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  • Africans and Slave Marriages in Eighteenth-century Rio de Janeiro
  • Flávio dos Santos Gomes (bio)

During slavery in the Americas, whether plantation, mining or urban, captives, Creoles, freedpersons and Africans invented various forms of socialization, in part through family arrangements. The slave family is one of the most prominent themes in recent studies of Brazilian slavery.1 Until the 1970s, several authors claimed that such families did not exist; however, contemporary studies have revised many of the arguments about slaves’ experiences and daily lives. Based on statistical sources (post-mortem inventories, lists of names, population censuses, and parish records) historians have demonstrated that, despite their living conditions, workdays, specific demographics, illness, mortality, etc., a considerable part of the slave population was able to establish families and compadrio relations by employing various strategies.2 Criticizing the manner in [End Page 153] which travelers’ reports were used in historiography in the 1960s and 1970s, Slenes proposes a theoretical perspective for investigating the connections between “policies of domination” and “slave plans,” and suggests new demographic approaches for original cultural and social history.3

While agreeing with this perspective, I also argue in this article that family arrangements and forms of compadrio helped slaves invent identities related to the communities in which they lived. One aspect of slave sociability can be analyzed using parish records.4 I have assessed patterns of marriage and compadrio in the Captaincy of Rio de Janeiro, in the rural parish of Nossa Senhora do Desterro de Campo Grande, near the Guanabara bay area, and evaluated how the slave population underwent demographic changes that influenced their society and culture. Senzala (literally, “slave quarters”) communities formed around the sugar plantations established in the eighteenth century through arrangements and alliances that included both Central Africans and the first generations of Creoles. I analyze how choosing a spouse, as well as witnesses/padrinhos (godparents), was linked to the logic of the senzalas, the reconfiguration of master-slave relations, and demographic dynamics. Considering marriages celebrated in the second half of the eighteenth century, I have identified an initial pattern of marriages between enslaved Africans, especially those from the same areas, ports or “nations,” who chose free witnesses/padrinhos, followed by a later phase of marriages between Brazilian-born slaves (Creoles), with enslaved witnesses/padrinhos. I argue that these patterns of slave alliances and the captives’ compadrio relations emerged less from masters’ policies or demographic situations and more from slaves’ expectations, including those of Africans.

Slave Marriages and Historiography

Although recognized by the Catholic Church, for a long time slave marriages were considered nonexistent. For Brazil, the usual justifications given to explain the supposed absence of such marriages were the disproportionally large number of men transported to that country by the slave trade and the fact that such unions were not in the slave owners’ interest because they could prevent the owner from selling one of the spouses. Some scholars even supported the theory of “promiscuity” in the senzalas.5 Since the seventeenth century, there has been evidence of marriage [End Page 154] records in several Rio de Janeiro and Bahia parishes. In 1711, the Constituições Primeiras of the Archbishopric of Bahia reaffirmed the legitimacy of marriages between slaves, and between free persons and slaves. According to the Constituições, masters could not prevent their slaves from marrying, nor could they separate them once they had wed.6 Most slave owners probably did not comply with that “divine right,” since it would not have been in their interest to encourage slaves to enter into church-consecrated unions or even stable consensual partnerships.

Going beyond the pioneering studies by Graham, Schwartz, Klein, Luna, Costa, and others, two important recent approaches have reexamined the role and function of the family and marriage in slavery. Sheila Faria has confirmed that there were very few unions between slaves with different masters—at most, 3%—although those between slaves and free persons were not so rare. When investigating the rates of illegitimate births among slaves born in the colony, Faria observed that seventeenth-century parish records commonly listed the names of the parents of those enslaved children baptized as illegitimate. As far as I know, this practice had...


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pp. 153-184
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