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Chica da Silva: A Brazilian Slave of the Eighteenth Century (review)

From: Journal of Social History
Volume 44, Number 3, Spring 2011
pp. 950-952 | 10.1353/jsh.2011.0029

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In Chica da Silva, Júnia Ferreira Furtado offers a compelling account of the life and world of Francisca da Silva de Oliveira. Born a slave woman, of mixed African and European descent, Francisca famously became the mistress of her owner, the Portuguese judge and owner of the diamond contract in Minas Gerais, João Fernandes de Oliveira. Freed by Oliveira, with whom she had a long-lasting relationship and several children, Chica da Silva—as she became popularly known—successfully made the transition from slave to free person and, more remarkably, to wealthy property owner. Her story has since been retold in writing, song, and film, and remains an important part of Brazil's historical memory. Furtado, however, takes issue with the popular portrayal of Chica as a seductress who used her African heritage and sexuality to improve her position in society. She also rejects the literature that uses Chica's life story to support a simplistic view of race relations in Brazil, one that places undue emphasis on the possibility of social integration a few persons of African descent enjoyed during the colonial period. According to Furtado, by portraying her as a savvy slave woman who used her body to achieve social mobility, or as the mulatto who benefited from this society's benign racial practices, existing accounts and studies that focus on Chica have failed to understand the complex world of gender and racial domination she, and other women of African descent, attempted to navigate. Chica da Silva successfully reveals that complexity to its readers, and sheds light on the challenges black women and their descendants faced in colonial slave societies, as well as the strategies they employed to overcome the limitations gender and racial discrimination imposed on their opportunities for social and economic improvement.

Furtado starts her book with an overview of the history of the diamond district where the events in the lives of Chica and her family unfolded. She particularly emphasizes a social and demographic environment in which Chica was but one example of a freed black woman whose illegitimate children were the product of a sexual relationship (consensual or not) with a white man. Subsequent chapters explore the family background and common life of Chica da Silva and João Fernandes de Oliveira. This section of the book reveals that Oliveira's decision to buy and free Chica followed a pattern that benefited several other slave women in colonial Minas Gerais. Their informal union, moreover, was accepted by the local society and elite, as proven, according to Furtado, by the fact that the godparents of some of the couple's children were members of the elite. Furtado also provides a detailed description of Chica's material and social life. A property owner who benefited from the labor of her slaves, Chica was able to secure a comfortable living for herself and her children, and to procure the status of honorable women for her daughters by placing them at the religious institution of Macaúbas. As a godmother and sponsor of newlyweds, hostess of well-frequented soirées, and member and benefactor of different religious brotherhoods, Chica acted as a patron to persons of a lower social standing than her own, and interacted with the higher social circles of Diamantino society. Chica and João Fernandes de Oliveira's life together ended abruptly when he was forced to return to Portugal after his father's death. The final chapters of Chica da Silva provide an account of that time in their lives, as well as of the complicated process of settling the family's estate; the disputes among the couple's children over their inheritance; and the fate of Chica's descendants. Finally, the last chapter discusses the evolution of the myth of Chica da Silva who, from a licentious black woman who bewitched white men, has been more recently portrayed as the black slave heroine who, against all odds, accomplished the unique feat of rising from rags to riches.

Furtado's analysis rejects these commonplace representations of Chica and the claims that her experiences were unique. She argues instead that Chica and her descendants' path to economic improvement and social mobility, similar to...