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Domingos captivated Bahia

Life of emancipated slave portrays Brazil before the abolition of slavery

non-identified photographer/ reproduction from the book "O negro na fotografia brasileira do século XIX"Porters in Bahianon-identified photographer/ reproduction from the book "O negro na fotografia brasileira do século XIX"

In his poem O navio negreiro (1869) [The Slaveship] an angry Castro Alves (1847-1871) asks God about the captive Africans: “Who are these wretches?” The poet himself, however, can only give a vague answer: “They are sons of the desert, where the earth weds the light, where the tribe of naked men dwells in the open fields.” The generalization of the slave is still very vivid among us. This is why the book Domingos Sodré: um sacerdote africano [Domingos Sodré: an African priest] (Companhia das Letras, 446 pages, R$ 58), by historian João José Reis, from the state of Bahia, is so important. The author narrates the story of an individual describing in detail the daily life of “miserable slaves, who had been simple, strong, brave,” as the poet defined them. “Biographies of Africans and their descendants allow readers to perceive, in more human manner, the movements in history. One can devise strategies, based on these personal histories, to understand the process that created the modern world and specifically the slavery-based societies that stemmed from this process,” says Reis.

“Although he did not have a collective rebellion plan, Domingos worked for the individual freedom of slaves by trying to control the will of their masters. His religion was an instrument of resistance,” he analyzes. A former slave who became a slave-owner, his social savvy (and religious savvy as well, because although he professed the Afro-Brazilian candomblé religion, he was also a fervent Roman Catholic) reveals the requisite subtleties of the delicate relationship between slaves, emancipated slaves and masters. “He learned how to negotiate positions and relationships inside and outside the African community. He was a cultural mediator, a true ladino.” Born around 1797, in Lagos, Nigeria, a transatlantic slave trading outpost, Domingos arrived as a slave in Bahia, in 1815, and went to work at the sugarcane plantation of Francisco Sodré Pereira, in Santo Amaro, in the Recôncavo region, the setting of several slave rebellions. His master died in 1835. That year, the white population of Bahia was being terrorized by the Revolta dos Malês rebellion, led by Nagô Africans like Domingos. Emancipated by his master’s son, who kept several Negro mistresses, the former slave was baptized and took on the surname of the family that had freed him. He married, bought slaves, made money and in 1862, at the age of 70, was jailed, accused of being paid for his soothsaying and his “witchcraft” with objects stolen by slaves from their masters. He escaped from the deportation penalty that applied to worshippers of candomblé, the general name ascribed by the authorities to any form of African religion. He died in 1887, at the age of 90, after receiving the last rites. The living room of his house was full of images of Catholic saints. His bedroom, however, was filled with orixás, the African deities. “He was adept at practicing candomblé and Catholicism, without any problem, yet he was careful not to mix saints and orixás. In this sense, he was no different from his other African contemporaries.”

Caymmi said that “the life of a Negro is difficult.” The life of an emancipated slave was even worse. “Brought here against their will as slaves, once they were emancipated, Africans like Domingos became foreigners, and did not enjoy the same rights as the emancipated Negroes born in Brazil.” The imperial Constitution did not allow them to become involved in politics, laws restricted their freedom to travel in the provinces (they were obliged to hold passports, even when they were traveling with their masters) and they were not allowed to roam the streets at night. Neither could they engage in a number of fields of trade, which is why many of the former slaves invested in slaves. When they were allowed to work, they were intensely harassed by tax authorities, whose objective was to make the Africans’ lives difficult and put pressure on them to leave Bahia and return spontaneously to Africa. “Thus, despite the beautiful wording of the emancipation documents, these ‘free’ Africans had many constraints on their daily lives. It is no coincidence that they went to their former masters for protection, who were now treated as ‘patrons’ and to whom these former slaves ‘owed’ fealty, to the extent that they took on their former masters’ surnames.” Even their wretched rented shacks were stigmatized by the press as  “hiding places of runaway slaves,” a contemporary view that this was a space of African resistance to the bourgeois concept of organization and civilization in the European manner, very much in vogue among the Bahia intellectuals. “Civility” was equally tainted by the “pernicious ideas” of candomblé that allegedly led to “pernicious practices.”

“This was a line of thinking that, in addition to advocating the social system, also advocated a civilized way of life. The general opinion in Bahia back then was that candomblé and slavery were not a good mix: the concern was that the religion would be transformed into an organization, into a ‘club’ ready to promote the slave rebellion,” says Reis. Domingos, nicknamed “daddy” by his community, was probably a babalaô, says the researcher. Babalaô in the Ioruba language means “father of the secret.” There was another problem for the authorities: the white elite often resorted to the services of African religious leaders such as Domingos. “Although they did not profess the African religion on a regular basis, many white people believed in the mystic power and the healing and fortune-telling powers of these leaders. Some whites even joined the terreiros – the places of worship – as ogãs and mediums; there was even a white Mother of Saints,” says Reis. “This is a serious matter that must be given close attention because of the infiltration of such pernicious ideas in the population,” were the words of a police report drawn up at the time. Defined by foreign travelers as the “black metropolis,” Salvador was a source of concern for the white elite, who envisioned the possibility of paying to bring immigrants to the state and thus try to narrow the ethnic difference and “whiten” the capital city. Several slave rebellions fueled these fears.

