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Commemorative Postal Issue | 150 Years of Free Womb Law

About the Souvenir Sheet

“Bodies born black, are they free, even today?” Diego Mouro

The art features two black children playing as the symbolic apex of freedom. They smile, jump, almost as if flying free. The sheets and clotheslines present in the work are symbolic elements, referring to the rescue of the affections created within the families. The artist inserts himself in this nostalgic memory, through the figure of his grandmother and the affection she placed in her treatment of clothes. The overlapping layers of the pieces on the clothesline connect to this place of memory, to these familiar affections that are built and that, in some way, protect and value these lives and freedoms. However, this idea of affective family construction is also crossed by the constant threat to black lives, exerted by a state that insists on keeping them imprisoned by stigmas and imprisoning them continuously. Therefore, a threatening shadow insinuates itself behind the sheets, representing the various institutional arms that keep these lives watched, hostage to fear and to the reminder that freedom is not something definitive for the Brazilian black population. In this way, the image problematizes the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Free Womb Law. While the stamps exalt freedom, smiles and beauty in everyday life in black lives, the block proposes a reflection on the meaning and value of freedom in Brazil.

Free Womb Law, 1871

“It declares of free status the children of slave women who are born after the date of this law, freed the slaves of the nation, and others, and provides for the upbringing and treatment of those minor children and under the annual release of slaves”. (Law n. 2040, of September 28, 1871, the Free Womb Law) 150 years ago, on September 28, 1871, Law 2040 was enacted, declaring free status to the children of enslaved women born since then, becoming known as Lei do Ventre Livre (Free Womb Law) or Rio Branco Law. Although its approval was the result of a lengthy process, woven through a series of debates and political clashes that often followed in crooked paths, the Free Womb Law triggered an inexorable process towards freedom and was significant in many respects. However, the negotiations and political game that laid the groundwork for its enactment in 1871 began a few decades earlier. Brazilian political and economic elites prolonged slavery in the country as much as possible, extending the process of emancipation of enslaved women, men and children for much of the second half of the 19th century. Started in 1850, with the promulgation of the Eusébio de Queirós Law, prohibiting the entry of enslaved Africans in Brazil, this process took almost 40 years until the total abolition of slavery, in 1888, preceded by the Law of Sexagenaires, of 1885, which determined the liberation of the enslaved over 60 years old. The path to emancipation was winding and alternated, at times, moderate legislative advances with setbacks and a lot of resistance. An example of this were the unsuccessful attempts to promote “freedom of the womb” headed by some parliamentarians, still in the 1850s and, above all, in the following decade. Despite such initiatives, the Lei do Ventre Livre, the second abolitionist law, was only enacted 21 years after the extinction of trade in Africans. It took shape over a succession of debates in the second half of the 19th century, a period marked by intense political, economic and social changes in the country and by the advance of discussions on the abolitionist issue on the international stage. Many of these heated clashes around the freedom versus property quarrel at the time were triggered or intensified by pressure exerted by the British government, whose authoritarian foreign policy was invested with strategic economic objectives. When the Free Womb Law was approved, the extinction of slavery was still something abstract for a nation like Brazil, with an economy structurally based on slave labor. In concrete terms, this law determined that the children of enslaved women, who were born from the date of its enactment, would remain under the authority of those who exploited their mothers until they reached 8 years of age. From then on, this owner could choose between keeping the child until the age of 21, using his services, with the condition not to subject him to excessive punishment, or handing him over to the State, receiving compensation in return. The inauguration of this new civic status of the daughters and sons of enslaved black women made explicit the margins between slavery and freedom. Paradoxically, the unborn children of enslaved women with a “free womb” would not inherit slavery, but would hardly be considered “free” in its fullness. This metaphor of the “free womb”, the freedom managed in the womb of the enslaved woman, whose bodies were still attributed the condition of merchandise, reveals the mere formality of the discourse of “freedom” arising from the determinations established by law. Promulgating supposed freedom to the wombs of black women configured a strategy for maintaining political and economic order under the Brazilian Empire which, through gradual emancipationism, met the wishes of one of its main foreign investors, England, and diluted dissatisfaction of the local slaveholding elites. The intention was not, therefore, to abdicate immediately and unrestrictedly the right to property guaranteed by law, since the slavery of black bodies remained a legalized practice in Brazil and widely disseminated in the social fabric. This model of slow and gradual emancipation from slavery was the basis for the elaboration of laws that, like the Free Womb Law, promoted and, paradoxically, postponed the extinction of the institution in the country, generating different interpretations about its motivations, as well as its limits. As a result, in the years following its enactment, critics of gradualism interpreted the Law as a way of assuring owners of the maintenance of slavery or of guaranteeing and legitimizing the enslavement of children born from such “free wombs”, forging a memory that it emptied and stripped it of its meanings. However, the parliamentary clashes that preceded it, as well as those that abolitionists and slavers also fought outside Parliament and the resistance of the powerful to its enactment, reveal that the liberation from the womb of enslaved women condemned the slave institution to an end, even if not immediate. It also ran counter to the interests of the rural elites, who concentrated the ownership of the enslaved after the interdiction of the drug trade. This new pattern of concentration allowed the emergence of economic sectors that were not dependent on slavery and supported emancipation as a condition for the nation’s progress and for the construction of a modern society. This entire process deteriorated the foundations of the institution, as well as its legitimacy. Recalling the context of the time, the steps and clashes that anticipated and created the scenario for the promulgation of the Free Womb Law allows us to reflect on the current context. Although the Free Womb Law is interpreted as a significant step on the long road to the definitive abolition of slavery in Brazil, it also reveals other nuances, which denounce the logic of subordination of black lives, something that is rooted in Brazilian society until the current days. Therefore, freedom is a continuous achievement for black men and women, and it is reinvigorated in the awareness that their bodies embody the resistance of yesteryear and now. The issuance of a stamp commemorating the 150th anniversary of the promulgation of the Free Womb Law by the Correios Brasil, in this partnership with the Museu Afro Brasil, allows the meanings and developments of this event to be revisited and discussed. The ephemeris is thus updated, in light of contemporaneity and more recent academic research. And, above all, through art, which permeates and is permeated by the clashes, challenges and tensions of life in a society that deals with the heritage and ills of the Brazilian colonial and slavery past.

Museu Afro Brasil

Technical Details

Stamp issue N. 16

Art: Diego Mouro

Print system: offset

Paper: gummed chalky paper

Souvenir Sheet with 2 stamps

Facial value: R$ 2,95 each stamp

Issue: 10,000 souvenir sheets

Design area: 25 x 59mm

Stamp dimensions: 25 x 59mm

Souvenir sheet dimensions: 137 x 85mm

Perforation: 12 x 11.5

Date of issue: September 28th, 2021

Place of issue: São Paulo/SP

Printing: Brazilian Mint

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