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Death wish

Research discusses the polemic banzo issue as the "mortal nostalgia" of slaves


“With the shadow grows the enormous aspect / Of the baobá…/ and the shadow expands an immense sadness in the soul, immensely…” wrote the Parnassian poet Raimundo Correia in his sonet “Banzo”. This sadness called banzo was a state of psychological depression that descended upon the enslaved Africans as soon as they disembarked in Brazil. Supposedly a chronic illness, it was a deep nostalgia that caused blacks to die. “In the nineteenth century, works such as those of the French physician François Sigaud and of the naturalist Carl F. von Martius, as well as the chronicles of European travelers, disseminated the ideal of this fatal nostalgia among the slaves. In these narratives, the voluntary deaths of the captives are described as a passive form of suicide by refusing food and allowing themselves to die of inanition and sadness, as well as by universal methods, such as hanging, drowning, using white weapons, etc,” explains the psychiatrist Ana Maria Galdini Oda, adjunct professor at the Department of Medicine of the Biological and Health Sciences Center of the Federal University of São Carlos (UFScar), who analyzed banzo in her study Dos desgostos provenientes do cativeiro: uma história da psicopatologia dos escravos brasileiros no século XIX [Despair due to captivity: a history of the psychopathology of Brazilian slaves in the nineteenth century], which got a FAPESP grant thanks to the Young Researcher in Emerging Centers Program. “Invariably, the narrators ascribed this death wish to a melancholic illness related to captivity: the despair of being violently torn away from Africa, the rebellion against loss of freedom, and the reactions to heavy and unfair punishments.”

According to the researcher, a historical analysis of the illness reiterates the need to get rid of the simplified explanations of slaves’ ailments — whether banzo or its extreme form, suicide — as the result of “captivity-driven despair”, a formula employed in the nineteenth century to disguise the violent nature of the relationship between slaves and their masters. In the history of banzo, therefore, various historical paths meet: stories concerning psychopathology, the transatlantic traffic of slaves, and illnesses. “The illness always appears in a dual position: it is a clinical entity, a variation of European nostalgia in the tropics, associated with other diseases of the blacks; at the same time, however, it is not dissociated from the political debates about black slavery”, notes the researcher. According to Bluteau’s Vocabulario [Vocabulary], from 1712, a game is banzo-like when neither of the parties win, an annoying non-definition. “The history of banzo reminds one of such a game, slaves versus masters, life versus death, in a long and tense struggle”. Oddly enough, the banzo concept originated from a European formulation about nostalgia as an illness. The starting point of this was the dissertation of the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer (Basel 1678), De nostalgia, which describes “nostalgia”, a word made up from the Greek roots nóstos (return) and álgos (physical or moral pain) as a disease to which the Swiss were allegedly predisposed. This was known as Heimweh (or maladie du pays, in France, or mal de corazón, in Spain). This melancholic state was supposedly an indisposition caused by being away from home that then turned into a mortal illness.

During the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, nostalgia became the subject of many medical works. Gradually, the Helvetian nostalgia soon became less and less Swiss: the high incidence of the illness in the armies of several European nations had turned the pathology into a subject of particular interest among military physicians (such as Larrey, an army surgeon in Napoleon’s army), who narrated veritable epidemics of nostalgia. Even the famous Phillipe Pinel focused on this subject in Encyclopédie méthodique. “Certainly, the postulates put forth by the various military physicians and other scientists were extended to the enslaved Africans. Thus, one may regard banzo as an application of the nostalgia concept developed in Europe,” says the author. However, the first intellectual to analyze the issue from the standpoint of the slaves and to describe banzo was the Bahia-born Portuguese lawyer Luis Antonio de Oliveira Mendes in his Memória [Memory] (1793) about the high mortality of the Africans taken to Brazil. This was written at the request of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Lisbon. “His work was the first publication in Portuguese to center on slaves’ health and is the chief source of nineteenth century banzo descriptions”, says Ana Maria. Highlighting the links between mortal illnesses and the terrible treatment of the captives, Oliveira Mendes stresses that despite being barbarians, the Africans were sincere and constant in their affections. Banzo is presented as an “extremely serious illness, caused by the exacerbation of the feeling of nostalgia.”

