- People of Faith: Slavery and African Catholics in Eighteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro by Mariza De Carvalho Soares
The last twenty years have witnessed a continued expansion of our understanding of the Atlantic slave trade and New World slavery. Mariza de Carvalho Soares has added to this growing understanding with the publication of People of Faith: Slavery and African Catholics in Eighteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro. Starting with a broad examination of the Atlantic slave trade, People of Faith is at heart a work of microhistory set within the context of the south Atlantic world. It is that micro-historical examination of religiosity among Africans that furthers our understanding of the life of Africans in and out of captivity.
People of Faith was Soares’s doctoral dissertation at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, where she is currently an associate professor and researcher. It was subsequently published as Devotos da Cor: Identidade étnica, religiosidade e escravidão no Rio de Janeiro, século XVIIl.1 The preparation of the dissertation for publication was completed in 1997 and it was published in 2000. The book under review is based on that publication. The translated work contains an important “Postscript,” which is undated and situates the book in the author’s evolving research program, clarifies some issues, and adds relevant information.
The work starts with a broad review of the Portuguese in West Africa and then begins narrowing its focus, first to the Mina Coast and then the people called “Mina” by the Portuguese, to finally focus on the Mina in one place, Rio de Janeiro, during one period of time, 1718–1760. The Mina label included various peoples imported from the hinterlands of the Bight of Benin.2 The author uses the Catholic faith and especially the institution of the lay religious brotherhood as the lens to explore the Mina in Rio de Janeiro. This sharpened focus allows the author to explore broad issues of group identity, ethnicity, and gender in a world barely perceived by the Europeanized elite who [End Page 221] dominated the political and cultural life of the capital of Brazil. It also permits an examination of the roles of specific Africans as they maneuvered the intricacies of this colonial environment. It is this last focus that, to this reviewer, serves as the main contribution of People of Faith. Seldom do the existing sources permit us to reach the level of individual slaves and ex-slaves with such specificity and depth.
The book is divided into two sections. The first focuses on West Africa and the engagement of Africans with the Portuguese and other European nations, based to a large degree on the writings of Portuguese chroniclers and scholars of the slave trade. The first two chapters represent an analysis of European expansion into Africa, with Soares’s focus being on the evolving definition of Guinea and then the Mina Coast rather than the cultures of Africans. Chapter 3 serves as a bridge linking the two sections and will be discussed below. The second section shifts the focus to the city of Rio de Janeiro in the eighteenth century. The author explores the activities of the Mina within Catholic institutions, notably the lay brotherhoods. Her central objective is to understand how Mina and even more specifically the Mahi, one of the Mina subgroups, were able to reconfigure their lives in and out of slavery in Brazil and to recreate their own history of Africa. The decision to focus on the Mina was, no doubt, led by her discovery of some fascinating documents and her desire to expand the existing focus on Angolans to other peoples, thereby better reflecting the complexity of Portuguese colonial slave society.
The methodological/theoretical heart of this book, chapter 3, serves as the bridge to the microhistory of the Mina in Rio de Janeiro. In it the author lays out her approach to some significant issues. She seeks to clarify the...