annals of slavery

A note on the Calabouço

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas and slave prisons in 19th-century Rio de Janeiro

Flora Thomson-DeVeaux
“Punishments there are so dreadfully severe, that no humane master will send any slave thither, who is not vicious beyond all endurance,” wrote the Englishman John Luccock, who lived in Rio at the turn of the century.
“Punishments there are so dreadfully severe, that no humane master will send any slave thither, who is not vicious beyond all endurance,” wrote the Englishman John Luccock, who lived in Rio at the turn of the century. AUGUSTUS EARLE_PUNISHING NEGROS AT CATHABOUCO_1822_NATIONAL LIBRARY OF AUSTRALIA_NLA.OBJ-134509360

Half a century ago, slaves ran away quite often.
There were many of them, and not all of them cared for slavery.
Machado de Assis, “Father Against Mother”

The first tourist attraction I visited in Rio de Janeiro, on my first day in the city, was São João Batista Cemetery. What most surprised me when I got back from the outing was other people’s surprise. It made perfect sense to me. After all, all my favorite people were there. I’d fallen in love with Brazil from afar, listening to scratchy recordings from the 1920s and ‘30s and staring at images of an urban landscape that had long ceased to exist. So I arrived in the city already knowing that the place I’d fallen in love with was long gone and that I would be condemned to a sort of double vision, constantly holding the past up to the present.

After six years of coming and going, I moved to Rio to write my dissertation. You’d think that living in the city full-time would bring me into the 21st century once and for all, but my dissertation itself – a new translation of the Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, or the Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, the 1881 novel by Machado de Assis – has made my temporal disconnect even worse. While my goal is to turn out a piece of literature worthy of Machado, I’ve found that I often use the dissertation as an excuse to indulge my historical curiosity and dig myself ever deeper into the past.

Somewhere in the book, a word or a turn of phrase gives me pause. I turn to a crumbling dictionary, then search through 19th-century newspapers on the Biblioteca Nacional’s website, arrive at an article, then a monograph, then another monograph, then a specialized manual, and before I know it, I’m knee-deep in a field that’s not my own, having followed the thread of a word into a different world entirely. I’ve spent days researching the history of pyrotechnics, oscillating exchange rates, the categorization of mental disorders, 19th-century fashion, ceramics, and colloquial expressions involving feet and ears, just to name a few of the topics that have come up so far. When I finally return to the translation, all I have to show for my efforts is a note that will be tucked discreetly away at the end of the book. Most of the time, the note will get the topic out of my system. Sometimes it becomes a nearly incommunicable inside joke, which I can explain at length to my wife when she gets back from work, if she has the time.


One note, however, has been following me ever since I came across it last November. It’s buried in the infamous chapter where Machado has Brás Cubas damn his brother-in-law Cotrim with the faintest of praise:


People accused him of avarice, and I believe they were right; but avarice is nothing more than the exaggeration of a virtue, and virtues should be like budgets: better a surplus than a deficit. As he had a very dry manner, he had enemies, and they went so far as to accuse him of savagery. The only thing they alleged on this score was that he often sent slaves to the calabouço, from where they came down streaming with blood; but, apart from the fact that he only sent runaways and incorrigibles, it so happens that, having dealt for so long in the smuggling of slaves, he had become somewhat used to the slightly harsher treatment required by that sort of business, and one cannot honestly attribute to a man’s original nature that which is the pure effect of social relations.


Apart from the perfectly calibrated malice of these lines, which I’m still revising in translation, I ran up against one particular word in the paragraph: calabouço. All my dictionaries told me it meant “dungeon.” What dungeon would Cotrim have been sending his slaves to? I couldn’t imagine the place; the term seemed oddly medieval. I wondered if it was just a saying, but something about the phrasing suggested otherwise.

