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  • Chica da Silva: A Brazilian Slave of the Eighteenth Century
  • Katherine Holt
Chica da Silva: A Brazilian Slave of the Eighteenth Century. By Júnia Ferreira Furtado. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 348 pp. $75.00 (cloth); $23.99 (paper).

The story of Chica da Silva, an enslaved woman from the Brazilian mining regions freed by a Portuguese royal diamond administrator after becoming his mistress, remains a powerful symbol for understanding contemporary notions of what it meant to be a slave in Brazil. Her myth has inspired Brazilian writers, musicians, and filmmakers, including Carlos Diegues, whose 1975 film Xica da Silva was instrumental in promoting Chica’s iconic image as a powerful black woman who used her sexuality to give her power over white men and to circumvent the racial and social hierarchies of the Brazilian slave system. Some popular historians and public figures have used the popular view of Chica’s life to argue for a more benevolent form of slavery in Brazil and a greater racial tolerance. Júnia Ferreira Furtado’s excellent book Chica da Silva: A Brazilian Slave of the Eighteenth Century moves beyond the myths to uncover the real Chica. Through her exhaustive analysis of notarial and ecclesiastical records in Portugal and Brazil, Furtado paints a vivid portrait of Chica and her descendents that moves beyond the “stereotypes commonly attributed to [Chica], be it the notion that she was an exception or that she was an example of the sensuality of the Brazilian mulatta or even of cordial conviviality between the races in Brazil” (p. 19). Her depiction weaves the life of Chica with those of other freed women of color in the diamond district to return the historical focus to the agency of Brazilian women of color as they negotiated their places within the slave society.

In part because of its location in the interior of Brazil, settlers over-looked Minas Gerais during the initial centuries of Portuguese colonization until the discovery of gold and diamonds at the turn of the seventeenth century. The subsequent mining boom drew large numbers of free men and their enslaved African workers to the region. These mining districts were notable for a severe sex imbalance with [End Page 391] men greatly outnumbering women; Furtado cites a 1738 mining district census where only 16.5 percent of the inhabitants were women (p. 65). Many prospectors entered into sexual relationships with enslaved women, and in the absence of legitimate descendents both freed these children and named them heirs to their estates. By the time João Fernandes de Oliveira moved to Minas Gerais to serve as the crown overseer of diamond extraction, the province was noted for a large free population of color, female-headed households, and a high rate of births outside of wedlock.

As Furtado notes, João Fernandes and Chica’s long-term relationship was typical of this larger pattern of white men living with and having children by Afro-descendent concubines. Furtado emphasizes that although many free and freed women translated their statuses as concubines into social and economic advantages, women of color were subject to “a dual exploitation—both sexual and racial” (p. xxiii). Chica’s thirteen children with João were all born free, but João, like most elite men, did not formalize his and Chica’s union with marriage. In colonial Brazil, Catholic marriage was reserved for a union between social equals. Neither did Chica use her status as a member of the local elite to advocate for a new social structure, but instead, like most freed women, she “embraced the values of the white elite with a view to finding a place in that society for themselves and their descendents” (p. xxiii). Chica became a slaveholder after her own manumission, and owned at least 104 slaves over the course of her life (p. 154).

Chapters drawing on inventories of the couple’s estate provide further insight into the social history and material culture of colonial Brazil. From her analysis of Chica’s house in Diamantina to the extensive jewelry owned by her daughter Rosa Quitéria, Furtado demonstrates how Chica and her family employed material possessions and public...


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