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Essay: The Freed Black and Mulatto People in the Brazilian Diamond Society during the 18th Century

Written by Júnia Ferreira Furtado

1.Black Village
At the foot of Santo Antônio Mountain, in the northeast of Minas Gerais, where the Grande and Piruruca rivers meet, a haphazard cluster of houses began to creep up the hillside, creating the first street, then known as Burgalhau, in what would become the village of Tejuco. The little hamlet gradually grew as more and more diamond reserves were discovered in the nearby rivers and new streets began to etch their way across the slopes. The center of the village consolidated around the Santo Antônio church, built in a square. Unlike most urban centers in Minas Gerais, which are usually sprawling and disorganized, Tejuco assumed a more orderly format, both concentrated and quadrangular.

From a distance, the village looked like a little manger, given the simplicity and rusticity of the houses and chapels, all built in loam and stone. These whitewashed buildings were stacked one above the other along the sloping, winding streets, interspersed with gardens and orchards, flower beds and vegetable gardens, lending the place the aspect of an oasis in an inhospitable, stony landscape. With limewashed walls and tiled roofs, the residences here were a two-tone contrast, and the townhouses differed to those in other mining towns for their use of muxarabi, or trellised verandas, a Moorish invention designed to maintain the privacy of the interior and most likely imported from the east by diamond traders and polishers.

Though densely populated, the local authorities opted to retain the title of arraial until 1835, when the village of Tejuco was upgraded to the town of Diamantina. Tejuco came under the jurisdiction of the Diamond District, demarcated in 1734, a quadrangle that also encompassed the villages and settlements of Gouveia, Milho Verde, São Gonçalo, Chapada, Rio Manso, Picada and Pé do Morro. The Diamantine Demarcation was not set fixed, but could be expanded to include other locations as new diamond reserves were discovered. The district was placed under the special administration of a Diamond Intendancy, encumbered with organizing mining activities and enforcing the authority of the Portuguese Crown.

By the standards of the day, Tejuco was no small village. In 1732, the governor Dom Lourenço de Almeida recognized that the population there had already far outstripped that of Vila do Princípe, though the latter was still the seat of the shire. For the governor, Tejuco was the base of choice for businessmen and miners because it was closer to the rivers and more populous than Vila do Princípe, which was sparsely populated and distant from the waterways.

The diamantine social pyramid was cast in the same molds as the rest of the Captaincy, with a large base of slaves, a smaller layer of freedmen and women, many of them Black or Mulatto, and a small, mostly Portuguese ruling elite at the top, which monopolized the administrative posts, military ranks and titles in general. It was not a rigid society, despite its criteria of birth and pedigree. In fact, inverting this logic, freed Black and Mulatto men and women could climb the social ladder, the latter often through concubinage to some white master, or through commercial activities and the provision of services. While, on one hand, the authorities tried to keep the population within the strict limits of Royal law and order, the villagers found their own forms of social organization and resisted all attempts to curb them.

Sundry documents in Brazilian and Portuguese archives allow us to glean something of the daily life of this society and the habits of its people, affording an indiscreet peek behind the village’s doors and windows, revealing the family arrangements, bonds of godparentage, forms of religiosity, tensions among neighbors, and the transgressions and sins of the residents.

Our point of departure in this endeavor will be a household census conducted in 1774 by the Diamond administrator. The document is most interesting as a tool for piecing together the local society from the information fragments it contains. The census lists all of the household heads per street, along with descriptions of color, profession, civil status, the number of residents living in the household and their family relationships. The care taken by the authorities bequeathed a valuable and meticulous record of the village inhabitants. At the time, there were 510 residences in the town proper, which consisted of 15 streets and 7 alleys.

Counting home-owners, dependents, friends and tenants, there were 886 residents, all free or freed men and women. Five hundred and eleven of these residents (282 male and 229 female) were the heads of 510 households. The exclusion of slaves from the census is highly revealing and worthy of analysis. Though they obviously lived in Tejuco, slaves were not considered residents, and so did not qualify for inclusion in the list.