The battered scholastic edition of the Memórias póstumas in which I first read the novel has no footnote explaining what this calabouço is (although it does define the word “arguir,” or “accuse”). Nor does the hypertext edition at, whose careful annotations rarely let me down. My first searches for the term online in connection with “Rio de Janeiro” only came across a heavy metal bar. Having discarded that possibility, I kept on looking and came up with multiple references to a restaurant named Calabouço. The name of the establishment, closed decades ago, would likely never have been preserved for posterity were it not for the fact that in March 1968, military policemen invaded it and wound up shooting and killing a 17-year-old student named Edson Luís, sparking massive protests. The boy’s death has been in the news lately, less by virtue of its fiftieth anniversary and more in comparison with the outrage and demonstrations over the execution of Rio city councilwoman Marielle Franco on March 14th of this year. The Wikipedia article for the restaurant mentioned that it had been given the name Calabouço because “there were stories that” the place “had harbored a slave prison.” The sentence had no citations, and sounded more like an urban legend than historical fact.

Then, in the Dicionário da escravidão negra no Brasil by Clóvis Moura, I found this entry:


The royal decree of the 16th of November, 1693, ordered that there be built, near by the Arsenal on Castelo Hill in Rio de Janeiro, a calabouço or public workhouse where slaves might be punished. The decree prohibited masters from using iron implements to punish their slaves or keeping them prisoner. Debret, in his account of the application of these punishments by the state, says that every morning, long lines of enslaved blacks were led to the Calabouço. For every hundred lashes, the whipper was owed a pataca [a silver coin].

Masters delegated the punishment of their slaves to the state? How could I have missed that, in years of studying Brazilian history and culture? Although my undergraduate degree at Princeton and doctoral program at Brown were oriented towards literature, both provided a solid base of Brazilian history. I scoured the memory of those classes and those readings in search of any recollection of this practice and came up empty-handed. Did I nod off during some seminar, or skim over some crucial paragraph? It also occurred to me that, as I absorbed the minutiae of the horrendous system, the Calabouço might have been lost from view as just one more barbarity among so many.

It was time to catch up. And there was no shortage of serious work on the subject. I dived into a series of excellent studies: Mary Karasch’s Slave Life in Rio de Janeiro, 1808-1850, Thomas Holloway’s Policing Rio de Janeiro: Repression and Resistance in a Nineteenth-Century City; Luiz Carlos Soares’ “O Povo de Cam” na Capital do Brasil, and O Duplo Cativeiro and Cárceres Imperiais, by Carlos Eduardo Araújo, along with a generous handful of other articles and references.

From what I managed to piece together in this brief survey, royal decrees from the late 17th century had ordered the construction of a workhouse or dungeon where slaves could be punished – “albeit with moderation and humanity.” The structure was part of the complex of the Fort of São Tiago, on a corner of land that would become known as the Ponta do Calabouço, or Dungeon Point. This was the first Calabouço; others would come, or would wind up adopting the same name.

Unlike other prisons, in which both slaves and citizens would be confined after having committed a crime laid out in the penal code of the time, the Calabouço was a jail for runaway slaves, or those – like the unfortunate captives of Brás Cubas’ brother-in-law – who had been sent there by their masters to be beaten. There were two reasons for this, or so it seemed. One was that it was technically illegal for masters to beat their slaves. I can see readers rolling their eyes, but a series of legal measures did limit the violence that private citizens could mete out on their captives. “That many owners did not obey the laws is obvious from the police reports,” escreve Mary Karasch, “but others conformed and paid the city to punish their slaves for them.” Chillingly, one prison director reported on multiple occasions that slaves arrived at the prison already “covered with wounds.”

Beyond the technical illegality of domestic torture, there might have been another reason for masters to send their slaves off to the official machine. Karasch records the case of one woman in Rio who punished her slaves so brutally every night that their cries began bothering the neighbors. In response, one of them put out a note in the Diário do Rio de Janeiro praising the woman as an “example of domestic disciplining.”  When a large, disapproving crowd awaited her the next night, she refrained from repeating the exercise.