reproduction from the book "O negro na fotografia brasileira do século XIX"Domingos was freed in this environment. Reis states that this fact attests to Domingos’ talent to gain the trust of his master. “It was not enough to be loyal to be freed. It was necessary to be smart and show specific skills, such as the ability to understand and take on the master’s culture to manipulate it in the search for more breathing space and to gain access to higher posts under slavery.” It took even more talent to carry out religious duties without being a victim of repression. Although the Constitution of 1824 stated that Roman Catholicism was the nation’s official religion, there was space “for all other religions.” “The Constitution did not specify which religions would be tolerated, but the spirit of the law only protected non-Catholic Europeans.  African religious rites remained in a legal limbo, because they were not considered as being religions by government authorities and, as such, they could be tolerated,” says the author. Therefore, labeling the African religious leaders as “sorcerers” promoting superstitions, and “evil,” was a discourse that disqualified them socially, culturally, and ethnically, although this had no legal effect. This was reflected in the ban on drum playing, viewed as the anteroom to the slaves’ rebellion. However, there were some dissenting voices that viewed these manifestations as an important escape valve in a society permeated by the presence of slaves in all the social spaces, which created a gap that Reis refers to as “the negotiation of tolerance.”

To the Africans, candomblé was a form of resistance. It was a way of “softening the masters” through rituals. One case refers to a slave woman accused of trying to poison her master’s family, by mixing grated conch into the coffee. The conch has significance in candomblé. “Domingos promised the slaves that he would work to emancipate them, or lighten their slavery burden, by giving the masters medicinal formulas to soften them and convince them to give in to the slaves’ requests for freedom,” says Reis. Many masters bargained the freedom-related values of their captives by using a variety of rational, economic and social arguments. In his research on Domingos, the researcher came across slave emancipation entities in Bahia. Very few people had heard about such entities. “They functioned as a kind of joint savings account, from which each member, on a rotating basis, withdrew a sum to be invested in his emancipation; but the savings account also had strictly profit-making purposes. The member continued to put money in the account to pay off the principal of the debt, plus interest, which sometimes came to 20%,” says Reis. So this was not philanthropy or collective solidarity.

The same situation concerned the purchase of slaves by former slaves, such as Domingos. Up to the middle of the nineteenth century, slave trading was the investment with the highest yields for the small urban investor. “After slave trafficking was banned in 1850, investment in this kind of trading remained in the hands of the big traders, because of the increase in the price of slave labor. The result was a higher concentration of slave ownership.” In the second half of the nineteenth century, the small investors started investing in real estate; as a result, rents – instead of slaves – became their source of income. The cost/benefit ratio, however, was unfavorable and these investors did not make as much money as they had at the time they engaged in slave trading. The conclusion is terrible. “Transatlantic slave trafficking, one of the most cruel aspects of slavery, had resulted in a better distribution of slavery ownership, which also benefited former slaves engaged in slave-trading,” of which Domingos was an example. “His story was not free from moral missteps. To upgrade themselves individually, they rid themselves of their slave status, and once they had become freemen, they established themselves in the world of the free, survived in it and prospered. To this end, many Africans had to step on some of their fellow men, while also extending a helping hand to one another.”

Some time before his death, Domingos deposited money in the Caixa Econômica da Cidade da Bahia bank: the sum was deposited in the name of his wife, Maria Delfina. This private financial institution had been founded in 1834 to act as a savings and loans bank, whose clients could deposit their savings for safekeeping or to get interest on them. “Some of them were moderately well-off clients, like Domingos, while others were low-income clients or slaves, who put their money into savings accounts to buy their freedom. Thus, the Caixas began to compete with the joint savings accounts and maybe even suffocated them,” says the researcher. As a result, an important cultural factor was lost. “The rules of the blacks dictated that Africans gave their word and thus business affairs of the joint savings accounts were all conducted orally. The Africans were interested in maintaining the two legal worlds separate, because this kept their masters from butting in.” This mechanism also included Domingos’ status as a priest. “As a priest, he was well trained in terms of conducting complicated negotiations involving sacred issues, which probably helped Domingos deal with secular matters. The soothsaying and the ‘witchcraft’ were somewhat similar to a legal proceeding, and contained a morality with which lay people were unfamiliar.”

Thus, candomblé, the judicial system of the white people, joint savings accounts and emancipation walked hand in hand. “Domingos stood out among the Africans of this time in several ways, while he was also representative of many of them. He was certainly part of an elite of freemen that enjoyed some prestige in nineteenth century Brazil.” This allowed him to maintain his devotional pantheon on separate levels of rituals. The presence of saints and orixás in his home was viewed by the authorities as proof of the alleged falseness of his “sham” Catholicism. “The fact that he did not mix saints and orixás reveals that, rather than syncretism, he had a complementary relationship with both religions. Although I don’t agree with Nina Rodrigues, who wrote that ‘the beliefs and practices’ of the Africans ‘did not undergo any changes’ when coming into contact with Catholicism, I agree that they viewed saints and orixás as distinct.” In the researcher’s opinion, the Africans did not really convert to Catholicism. They incorporated two religious systems into their complex African religiousness. “Thus, being a worshipper of candomblé did not mean rejecting Catholicism, but was actually the model of Catholicism that people like Nina had in mind.”