó-Barbacena law which prohibited the arrival of new slaves in Brazil. Between 1831 and 1835 fewer people were trafficked into Brazil than in the preceding years, as 25,651 arrived, although this was followed by a subsequent short boom in trading which broke regulations until 1860. The market at Valongo was abandoned, and as the urban grid of Rio expanded during the second half of the nineteenth century the cemetery was covered and obscured, and eventually the location was lost.

From this point until the nineties, the cemetery lived on only in documents and historical accounts. In 1996, a couple in the Gamboa neighbourhood decided to refurbish their nineteenth century house at nº 36, Rua Pedro Ernesto (Machado 2006). As construction commenced, workers began to expose human bones and teeth. The owners decided to report the finds to the General Department of Cultural Heritage and the José Bonifácio Centre (Vargas et al. 2001).

Following an archaeological assessment, a team spent about two months excavating thousands of human bone fragments and other remains including ceramics and metal (Carvalho et al. 2001). Since these discoveries a range of research has been conducted on the cemetery site, indicating that the area was smaller than anticipated from documentation (Tavares 2012).

The unique archaeological potential of the Pretos Novos cemetery is unquestionable. The broad range of cultural material recovered from the site includes pipes, dices and magic or religious objects. The majority of the skeletal remains are still on site. The analysis of the remains found to date, have and will continue to reveal a great deal of information regarding ethnic origins, demographic data, health status and diet of the individuals (e.g. Bastos et al. 2011; Mendonça de Souza et al. 2012). This is possible through the contributions from different disciplines, including archaeology, history, geography, ethnobiology and genetics among others. The findings from these fields are enabling the reconstruction of a much more detailed picture about the slave trade in Brazil. The cemetery provides important information regarding the stories of the individuals involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and their interactions. These will be further explored in our next post on bioarchaeological studies of the remains.


*during the eighteenth and nineteenth century Rio Grande do Sul state would became a key area for the maintenance of the slave system in Brazil due to the development of the Charque and the rise of Charqueadas, this region is know today in academia as “Pampa Negro” or Black Grasslands, a subject for another day.



Abreu, M. A. 1987. A evolução urbana do Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro: IPLANRIO/ZAHAR.

Bastos, M. Q. R. Mendonça de Souza, S. M. F. Santos, R. V.  Cook, D. C. Rodrigues-Carvalho, C. 2011. Da África ao Cemitério dos Pretos Novos, Rio de Janeiro: um Estudo sobre as Origens dos Escravos a Partir da Análise dos Isótopos de Estrôncio no Esmalte Dentário. Revista de Arqueología 24: 68–97.

Cavalcanti, N. O. 2005. Desembarques. In Florentino, N. (ed.) Tráfico, cativeiro e liberdade. Rio de Janeiro, século XVII-XX. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira.

Carvalho, E. Vargas, C. Machado, L. C. Campos, G. N. 2001. O cemitério dos Pretos Novos. Uma abordagem interdisciplinar. Anais do Sociedade de Arqueologia Brasileira. Arqueologia no novo milênio: XI congresso de arqueologia da Sociedade de Arqueologia Brasileira, Rio de Janeiro, 2001.

Freireyss, G. W. 1906. Viagem ao interior do Brazil nos annos de 1814—1815. Revista do Instituto Historico e Geographico de São Paulo 11: 158-228.

Haag, c. 2011. Ossos de que falam (bones that talk). Revista Pesquisa FAPESP 190: 24-29. [Accessed 10 May 2016]

Lavradio, M. do. 1842. Relatório. Revista do IHGB 4.

Medeiros, J. C. D. 2012. Germinal: morte e sepultamento de pretos novos no Rio de Janeiro do século XIX. Habitus 10(2): 173-185.

Mendonça de Souza, S. M. F. Santos, R. V. Cook, D. C. Bastos, R. 2012. Cemitério dos Pretos Novos: Técnicas modernas ajudam a compreender questões de escravidão. Ciência Hoje 291: 22–27.

Phillips, T. 2011. Brazilian slave port ruins unearthed in Rio’s Olympic facelift. The Guardian [Accessed 10 May 2016].

Rugendas, J. M. 1989. Viagem pitoresca através do brasil. Belo Horizonte: Itatiaia; São Paulo: EDUSP.

Tavares, R. B. 2012. Cemitério dos Pretos Novos no Rio de Janeiro, século XIX: Uma tentativa de delimitação espacial. Unpublished Masters Dissertation: Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro.

Urbain, J. D. 1978. La societé de conservation: étude semiologique dês cimetiéres de l’occident. Paris: Payot.

Vargas, C. Carvalho, E. Machado, L. C. Campos, G. N. 2001. Africanos novos na Gamboa. Um portal arqueológico. Rio de Janeiro, Prefeitura da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro, Secretaria das Culturas, Arquivo Geral da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro, Departamento Geral de Patrimônio Cultural.

Walsh, R. F. 1830. Notices of Brazil in 1828 and 1829. London: F. Westley and A. H. Davis [Accessed 10 May 2016]


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