I kept thinking of Cotrim, the model citizen, “the treasurer of a fraternal order and a member of several religious societies,” would pay the state a fee to have his slaves whipped bloody. “One cannot honestly attribute to a man’s original nature that which is the pure effect of social relations,” Brás says. Of course, that’s much easier to say of a man who outsources bloodletting, keeping his own hands clean and sparing his neighbors’ ears. And there were many like Cotrim. In the year 1826 alone, 1,786 slaves were punished at the Calabouço at the behest of their masters. Thomas Holloway, the historian of Rio’s police, did the macabre math: on average, nearly five were admitted per day. Most were given 200 lashes, some as many as 300. This all meant that the prison employees must have spent hours of the day, every day, whipping slaves in their masters’ place. “The whipping service was system maintenance,” wrote Holloway. “It puts in stark relief the state as an instrument of the dominant class, serving the need of that class to control through physical violence those who provided the muscle power on which this commercial economy depended.”


These were two separate systems of punishment: there was the pelourinho, or the public whipping-post, for those actually judged and condemned, and the calabouço, which served the specific function of meting out punishment outside the law, delegating abuse to the state. Only much later, around 1832, did it become required for masters to specify their slaves’ infractions: not prove a crime, that is, just report what they had allegedly done. Masters had to pay for the service – not only for the beatings and subsequent medical treatment, but also for the captives’ food and housing. At first they could order several hundred lashes, which reformers repeatedly tried to limit or have spread out over several days at various points, with a maximum number of lashes per day. The number of slaves who died in the prison as a result of these beatings was not small, and many others likely died after being released. Some owners, meanwhile, used the prison as a way of getting rid of unwanted, presumably un-sellable slaves: they packed them off to the institution and simply stopped paying. After repeated threats, the state would eventually resell as many as they could.

Reports of the Calabouço from the first half of the 19th century are terrifying. “Punishments there are so dreadfully severe, that no humane master will send any slave thither, who is not vicious beyond all endurance,” wrote the Englishman John Luccock, who lived in Rio at the turn of the century. Even a German traveler convinced of the need for slaves to be punished in order to keep them in line saw the Calabouço of Castelo Hill as more of a hole befitting wild animals. It was a dark, dank space with no illumination or ventilation, where slaves might die of suffocation. Records show repeated recommendations that it be shut down.

In a heavy tome that I consulted in the library of the Museu Histórico Nacional – the História da Casa do Trem, by Antonio Pimentel Winz – I saw the prison for the first time, in a painting by the London-born artist Augustus Earle. The image doesn’t portray the suffocating cave but the entrance to the prison, where the whippings were moved after 1829, except for those who practiced capoeira or had been formally convicted. It’s a small watercolor in which we see a naked black man tied to a post, being whipped by another while a small group looks on. Most of the faces are visibly indifferent. A white man stands close by – perhaps the master come to see that his money is being well spent. A slave being held by a guardsman looks with fear at what he is about to face. The punisher himself, a cross hanging round his neck, looks resigned; from his bare feet we understand he may be a slave himself. Another black man in the right-hand corner looks distressed, but a more careful look reveals that his expression is one of exhaustion: a bloody whip hangs from a weary hand. Though it’s squarely in the center of the watercolor, one might be forgiven for overlooking a small figure seated on the ground next to the punisher and his victim: the white man covers his face with one hand and thrusts the other one out toward the bloody scene as if to make it stop. “It is a gesture of not looking, perhaps ‘should not be looking,’” wrote art historian Leonard Bell, who saw this figure as a self-portrait, an image of Earle himself.


Brás’s reflections on his brother-in-law can be dated to the late 1840s, which is when we find him considering marrying Cotrim’s niece, Nhã-loló. We know this because she dies in Brazil’s first yellow fever epidemic, which began in late 1849. By this time, the first Calabouço had finally been deactivated. Construction on the country’s first penitentiary, the Casa de Correção de Matacavalos, had begun in the 1830s, and the Calabouço was reborn there in the form of a wing baptized with the name of the old slave prison. During the process of the deactivation of the old dungeon, some slaves were transferred to the penitentiary construction site so that they could be used to build their new prison. The new Calabouço served not only to hold slaves awaiting trial and those condemned for crimes, but also allowed masters to imprison their slaves preventively before being sold so they couldn’t be stolen. And the practice of meting out punishment continued. Between 1856 and 1858, Luiz Carlos Soares writes in O Povo de Cam, 4,479 slaves were sent to the Calabouço, 3,220 of whom by their own masters.

