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  • Ethnic and Racial Identity in the Brotherhoods of the Rosary of Minas Gerais, 1700–1830*
  • Elizabeth W. Kiddy

The participants in the festivals of the rosary in Minas Gerais tell a story about the beginning of the devotion of the blacks to Our Lady of the Rosary. In the story, a black slave sees Our Lady of the Rosary out in the sea rocking on top of the waves. When he tells his master, the master and the priests rush down to the water, but are unable to coax her to come to shore. In frustration, they leave the task to the blacks. Blacks from different African nations, or different groups of congados in the vernacular, go one by one to the edge of the sea (or a river) and play their instruments, dance and sing to try to convince Our Lady of the Rosary to come ashore. Their efforts only become successful when the most traditional group goes to the shore and begins to play their music. Even this most traditional group has no success, however, until all the other groups return and join them to sing together. Only then does Our Lady of the Rosary come to the shore and sit on the largest drum, showing her acceptance of the devotion of the blacks. Even when the whites take her to their own chapel and lock the door, she escapes and returns to the sea, waiting for the blacks to call her out again and put her in their own chapel.1

The story serves as a foundation myth for the devotion of the blacks to [End Page 221] Our Lady of the Rosary and as a template for the annual festival of the rosary in Minas Gerais, Brazil. Beyond its role as the creation story of a devotion, however, it also serves as an origin myth for the emergence of a racial consciousness among the black membership in the lay religious brotherhoods of the rosary. Although the origins of the story of Our Lady of the Rosary are lost in time, evidence of the development of that racial consciousness can be traced to the Brotherhoods of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Blacks in colonial Minas Gerais.

This article examines the evolution of ethnic and racial identity among the membership of the rosary brotherhoods in what is now the state of Minas Gerais between 1700, the beginning of the settlement of the captaincy, to 1830, just after the independence of Brazil. Lay religious brotherhoods were the only organizations sanctioned by the dominant Portuguese society, in which blacks could legally gather together.2 Members of the brotherhoods celebrated together at annual festivals and mourned together at the burials of fellow members, ceremonies that all brothers and sisters were required to attend.3 They also opened a forum through which members could fulfill promises or vows (votos) made to the saints, in the tradition of European popular Catholicism. Beyond their important role in the celebration of the patron saint and providing a “good death,” brotherhoods served important social functions. They promised to help members in times of need, served as banks, and as a place where blacks could “be somebody” in the society.4

Of all the black brotherhoods, those dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary were the most numerous and the most tenacious.5 Although whites founded [End Page 222] some brotherhoods of the rosary, the vast majority were “of the blacks” (dos pretos). In addition, none of the rosary brotherhoods of the blacks in Minas Gerais explicitly excluded whites, all opened their membership to people of either sex, color, and social status. Most rosary brotherhoods also recognized at the least the necessity of having a white secretary and treasurer, although some brotherhoods sought to curtail their power within the organization. Despite the presence of some white members and officers, the rosary brotherhoods provided a space in which Africans of many nations and Brazilian-born blacks (crioulos), who were slave, free, and freed (forro), came together to create legally incorporated groups within, and accepted by, the dominant society. Along with the advantages the members of the rosary brotherhoods shared with other black brotherhoods, they were...


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