The number of non-white household heads in Tejuco was staggering, summing 286 individuals, or 56% of the total, among Blacks (of African origin), Creoles or Crioulos (descendants of two black slaves born in Brazil), Mulattoes (of mixture blood), Pardos (or pales, were the ones of mixture blood of White and Black that presented lighter skin) and Cabras (mix of Black and Mulatto). In Portuguese America, the majority of the population was Black, and specially in the exporting farmlands most of these were slaves. However, in the specific case of Minas Gerais, not only was there a high incidence of manumission, but also unprecedented levels of miscegenation, giving rise to the demographic mentioned above, in which a portion of the freed Blacks and Mulattoes found their space among the local elites, with whom they both identified and mixed. Another parcel, no less significant, lived on the fringes of the system, in the pall of social disqualification. In this sense, the society of Minas Gerais presented far greater diversity and miscegenation than the slave societies of the Brazilian coast, the Caribbean or the southern United States, and saw a growing layer of freed Blacks and Mulattoes emerge into village society.

Direita street, the main one in Tejuco, was home to many of the most important figures in town. In 1774, the street’s residents included the Diamond Administrator, and a Sergeant Major who was the treasurer of the Royal Diamond Administration. Yet various former slave women also lived there, such as the Black freedwoman Maria Carvalha, and Inês Maria de Azevedo and Mariana Pereira, both Pardas (light-skinned Mulatto women). The Black freedwoman Josefa Maria de Freitas lived in a house not far from that of Colonel Luís de Mendonça Cabral, a notary.

But it was not only the slave population that was ignored by the authorities in compiling the village census; in fact, there were various distortions that ended up presenting a fixed society where constant mobility was actually one of the greatest hallmarks. A prime example of this would be the census entry for one former slave, the Parda Francisca da Silva de Oliveira, the famous Chica da Silva, listed as dwelling on Ópera street in the company of a single young son, José, ignoring the fact that her nine daughters were cloistered at Macaúbas Convent and that her three grown sons had embarked for Lisbon.

Living on the same street was the Black freedwoman Anna Maria de Jesus, the Creole Vicente Ferreira, a tailor, and the carpenter Antônio Pinto Guimarães. As on the other streets of the village, here the free and freed, white and black, lived side-by-side, blurring the hierarchical frontiers by which the society sought to arrange itself. Ana Maria’s neighbors on Ópera street were the book-keeper and notary of the Royal Diamond Administration. Though households led by freedmen and women could be found all around the village, their distribution was not homogeneous. Whites were the majority on Direita street; Quitanda street, where most of the merchants and store-owners lived; Cavalhada Nova and Amparo street, both in the town center; freed slaves were the majority on Macau; Macau de Baixo; Campo and Burgalhau streets, further away, and on the laneways Gomes de Aquino, Intendência, Cadeia, Padre José Guedes and Mandioca.

The diamantine society left open a window of opportunity whereby men and women of color could achieve manumission, and once in the world of the free, many of these accumulated properties and patrimony of their own and blended into the white, free society of the village, to the point of accounting for over half of the household heads in the 1770s. But however striking their presence must have been, it was largely forgotten.

About Júnia Ferreira Furtado
Júnia Ferreira Furtado is a full Professor of Modern History at the History Department of the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais. She holds a Master’s degree and PhD in Social History from the Universidade de São Paulo.

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  • Muhammad Abdullah “the Cat in the Hat”

    A good beginning…. but what of Capoeira?

  • Florence Gordon

    You know I have been waiting, waiting and waiting for over 10 years plus that when were someone was going to take the iniativies to speak-out about racism, bigotry amongst the socalled American Spanish. I am a 60 year old female who have had some grave negative experiences with the White and Black Spanish speaking americans or foreigns. I submitted a complaint against a White Spanish person in which I called her a bigot. She outwardly, state that she was not a bigot especially when she is married to a Black American. How can one say such things. She has her co-workers under her spell therefore, they expecial the Black co-workers where she play the game with everyone whereby it comes out in her lectures and interactions with the Black females. My case is in the first stages and she has lied against me by giving me an failure. I will have to let it lie or challenge her by proving her the liar and a socia-psychopath who vent hatred in the classrooms her in California.