Over the decades, authorities complained repeatedly of the common practice of masters leaving their slaves in the Calabouço indefinitely, imposing limits that ranged from eight days to six months, apparently without much effect. In his dissertation, Cárceres Imperiais, Carlos Eduardo Araújo quotes a report from September 1849 from the Casa de Correção on a slave known by the name Antonio Crioulo, who had been sent there by his owner, Francisco Dias de Castro, thirteen years and six months before. If Brás Cubas were a work of nonfiction, Antonio Crioulo might have shared a cell with Cotrim’s slaves.

The Calabouço at the Casa de Correção was only deactivated in 1874. Those still there were transferred to the Casa de Detenção – where, according to reports, masters continued sending slaves to be beaten by correctional officers until the eve of abolition.


As I learned about the Calabouço, I wondered why I couldn’t remember hearing of any similar institution in the slaveholding system in the United States. Rio’s Calabouço led me to the Charleston Sugar House, a torture chamber where slaves were sent from across the city and from nearby plantations to be whipped. James Matthews, who was held in slavery in Charleston and escaped to Maine in the 1830s, described entering the punishment room and seeing a terrifying array of instruments: “paddles, and whips, and cowskins, and bluejays, and cat-o’-nine-tails.” The bluejay was a tool with “two lashes, very heavy and full of knots. It is the worst thing to whip with of anything they have. It makes a hole where it strikes, and when they have done it will be all bloody.” In both Charleston and New Orleans, there are records of attempts to limit the number of lashes per day to twenty or twenty-five – a dramatic difference in relation to the hundreds dealt out daily in the Calabouço. None of which diminishes the suffering of those whose flesh was torn by twenty blows from the bluejay.

While searching for more details of America’s calabouços, I came across a moment in the memoirs of William Wells Brown, the abolitionist, novelist, and playwright who escaped from slavery in Kentucky in 1834. One day, as he was serving wine to guests of his owner’s, he filled the glasses too full and “the gentlemen spilled the wine on their clothes as they went to drink.” The next morning, Brown’s master sent him to the town jailor with a note and a dollar. Suspecting that something was up, Brown asked a passing sailor to read the note for him. “They are going to give you hell,” [1] said the sailor, explaining that the note was a request to have the slave whipped, and the dollar was payment for the service. “In most of the slave-holding cities, when a gentleman wishes his servants whipped, he can send him to the jail and have it done,” Brown wrote.

The Calabouço became a minor obsession. I found out that not only was the Santos Dumont airport built on top of the region that bore its name, but that the airport itself had once been called the Aeródromo do Calabouço. One day, when I was looking to rent a car at Santos Dumont and trying to figure out where the agency was, exactly, Google – which tends to translate Rio place names into English for me, somewhat erratically and without being asked – informed me that I could pick up my car at “Calabouço Airport.” And yet nobody I spoke to seemed to have heard of the prison. Only the name remained, divorced from its historical memory. Who thinks of slaves when hearing Tim Maia sing “Sem contar com Calabouço, Flamengo, Botafogo, Urca, Praia Vermelha…” in the song “Do Leme ao Pontal”?


It’s strange to think that the name Calabouço remains among us, bereft of its history. Stranger still is to realize that the contemporary prison system retains some of its worst characteristics, albeit under other names and in other structures. In O Povo de Cam, I read this 1837 report on the Calabouço at Castelo: “Indeed, only he who has seen 109 slaves (grown men) crammed into a cave 61 spans long by 21 high, and 37 deep, may believe that this is so.” How not to think of the painfully familiar images of overcrowded Brazilian prisons?

