The present picture is an important addition to Taunay's modest output in Brazil. Although in Rio from 1816 until 1821, there are barely more than thirty-five Brazilian subjects known. Most of these are landscapes, views of Rio de Janeiro and of the Tijuca forest where he settled, or portraits. Studies of the social mores of the Portugese colony, and of the slave population in particular, were more commonly the domain of Taunay's fellow artist in exile, Jean-Baptiste Debret.
Both artists were part of the French artistic Mission invited to Brazil by Dom Joao VI's Minister in Paris the Marquess of Marialva. Headed by Joachim Lebreton, the Mission was composed of a group of disaffected bonapartist artists, architects, scientists and craftsmen, charged with the foundation of an Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro.
With the death of one of the Missions's main sponsors, the Conde da Barca, in 1817, the project lost impetus. Lebreton, frustrated by the delays, retired to his house in Glória to write his memoirs. On his death in 1819 Taunay was expected to inherit his anticipated role as director of the Academy. Passed over for the Portugese painter, Henrique José da Silva, Taunay returned to Paris in 1821.
After the United States, Brazil was the greatest slave holding nation in the New World, with about half of the four million population in the early nineteenth century made up of slaves from the Portugese colonies in Africa working the country's sugar, and later coffee, plantations, and exploiting the vast colony's mineral wealth. When independence came in 1822, the British, negotiating recognition on behalf of the King in Portugal, tried to sign Brazil up to abolish its trade, but to little effect. The traffic continued into the 1850s and the slaves were finally emancipated only in 1888.
Both Debret and the German artist Rugendas depicted the slave markets in Rio in their richly illustrated accounts of Brazil published in Paris between 1827 and 1839, both depicting markets in the Rua Vallongo, and Charles Landseer, the artist accompanying the British diplomatic mission to Brazil in 1825-26, recorded the trade in numerous drawings for his employer, keenly aware that abolition was supposedly a neccessary preliminary to signing new commercial treaties with Brazil.
'The main Brazilian port for slaves from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth was Rio de Janeiro, "the most magnificent harbour in the world", as it appeared to travellers who approached it by sea. ...In Rio, at the end of the eighteenth century, most slave dealers lived and dealt in large houses in a long street, the Rua Vallongo, which ended in a beach in the north-eastern part of the city. The site was pretty, and travellers noticed red-tiled houses wedged between the tree-covered Livramento and Conceiao hills. But every house seemed to have a large "ware-room", in which 300 or 400 slaves were "exposed for sale like any other commodity". The merchants would live on the first and second floors, while the slaves would be lodged on the ground floors, in large rooms opening onto patios kept fresh by sea breezes. There the slaves would be prepared to be sold, being shaved, fattened, and if necessary painted (to give the illusion of health), often by slaves of their own nation. Food in African style (pirão, or manioc stew, and angu de fubá, cornmeal mush) might be prepared, in an effort to make the slaves feel at home...Buyers would again patiently examine the wares, feeling the African's limbs and bodies much as butchers handled calves. The slaves were often asked, as they had been told to do before leaving Africa, to show their tongues and teeth, or to stretch their arms...The slaves would be ranged according to sex, age, and sometimes, provenance...But in these showrooms the deaths due to heat, overcrowding, or illnesses contracted on the ships were just as frequent as in African trunks or on the ship, so that quite distant neighbours complained incessantly about the smell. Numerous huts were soon put up on the swampy shore; there, however, even more slaves would die in the next fifty years, of "scurvy, scabies, buboes (plague) and dysentry". It remains curious that, leaving aside questions of common humanity, merchants who had gone to such trouble and expense to find and transport their captives did not take better care of them.
This avenue of tears, the Vallongo, today the Rua Camerino, had been allocated to the slave merchants by a philosophically minded viceroy, the Marquis of Lavradio...., in 1769; previously, he wrote, the slaves "had done everything which nature suggested in the middle of the street where they were seated on some boards that were laid there...providing the most terrible spectacle that the human eye can witness. Decent people did not dare to go to the windows, [and] the inexperienced learned there what they had not known and should not know"' (H. Thomas, The Slave Trade, London, 1998 edition, pp.432-3).