Sites of Memory and Time Slips: Narratives of the "Good Master" and the History of Brazilian Slavery
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Sites of Memory and Time Slips:
Narratives of the "Good Master" and the History of Brazilian Slavery

Oral histories about slavery and the postemancipation period in Brazil and other regions of the Americas often contain descriptions of masters who were kind and humane to their slaves. This article takes one such testimony as a point of departure to analyze why descendants of slaves depicted former masters in a positive light. It argues that, instead of indicating forms of false consciousness and naiveté, narratives of good masters often reflect two operations taking place in the oral memories of Afro-Brazilians: the creation of sites of memory and the occurrence of time slips. As identified by Pierre Nora, sites of memory are entities that condense a community's symbolic heritage. Time slips, a concept borrowed from science-fiction literature, are a type of anachronism that applies to specific individuals. While these two concepts probably do not exhaust the whole range of explanations for the good-master narrative, they do contribute to depicting Afro-descendants as historical actors capable of discussing their own experiences in a nuanced and multi-faceted way.


Amazonia, Brazil, sites of memory, slave narratives, tide mills

Manoel da Conceição de Melo, also known as Seu Nunhes, is a Brazilian man of African descent who recounted the era of Brazilian slavery in puzzling terms. Seu Nunhes was born in 1926 in a small village called Cacau, located fifty miles north of Belém do Pará, whose inhabitants descend almost entirely from former plantation slaves. Cacau used to be a sítio, or farm, inside of the Santo Antônio [End Page 237] da Campina sugar plantation before slavery was abolished in 1888, and in the aftermath of emancipation most of the enslaved stayed in the plantation, becoming sharecroppers, tenants, and resident employees. In an interview, Seu Nunhes explained how the Portuguese owner of Campina in the mid-nineteenth century, Agostinho José Lopes Godinho, allowed the slaves to play carimbó, a very popular Amazonian music genre born in Campina, among other places. "After planting the manioc … he [master Godinho] gave the order to play carimbó," explained Seu Nunhes. This was a special occasion both for the enslaved workers of Campina and for the Portuguese master, who had "a beautiful, large flask full of rum" that he would use on such days. "Godinho," Seu Nunhes concludes, "was such a nice guy that he liked the blacks, the slaves."1

I encountered this statement about a slave owner being also a "nice guy" for the first time in 2009, while conducting fieldwork in Cacau to study the social and political experiences of slave descendants during the decades after emancipation. Initially I did not pay much attention to it, assuming that it was either infrequent or inspired by popular folklore and literary images of the "good master." However, as I conducted more interviews in that and other communities, and as I read analogous cases in other regions of Brazil, I became more and more intrigued by this disturbing icon. What, I thought, could former slaves and slave descendants be telling us with these stories? How common were they in Brazil? Should we dismiss them as false consciousness, or is there anything to gain from paying attention to them?

In what follows I will address these questions to argue that, while the icon of the good master reproduces images of paternalism between masters and slaves, it also conforms to the logic of two operations taking place in the slave descendants' memory. The first is the creation of sites of memory, a concept coined by historian Pierre Nora to designate places, objects, events, or themes that condense important meanings for both individuals and communities.2 The second one is the recounting of experiences that belong in a different time from that in which they are remembered. I will call this operation a time slip instead of an anachronism, as it is often called, because in this case the concept applies to specific individuals. In the literary genre of science fiction, a time slip happens when someone suddenly finds him or herself in a period where he or she...