Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Martine Jean — The “Law of Necessity”: Enslaved Convict Workers and Commutations of the Death Penalty in Nineteenth-Century Brazil

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

12 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.

Joukowsky Forum, 111 Thayer Street 

Analyzing slave petitions to commute their sentences from the death penalty to penal servitude, this presentation intervenes in the vibrant debate on punishing the enslaved which seeks to connect the fields of labor history with the history of punishment. Martine Jean's analysis probes convicts’ understanding of the construction of Brazilian legal theory and practice while analyzing the tensions between slave-owners and Imperial authorities on punishing the enslaved. While convicts requested the commutation of their sentences, they remained confined in jails and penitentiaries throughout Brazil notably at the Casa de Detenção and Casa de Correção in Rio as well as Fernando de Noronha, a penal colony in northeast Brazil. Though this presentation is centered on the death penalty and its commutation, Jean also explores multiple forms of punishment of slaves in Brazil and their experiences with incarceration and penal labor outside prison walls to illuminate the differences between punishing slaves and free convicts but also similarities in their treatment in the criminal justice system.

Brazil Initiative

Martine Jean is a Mamolen Fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. She is a historian of nineteenth-century Brazil.