This image of banzo as the result of the cruelty of slave traffic was extended into the first half of the nineteenth century and was incorporated into travel narratives, tropical medicine books and medical theses. “It is the vocation of banzo to be a type of ‘illness-argument’, mobilized in the struggle against slavery,” recalls the author. Sigaud, in Do clima and das doenças do Brasil [Climate and diseases of Brazil] (1844), released for the first time in Portuguese this year by the Fiocruz publishing house, considered banzo a mental illness, a variant of nostalgia-melancholia unleashed by moral issues such as nostalgia for Africa or resentment of unfair punishment. As for Martius, in Natureza, doenças, medicina e remédios dos indigos brasileiros [Nature, illnesses, medicine and remedies of the Brazilian Indians] (1844), he compares the banzo of the blacks and of the Indians, stating that in both melancholia reigned as the cause of death, except that the blacks seemed to experience painful feelings more deeply than the indigenous peoples, as the latter were supposedly cold and distant, as opposed to the Africans, emotional and passionate. Joaquim Manuel de Macedo, in his monograph on nostalgia, written in 1844 (the same year in which his novel A moreninha was published) as a thesis presented to the Medical School in Rio de Janeiro for him to take on the title of doctor, regarded banzo as a mental illness due to nostalgia for the homeland; its site was the brain. “Identified with the class of the masters, the romantic writer showed no sympathy whatsoever for slaves, but felt that the blacks’ nostalgia was worthy of study, as he considered it a potential threat to the domestic economy,” reports the researcher. Besides them, other foreigners addressed the issue of voluntary death among slaves in the nineteenth century: Debret, Henry Koster, Rugendas, Thomas Ewbank, Robert Walsh, and F. Dabadie, among others. “After this interest, banzo would remain almost forgotten until the 1930s and 1940s, when the so-called Afro-Brazilian studies recovered it as a subject of research. It was regarded as something real, a slightly mysterious illness, but not very problematic,” the author tells us.


Even a new etymology appeared for the word: banzo was supposedly derived from quimbundo mbanza or villages, thus meaning “nostalgia for the village” and, by extension, for home. “The word’s African origin seems a little uncertain to me. In Bluteau’s Vocabulario, for example, the verb banzar is listed as the action of ‘bewildering with pain’, while banzeiro is something ‘unquiet, insecure’. Some believe that the word is of Portuguese origin.” In 1933, the concept re-emerged in the final pages of the book Casa-Grande & Senzala [The Masters and the Slaves] (1933) by Gilberto Freyre, whose views underscored the modern references to the word: “The life of the blacks was not entirely cheerful. There were those who committed suicide by eating soil or hanging or poisoning themselves. Banzo, the nostalgia for Africa, did away with many of them. There were some that were so heavily afflicted with it that they became damaged, idiots”, wrote Freyre. In 1939, medical views of the illness started appearing, such as that of the parasitologist Manoel Augusto Pirajá, who stated that banzo was a type of sleeping sickness, the African trypanosomiasis, a hypothesis that has since been rejected. “One proposal to be considered is that proposed by psychiatrist Álvaro Rubim de Pinho, from the Medical School of  Bahia, in Aspectos históricos da psiquiatria folclórica no Brasil [Historic aspects of folkloric psychiatry in Brazil] (1982). According to him, banzo is closer to the so-called ‘concentration camp syndromes’, explains the author. The model has multiple causes: the slaves’ illness might superimpose a depressive mental state (typical of situations of terror, famine, confinement, etc) on symptoms due to severe nutritional deficiencies and vulnerability to serious diseases, many of which might account for the physical and mental symptoms of banzo.”