The description of the common jail active at the time of the Calabouço, the Aljube, touches on one of the key elements of today’s penitentiary crisis: the abuse of pre-trial detention, where prisoners are left awaiting trial indefinitely. Over a third of Brazil’s prison population is accounted for by pre-trial detainees. In his history of the Rio police, Thomas Holloway quotes an 1833 report in which “the chief of police found 340 prisoners in the Aljube, for 43 of whom there were no records. No one could say why they were there, what their sentence was, or how much of it they had served.” Much like the Calabouço, this widespread use of pretrial detention smacks of a means by which to get around the illegality of imprisonment without trial.

I come across this same parallel, implicit law in a daily basis while reading the newspapers. Frequently, when someone is killed by the police, that someone is referred to – sometimes in the headline, sometimes in the article – as a bandido. I struggle to translate the word, a summary judgment: criminal, outlaw, thug, bad guy? Neither the newspaper nor the police specify what the word means, but it stands as some sort of justification for the killing. What article of Brazil’s penal code decrees the death penalty, without investigation and without trial, for those individuals in that special category of citizenship, the bandidos? William Wells Brown was sent to the jailer with a note. In the Brazilian press, certain people are sent to prison or to their graves, then given a title: bandido. When Marielle Franco was accused by her political opponents of defending bandidos, the ideological abyss only widened between those who believe that she fought for proper legal treatment of citizens, to keep them from being sent straight to the State’s dungeons or to the cemetery, and those who think that, by defending their rights, she became just like them, deserving of the same end of a bandido.


I was a long way away from the paragraph in the Posthumous Memoirs that I’d first set out to translate, but I couldn’t help myself.  I became obsessed with locating the exact site where Cotrim would have sent his slaves to be beaten, as if that would tell me anything I didn’t know already. I spent a long while staring at blueprints and maps, trying to imagine the Morro do Castelo – knocked down in 1922 during a hygenicist reshaping of the city’s downtown – and trying to envision a piece of hell carved into the side of it. References indicate that the Calabouço stood near the Santa Casa hospital (still standing, on Rua Santa Luzia) and the old arsenal, now the Museu Histórico Nacional. I’d walked down those streets, most recently under a blazing Carnival sun, wearing a top hat in the midst of a raucous street party, right by the remains of the Ladeira da Misericórdia, Rio’s first public thoroughfare.

I mentioned my habit of mentally comparing the landscape before me to the landscape of my studies, the world of the past, whether fiction or nonfiction. On my morning walks along the Aterro do Flamengo, I catch myself wiping away the land beneath my feet and sinking into the waves that took Escobar’s life in Machado’s novel Dom Casmurro. En route to a doctor’s appointment in Centro, I erase the facades of the buildings in Cinelândia and insert the marquees of the long-gone movie theaters that gave the plaza its name. Now, I imagined the revelers making their way through the ghost of Castelo Hill as if through a tunnel, singing their way right into the Calabouço.

How on earth could I condense all this into a single word? The first translator of the Memórias póstumas had translated “o calabouço” as “the dungeon”; the second as “prison,” and the third as “the dungeon” again. But none of these seemed good enough. In the end, I opted for a slight change. Machado didn’t capitalize the word, but in my translation, Cotrim sends his slaves to “the Dungeon.” The difference might seem negligible. But with that capital letter, I wanted to signal that the Calabouço was not just a dungeon, but an institution, a specific place, something so much a part of Rio life that Machado – by way of Brás – felt that he could simply name-drop it without further explanations. Of course, in addition to capitalizing Calabouço in my translation, I plan on including a hefty endnote. But since the people who read the endnotes to doctoral dissertations are a wonderful but rare breed, I’m telling the story here for good measure.

[1] When I tried to translate this sentence into Portuguese, I fell into yet another etymological wormhole when I opened my 1908 Michaelis dictionary. I was looking for some contemporary definition for the colloquial expression to give someone hell, but I found the following: “Hell, s. inferno m.; os espíritos infernaes; o lugar onde os alfaiates deitam os retalhos; vulg. calabouço m. prisão; casa de jogo f.” At least here, calabouço was a definition for hell itself.

Flora Thomson-DeVeaux

É escritora, tradutora, brasilianista e diretora de pesquisa na Rádio Novelo

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