Posted in English

Para Inglês Ver


This is a phrase that came up in one of my lessons the other day that I thought had an interesting origin.

As you know, the british and portuguese empires share in common a long, proud history of discovery, exploration, heroism and er… (checks notes) buying and selling other human beings as if they were cattle. In the early nineteenth century, Britain was beginning to develop a conscience. Spurred on by reformers, many of them quakers, it had effectively ended slavery on the mainland at the back end of the eighteenth and was using its power and influence to shut down the slave trade, starting with its own empire (1807) and then in the various colonies or at least the ones that hadn’t already become independent by then (I’m looking at you America) in 1833. Having made some social progress of its own, Britain, as Top Nation, was keen to ensure other countries followed its good example, so it started pressurising its major trading partners such as Portugal and Brazil (independent from 1822) to stop their own slave trades, using economic sanctions and gunboat diplomacy. This was… inconvenient, let’s say. In addition to conscience, economic factors play a part in whether or not people are willing to give up being complete bastards, and the fact is that Brazil, especially, was very reliant on huge pools of free agricultural labour in a way that britain wasn’t.

To keep the gringos off their back, and keep them buying coffee, the brazilian government, in 1831, passed the Lei Feijó, which abolished the slave trade and gave complete freedom to all african slaves disembarking in brazilian ports. Which was great… or at least would have been, except they also passed out a memo to the courts that the law was “para inglês ver” (“For the english to see”) and that they weren’t meant to actually enforce it or anything.

So the phrase “para inglês ver”, applied to a law or rule, still signifies that it’s a high-minded statement of intent, only meant for show, but largely ignored. It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would get much use in day-to-day life, but the first chance I get, I’m definitely going to crowbar it into the conversation!

Slavery wasn’t abolished in Brazil until the passing of the Lei Áurea in 1888. Portugal, whose prime minister the Marques de Pombal, had abolished the slave trade in Portugal in 1761, even before britain, joined britain in renewing its commitment to abolitionism in 1807, freed remaining slaves in 1854. However, the catholic church held on to its slaves in portuguese territories for a further two years (well, it’s what Jesus would have wanted) and an illegal slave trade carried on after that until it was finally ended in 1869.


Just a data nerd

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