March 25, 2017, by owright

WHM: The Wealth of African Freedwomen: Salvador da Bahia, Brazil (1870-1888)

By Dr Jane-Marie Collins, SPLAS

The campaign theme for this year’s International Women’s day was ‘Be Bold For Change’. Indeed, for historians the notion of ‘bold women’ has been a useful way of thinking about women’s lives in the past and their responses to disadvantage and discrimination experienced on account of their gender. In the case of African freedwomen in nineteenth-century Brazil, boldness was a quality that they appear to have had in abundance. They managed to survive the dangers of capture in Africa, the horrors of the ‘Middle Passage’ (the term commonly used to refer to trans-Atlantic journey of forced migration), the rigors of enslaved labour in the largest slaveholding society in the Americas, and then go on to purchase their own freedom.

I have been researching the lives of enslaved and freed women in nineteenth-century Bahia for some time now, and recently this research has lead me to a number of women who not only managed to become freed, but who also enjoyed a level of prosperity that set them apart from other freed women. These women belonged to an elite group of freed Africans in Bahia who, while relatively small in number, played an influential role in the Afro-Brazilian communities to which they belonged. The lives of some of those belonging to this elite group have been the subject of some excellent biographical studies and as a result, it is clear that both African freedmen and women made their wealth through their connections to trans-Atlantic trade. Indeed, the findings from my own research confirms findings from other studies: that is, these African freedwomen were property owners and slave owners, even at a time in Brazil when legislation prevented Africans owning real estate and when slave ownership was in decline.

A small grant has been awarded for me to research the lives of three African freedwomen in particular: Maria Joaquina Vitoria da Conceição, Justina Maria da Conceição and Izabel Inocência de Araujo Sant’Ana. These women all died within a decade of one another and moved in similar social circles. They owned properties in the same neighbourhoods, the husband of one acted as witness for the last will and testament of another, the daughter of another married a high-priest of candomblé (the religion brought to Brazil by enslaved Africans of West African origins) who was also the great-grandson of the founder of the first candomblé terrerio (temple) in Salvador. So far I have uncovered their wills, testaments and inventories and in some cases those of their husbands and children too, as well as letters of liberty for the manumission of their slaves, but there is more work to do.

Collectively, I hope the research will produce a more complete biographical picture of the lives of these women. It should reveal more about their interconnecting networks of commerciality and patterns of sociability, most likely through extended familial relations of kin and fictive kin, sponsorship through godparentage and the acquisition of dependents in the form of slaves. It is hoped too, that the additional sources will cast light on the role of these women in the wider Atlantic World; that is in the Afro-Brazilian communities in West Africa, regions from where these women originated before their enslavement. Thus, while the success of these women as individuals was remarkable, and their enterprise extraordinary, their ability to engender such monumental change cannot be reduced to their individual strengths of character and bold personality traits. On the contrary, the mobility these women experienced was a direct result of the legacy of female West African knowledge and skills, traditions and cultures, and it is in this specifically South Atlantic historical context (the ‘trans-Atlantic’ between Brazil and Africa), that the lives of these women – their prosperity, social relations, religious identities and trajectories from slavery to freedom – will to be examined and understood.

Posted in Women's History Month