Moisés de Souza Netto was a creole slave who earned his freedom through military service and whose latter life illustrates the opportunities and challenges that freed slaves faced in nineteenth-century Brazil.
Moisés was born enslaved, to an unknown slave mother and a white father, Antonio de Souza Netto. Little is known about his early life, but his father became his master and also a general on the rebel side fighting for independence for the state of Rio Grande do Sul in the Farroupilha civil war (1835–45).
Being the son of a general did not grant Netto special treatment and he was never acknowledged as a legitimate heir, but participation in the war effort offered a potential path for slaves to earn freedom. His contribution to the Farroupilha conflict began in June 1840, when he was one of General Netto’s troops who fought against the legalist (imperial) forces.
On July 18, 1840 Netto abandoned the rebels to join the legalist forces of the Fifth Cavalry, where he remained through the rest of the conflict. Immediately after the conflict ended in 1845, Netto successfully petitioned the government for manumission on account of war service.
From that point on, Netto worked as a freedman for the baron of Jacuí on one of his cattle ranches. His military service also translated into social advancement as he eventually became a foreman who led troops and oversaw a pasture or a meat-salting area (charqueada), an unobtainable position for most former slaves.
On December 13, 1856 Netto gathered four of his subordinates in order to punish Agostinho, a man of mixed Afro-Brazilian descent. Although both men enjoyed important positions on the plantation, Netto was Agostinho’s superior. Netto acted as the oppressor of his underlings, distancing himself from the world in which he had been a part and irritating Agosthinho through his actions. Agostinho also accused Netto of making advances on his fiancé, a slave named Juliana. Agostinho tried to negotiate his punishment, saying that what Netto had decided was unfair. This enraged Netto, who drew a knife and advanced upon Agostinho. Agostinho responded by disarming Netto and wounding him fatally in the chest.
Agostinho confessed to murder before a Rio Pardo jury and was sentenced to death on September 19, 1857. The law on which his sentence was based, passed in the aftermath of a series of 1830s insurrections, imposed greater penalties for crimes committed against slave owners, their families, taskmasters, and foremen.
While military service was sometimes a path to manumission, Netto’s is the only known situation in which a slave was granted manumission due to direct participation in the Farroupilha civil war. His fate is a reminder that for most slaves and people of color, conflict pushed them towards precariousness and instability.
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Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.