Theses Doctoral

Property Formation, Labor Repression, and State Capacity in Imperial Brazil

Mangonnet, Jorge G.

This dissertation proposes and tests a theory that investigates the political process of modern property formation in land in postcolonial societies of the New World. Specifically, it examines how land tenure systems of private property -- that is, a statutory tenure in which individual property rights are specified, allocated, arbitrated by the state -- are designed and executed in contexts of limited state capacity and land abundance. It draws on extensive, under-tapped archival evidence from Imperial Brazil (1822-1889), the largest postcolonial state of the southern hemisphere. The data, collected over a year of rigorous and systematic archival research, include original ledgers of rural estates surveyed and recorded at the parish (i.e., sub-municipal) level; church inventories of slaves; economic and health-related data of slaves populations; agricultural and land prices; roll call votes and transcripts from parliamentary sessions; and biographical information on Brazil's most prominent elites.

My dissertation argues that exogenous, disruptive events that abolish labor-repressive relations of production, such as slavery or the slave trade, open up an opportunity for central governments to bargain for the creation of systems of freehold tenure with local traditional elites. Many countries of the New World were unable to pursue liberal reforms that commodified land and dismantled land-related colonial privileges because of the lack of professional surveyors and cadastral technologies to survey, title, and register parcels accurately. Moreover, high land-to-man ratios turned land into a factor of production with little commercial value and did not offer clear incentives to local elites to demand secure and complete property rights. My dissertation argues that, when local elites' depend on forced or servile labor for production, abolition can make them prone to support a statutory yet highly stringent system of freehold tenure that legally blocks access to land to wage laborers.

A system of freehold tenure in times of abolition can attain two goals. First, to close off alternatives to wage labor in the agricultural sector by assembling ownership statutes that exacerbate conditions of tenure insecurity. Second, as local elites controlling servile labor have higher stakes in the survival of labor dependence in agriculture, it can enhance quasi-voluntary compliance with new property rules that intend to avert squatting and keep rural labor inexpensive and abundant. By willingly demarcating boundaries, titling, and paying taxes, local elites cooperate with the new land statutes. In turn, central state officials can secure the logistical resources they need (i.e., fiscal revenue, documentary evidence of ownership, spatial coordinates of rural estates) to distinguish occupied from unoccupied tracts, police the hinterlands, carry out evictions, and formulate policies (e.g., employer subsidies) that would bias labor markets in favor of elite interests.

I test these propositions by examining how a powerful class of plantation owners in Imperial Brazil supported the creation of, and quasi-voluntarily complied with, the Land Law of 1850 (the country's first modern property law in land) in response to the exogenous abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in 1831. I show that parliamentarians who were also planters favorably voted for the bill that introduced the Land Law in the Chamber of Deputies. Moreover, I show that, once the new law had been approved, local parishes that had a greater proportion of slaves were more likely to experience higher rates of regularization. Untaxed and unbounded plantations that long benefited from Portuguese medieval traditions ended up being regularized as self-demarcated, taxable private freeholds.

My analysis of Imperial Brazil yields three main insights about how property formation in the New World was carried out. First, and in contrast to the European experience, the advent of private property in land in polities of Australasia or Latin America was not a top-down phenomenon but the result of an arduous political negotiation and patterns of societal co-production between rulers and traditional landlords from the colonial era. Second, land abundance, not scarcity, threatened landlords' material wealth: by promising independent, small-scale cultivation to free rural workers, it threatened landlords with labor shortages. Finally, and even though individual and absolute proprietorship was made the hegemonic form of tenure, national policymakers enacted provisions that neglected property rights to marginalized populations such as freed slaves, immigrants, convicts, or peons. Therefore, the recognition of individual property rights in these societies was highly selective and did not follow the liberal, egalitarian principle of equality before the law.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for Mangonnet_columbia_0054D_16197.pdf Mangonnet_columbia_0054D_16197.pdf application/pdf 2.14 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Murillo, Maria V.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 22, 2020