    As I watch you narrate the stories I it reminded me of South Carolina in the 1950 through 1962 I had to leave because they (Whites) said no way you can enter our colleges or schools. I lefted for California in 1962 and found the same stigma because of my coloring. I was only qualified as a domisticated. Now the same activities are happening in 2011 where the latins are the majorities and they take care of their own whereby the Black people did not take care of their own and stumbled onto their faces. Almost in disbelief I ponder the HOPE of Martin and
    Malcolm X and so many others here in America before the them and that things may change. I now daily in someway the Latins practice acts like the White man.

    I am very very happy to see and listen to every word being said about those Countries. I personally do not belief RACISM OR BIGOTRY WILL EVER END because for those who practice it are becoming powerful in their actions.

    One thing I believe that if ever America becomes in the Latin’s controlled you will see WARS in what use tro be America. They do not care until the rape, death and proverty overrides America just perhaps they will dump America and go back home, at least they have a home to come back to.

    Thank you for educating the BLACK IN LATIN AMERICA AND hopefully the Afro-Black American.

    I just

  • Dest

    @ Florence
    I totally agree with your comment. As a black american most do not understand how we feel because at the end of the day, we do not have any homeland like those of the latin countries. Thats why us blacks really do hate when someone of african descent from a latin america country denies there roots. To us its unthinkable. We know what we are and we dont try to hide it. Most of us are mixed in the US just like in Latin America but to deny it is something else! And to think of it many Latin American countries music food and culture mother comes from Africa unlike us here in the US. We were stripped completley of our roots.
    Latins are the majority and for us black people who dont speak spanish this is a disadvantage. Again we have to compete with people from other countries for jobs and other matters and here we are been here for more than 400 yrs. Such a shame! i do not have anything against the latin America or any culture for that matter. I WISH EVERYONE WOULD WAKE UP AND SEE WE ARE ALL HUMAN ALL THE SAME.

  • t

    Brazilians speak Portuguese not Spanish. Most Brazilians I know in America admit their blackness and are mixed.
    Their government and education system has lied to them. They need to heal and this documentary is helping that. I hope that racism between Americans of all colors in relation to immigrants here legally or illegally would end. Colonialism effects and unfair distribution of wealth that is a product of American trade and consumption has made poor people immigrate here to feed themselves. In a way, they are the new servants for American without rights like health care, food stamps, social security being they do not have a social security number. I agree that as these immigrants admit their blackness they can stop their hatred of Afro-Americans and I hope we collectively as Americans can stop hating them.

  • Michael Lipkin

    Technically, everybody in America and everywhere else outside of the area in Africa where the human race began is an “immigrant”, and of African descent. Human beings are human beings, period. All around the world Blacks are in conflict with other Blacks, Whites are in conflict with other Whites, Latinos are in conflict with other Latinos, etc, etc, etc. I don’t know of any group on the planet that doesn’t deal with conflict or discrimination within their own group. I’ve witnessed this everywhere I’ve been in the world. If people aren’t discriminating against each other over skin color, it’s about something else. I tend to pay more attention to discrimination against skin color because I’m dark-skinned Black, and because of my experiences relative to that issue.
    Re Brazil: I was in Rio in 1987 for 14 days, and had my “rainbow society” bubble bursted when I noticed there were no Black waiters (they didn’t employ waitresses) or employees at restaurants I visited, no Black employees in stores I visited, including stores in one large shopping mall, and I saw one light-skinned Black desk clerk in the hotels I visited. I saw no Black hotel maids, employees at the clubs, bartenders, taxi or bus drivers. I expected the garbage collectors and street sweepers that were present at 4:00 in the mornings to be Black, but none of those I saw were. I also noticed wherever my friend (light skinned Black) and I went, he was always approached first by proprietors. Although it bothered me, I didn’t react, and he didn’t notice, so I left it alone and packed it away for my own education. Oh, well. what’s new?

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