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The unknown “Chicas da silva”

Survey shows that like the slave that became a film title, many freed slaves climbed up the social ladder in Brazil's colonial period

ReproductionBlack saleswomen: survey says that many managed to buy their freedomReproduction

Imagine a will in which, among other things, the following items are listed: a gold chain; a gold decoration in the form of the Boy Jesus, weighing five oitavas (an old measure of weight equivalent to 3.586 grams); some gold rings weighing four oitavas; some small pearl earrings; some gold buttons; some small gold rings; an amber ball; a coral chain encrusted with gold, a large piece of coral with a charm hanging from it, all in gold; four silver forks and a silver-handled knife; two pairs of petticoat buttons open at the engraving. These articles were listed together with other property, such as land, slaves, and furniture, in the will of Bárbara Gomes de Abreu e Lima, a freed slave who lived in Minas Gerais in the first half of the 18th century.

After she was freed, she set up wide trading network in the captaincies of Rio de Janeiro, Bahia and Minas Gerais, making her fortune and establishing commercial relationships with men of the highest rank in the elite of Colonial Brazil, such as soldiers, clerics and important landowners. It sounds improbable, but this story is just one of hundreds dug up by Professor Eduardo França Paiva, of the History Department of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), in documents in the public archives of Belo Horizonte, São João Del Rey and Sabará, in Minas Gerais. In 1999, after 11 years of research (including the years spent doing his master’s degree), Paiva submitted his doctoral thesis: For My Work, Service and Industry: Stories of Africans, Creoles, and Mestizos in the Colony – Minas Gerais, 1716-1789. The chief documents examined were wills, including those left by Negroes and freed slaves.

The Path to Freedom
“This survey was a result of the work I was engaged in for my master’s degree at UFMG”, explains Paiva. “At that time I examined the statutory differences between slaves and freed slaves. I wanted to understand the transition from slavery to freedom”. The concern with gender arose when I saw that most of the freed population in Minas Gerais was made up of women. “In Minas Gerais in the 18th century, an urban region, the economic center of the colony, if not of the entire Portuguese empire, there wasonly one woman for every two or three male slaves”, he says. “Among the emancipated population that ratio was the opposite, in other words, for every freed male slave, there were two women”, he explains. “This was a fabulous piece of information”. Another reason for his work was precisely Bárbara’s will, which led him to question the meaning of a list of such uncommon articles. “This question led me to go after other information, reflections and further reading. And that was how my doctoral thesis began”, he says.

The historian attempted to reflect on the roles of these women in social, cultural and private life at that time in history. First, he had to understand the reasons that led so many former slave women to financial success. “There is a range of connected reasons”, explains the researcher. “First, they had strategies inherited from their regions of origin in Africa. For example, small-scale trading is a female tradition in various parts of Africa, and this was recreated in Portuguese America”, he says. “There are the famous ‘black tray women’ who worked in the streets”.

In general, these women’s businesses began in association with their masters. “They were called ‘earning slaves’. They went out selling products at the beginning of the week and returned at the end of it, when they shared their profits with their masters”, explains Paiva. This meant that they could build up enough wealth to buy their freedom – most often through a credit system known as “coartação”. “We must remember that this phenomenon was typical of towns like those of Minas Gerais in the 18th century”, says the author. But, he points out, contrary to traditional historical writing and the way history teaching methods have put it, it was not confined solely to mining. “Slaves had been engaged since the 16th century in other activities besides fieldwork”.

The fact is that the economic power of these freed women was so great that much of the emancipation of black people, at that time, in Minas Gerais, was due to them. “In numerical terms, around 60% of the freed population, meaning somewhere in the region of 110,000 people, was made up of women. And, of the remaining 40%, many were their sons, whose freedom their mothers also bought”. If some of these women reached the point of owning land, slaves, and furniture, why was so much importance attached to articles like gold amulets, rings, knives and forks, such as those described in Bárbara Gomes de Abreu and Lima’s will? “I devoted a chapter to the theory that these articles were in fact amulets and charms”, explains the author.

“They form a fragmented collection of religious ornaments – balangandãs (from Africa and very common in Brazil, in which various small articles are hung in a collection), very likely out of fear of the reaction of visitors from the Holy Office. The latter kept a very close eye on the captaincy of Minas Gerais. The word “collection” is not found in any of the wills that Paiva examined, but it helped him to explain the phenomenon by analogy.

“Bárbara left these articles pledged in the hands of powerful men. And, then in her will, she ordered her executors to reconstitute the collection”, he explains. The executors were also important men, as can be seen by the names cited in Bárbara’s will: Militia Captain José Ferreira Brasão, Lourenço José de Queiroz Coimbra, the Vicar of the Court of the Jurisdiction of Rio das Velhas, Dom José de Carlos Souto Maior, Manoel Marques Cardoso, and José Rodrigues de Souza.

Paiva could not identify, in Bárbara’s case, who had inherited the collection. In other cases, the articles were left to other black women, or were to be sent to a church. But he believes that this wish to reconstitute the collection is a way found by former slave women to recover their cultural identity. “We have a case here that makes me reflect on ties of sympathy, cultural ties, cultural inheritance and traditions. In fact, these women were a sort of guardian of the Afro-Brazilian cultural inheritance. And, for a community that had its codes that were not open to just anyone”, he says. “The protective trinkets and amulets celebrate the accomplishments of these women and meant much more than mere adornments”.

The historian also reports the case of an Angolan slave who came to São João Del Rey and, after buying her freedom, she became queen of the Rosary sisterhood. “In her will, she asked to be buried in the Mother Church”, he tells. “This has no particular meaning for us, but in colonial society it was very important”, says the researcher. Another mestiza fled from São Paulo because she had had two children out of wedlock, reached Minas Gerais and became rich, switching her original name to Francisca Poderosa (Powerful). She too left considerable assets in her will when she died.

Paiva’s theory points to a change in the paradigm of understanding slavery in Brazil. In depicting the emancipation achieved by the women of Minas Gerais, it breaks the traditional idea of what he calls the “imagination of the trunk”. “These women were not so submissive to their masters. They could establish ties of solidarity with freed people and whites. They could establish sexual attachments, ties of affection and friendship with freed people and whites”, he says. “In fact, this was a colonial society that was based on slavery for almost 400 years. And, during this time, this society evolved”. In other words, it was the blacks that won their freedom over these four centuries and not the whites that came up with a ready-made law in 1888.

Paiva also states that is it not just that women were numerous among the freed population in Minas Gerais. “It was much more common for women to hold on to their cultural traditions than for men to do so”, he says. This is because, although there is no matrilineal tradition in Brazil, families were formed around matriarchs, in other words, they converged around the mothers, particularly in black communities”, he says. In the researcher’s opinion, this contributed a great deal to the part played by these women, who were important oral transmitters of customs, beliefs, and cultural manifestations. “They were very associated with the oral tradition, and hence, they were able, for example, to maintain the tradition of the coartação system, which was governed by traditional rather than written law”. In his book, Paiva examines family relationships among slaves and freed people and, also among whites and blacks.

The project
For My Work, Service and Industry: Stories of Africans, Creoles, and Mestizos in the Colony – Minas Gerais, 1716-1789; Type Doctoral grant;
Coordinator Mary Del Priore – FFLCH/USP; Investment R$ 71,288.00