The historiographic production of the 1960s and 1970s, contesting that which has been called “the myth of mild slavery”, as put forth by Freyre, emphasized the violent nature of the relations between masters and slaves and gave banzo a new meaning. “Studies of this period associate acts such as suicides, homicides and physical aggression to the excssive burden imposed by captivity. For some authors (such as Alípio Goulart in Da fuga ao suicídio [From escape to suicide], of 1972, or Fernando Henrique Cardoso in Capitalismo e escravidão no Brasil meridional [Capitalism and slavery in meridional Brazil], from 1962) they were evident manifestations of rebellion, one of the few that the slaves could engage in. Suicides would therefore indicate individual rebellion, in the same way as the quilombos [villages of runaway slaves] and the insurrections denoted collective rebellion”, explains the researcher. According to her, however, whether from Freyre’s point of view or whether from this more engaged one, little room was given to the subjective factors involved in the actions of the historical individuals. Thus, suicide in captivity can also be seen, though not exclusively, as a form of protest or  escape, always taking into account the complexity of the captivity experience and the human capacity to discover ways of living under adverse circumstances. “Ascribing to the condition of captivity the motivation for death is a simplistic approach. Suicidal acts are extreme manisfestations that cannot be reduced to a single explanation, whether sociological, anthropological or psychopathological”, says the historian Saulo Veiga Oliveira, who analyzed the issue in the article “O suicídio de escravos em São Paulo” [The suicide of slaves in São Paulo], published in the journal História, Ciências, Saúde – Manguinhos. “Suffice it to see that the high suicide ratio among slaves in the last two decades of slavery is generally attributed to ‘the despair of captivity’, as a reaction to the servile condition. However, there are many other reasons: problems with the Law or fear of the punishments imposed by the master.”

“The ratio of ‘voluntary deaths’ among slaves, as compared to that of free men, was two to three times higher and generally ascribed to banzo”, states the historian Renato Pinto Venâncio, from the Federal University of Ouro Preto and author of Ancestrais: uma introdução à história da África Atlântica [Ancestors: an introduction to the history of Atlantic Africa] (Editora Campus). “However, like all testimonies from the past, this must be taken with a pinch of salt: the suicide records might conceal murders carried out by the masters. This does not imply reducing the stature of banzo as one of the tragic expressions of the madness shared by millions of people that were slave traffic victims. Divulging this suffering in the newspapers must have helped to form the abolitionist sensibility in the imperial society. Hence the understanding of banzo as an unintentional form of political protest, a primary example of the struggle for non-violence.” The figures might conceal other motivations. “Free men hid their affairs, trying to avoid moral and religious sanctions, which barred burial in cemeteries; this might explain the high number of slave deaths”, explains the historian Jackson Ferreira, from the Federal University of Bahia and author of the article “Por hoje se acaba a lida: suicídio escravo na Bahia (1850-1888)” [The drudgery is over for the day: the suicide of slaves in Bahia (1850-1888)]. “Suicidal acts were more than an expression and a mechanism of despair; they were ways of negotiating better conditions, of resisting the conditions of captivity or of freeing oneself from them, definitely abandoning this ‘land of the living’, as the slave Timóteo wrote in his suicide note.”

Ana Maria Oda is currently researching the curious “suicide by ingestion of soil” often mentioned by travelers, in the project Geofagia and escravidão [Geophagy and slavery], financed by CNPq (the National Scientific and Technological Development Council) and connected to the Group of Research into Slavery, Race and Health, headquartered in Oswaldo Cruz House, Fiocruz. The pica (change of eating habits to include eating soil or clay, i.e., geophagia, lime, wood, etc.) is interpreted as a deliberate action taken toward death, a slow suicide method of the black slaves”, says the researcher. Debret depicted slaves with an iron mask attached to avoid this. “Geophagia as suicide does not make sense. Its consequences for health, whether good or bad, haven’t been determined.”

The project
Despair due to captivity (nº 2004/07810-9); Type Young Researcher Grant; Coordinator Ana Maria Oda – UFScar; Investment R$ 230,994.90 (FAPESP)