Antônio de Castro Alves (1847-1871) was the last of the prominent romantic poets of Brazil. He is best known for his poetic campaign in behalf of freedom for African slaves.
Antônio de Castro Alves was born in Curralinho (now Castro Alves) in the coastal province of Bahia on March 14, 1847, the son of a doctor. After receiving the best secondary education available, Antônio entered law school. He had begun to compose poetry even earlier and wrote some of his most impressive poems while a student. A hunting accident led to the amputation of a foot, and he dropped out of school. After 9 months of wandering through the backwoods of Brazil, he settled to write in the city of Salvador. He died of tuberculosis there at the age of 24 on July 6, 1871. Only one book of his poems, Espumas flutuantes (1870), was published before his death, but others were issued posthumously.
Some of the poetry of Castro Alves suffers from the worst qualities of 19th-century sentimentalism. Its exaggerated rhetorical quality reflects the Brazilian penchant for oratory and declamation. But, if some of his worst poems are omitted and some of the others are edited, his work emerges as highly lyrical yet restrained by a disciplined from (for example, O gondoleiro do amôr). His images are often powerful and deeply moving, as in Crepúsculo sertanejo. And even the declamatory tendency of his poetry indicates the degree to which it was rooted in the social and historical context.
Like most romantics Castro Alves saw the drama of man's destiny as an eternal conflict between good and evil. Man is caught by the maladjustments of history, and it was in this way that Castro Alves approached the problem of human slavery. Sinister forces larger than the individual had produced this institution, but Promethean struggle could perhaps destroy it or at least redeem the individual crushed between the grinding forces that produced it.
When Castro Alves was in law school, the issue of slavery was foremost in the public eye. Although the problem was not resolved for many years, law dealing with that institution were being hotly debated. And it was into this discussion that Castro Alves threw himself. Perhaps his most frequently recited poem is O navio negreiro, an account of the African slave trade in epic proportions. In many of his other poems, for instance, in the collection Vozes d' Africa (1880; Voices of Africa), he pictured the African not only as a hero but also as a lover, a truly human figure. To be sure, Castro Alves did not escape his times: he endowed his Africans with "white" qualities, even altering their physiognomy. But by this very means he was able to persuade some whites that, indeed, Africans were like them in love, in sorrow, in anger, and in tenderness; therefore, why not in law?
Further Reading on Antônio de Castro Alves
There is no book on Castro Alves in English, although some attention is given to him by Samuel Putnam in Marvelous Journey: A Survey of Four Centuries of Brazilian Writing (1948). The major study in Portuguese is Eugênio Gomes, ed., Castro Alves: Obra completa (1960).
Additional Biography Sources
Oliveira, Valdemar de, Castro Alves, Recife: Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, Editora Universitaria, 1979.