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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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