Gerson’s review of the verbal exchanges in Parliament, peppered liberally with long quotations from the most notable speeches and emancipation proposals, provides a useful sampling of the main currents of political thought on slavery from the 1820s to the 1880s. Gerson’s narrative is short on interpretation, but a student of the subject can read “between the lines” to see some of the most important factors which provoked contemporaries to face up to the slavery problem. The discussion shows, for instance, that enormous British pressure helped to force an end to the African slave trade, that the influence of world opinion and dislocations from the Paraguayan War brought debates over emancipation into the open in the late 1860s, and that slavery’s defenders worried seriously that programs for gradual emancipation might excite the slaves to insurrection or flight and create “anarchy” on the fazendas.
Although source materials from the imperial government offer rich evidence for evaluation, Gerson’s almost exclusive attention to such materials creates problems. The book’s title is misleading. This study does not concern all facets of slavery in the days of the Empire: it says little about the condition of blacks in bondage, the status of slaveholders, or the economics of slavery. As rather old-fashioned political history, A Escravidão no Império lacks the valuable socioeconomic perspectives of a work such as Emília Viotti da Costa’s Da Senzala à Colônia. And, even as political history, Gerson’s concentration on debates, projects, and reports from parliament and the ministries overlooks the political influence of groups outside the halls of government. For example, Gerson does little more than name major abolitionist clubs, newspapers, and personalities. The result is a history from the official government record, a narrative filled with interesting quotations and references but also critically short on perspective.