Benedicta’s Cabin and the Space of Silence

Slave market in Brazil
Slave market in Brazil

On August 12, 1798- the day in which the so-called Tailor’s Conspiracy of Bahia, Brazil was discovered by colonial authorities- Antonio José de Acevedo, a thirty-eight year old white male, went to the market on the corner of the plaza of São Bento in the center of the city of Salvador da Bahia to pay back a sum that he owed to Benedicta, a woman who worked at the market and who lived in a room on the square. When he arrived Antonio José saw a piece of paper attached to Benedicta’s cabin that “contained seditious words.” Azevedo did not tell what those words were, only that he took the bulletin down and sent a male servant to deliver it to the governor. 1

This was not the only seditious bulletin discovered that morning in this market. Earlier in the day a clerk for the High Court was ordered by the Governor of Bahia to go and take down a bulletin that had been reported near São Bento, only to arrive and find out that the bulletin had already been taken down by a soldier and that no one in the area since had seen the bulletin or the said soldier. 2

Throughout the Tailor’s Conspiracy of 1798, the market and plaza of São Bento was a frequent meeting space and crossing point for over three dozen men of African descent who were busy trying to organize a rebellion against slavery, racism, and Portuguese colonialism. While judges and officials were busy chasing down these male suspects, they never stopped to consider the degree to which women were involved in the movement or the ways in which their political activities connected with and were advantageous to the movement. They simply assumed, as others have since then, that black women’s homes and work-spaces were used for meetings. In their view, women were categorically excluded from or incapable of participating in the organization of a rebellion. Only five women’s testimonies are included in the more than 1200 page-long judicial investigation into the conspiracy, and each of them were arrested or brought in to serve as witnesses. Indeed, not even Benedicta appears as a defendant.

Perhaps there were no women who participated in planning or plotting this rebellion. Perhaps it was just as authorities suspected and some black women’s role in the movement was relegated to withholding information about their male counterparts. These are questions that we cannot know and secrets that we cannot hope to recover and penetrate from a judicial archive that cared nothing about cataloguing, interrogating, and discovering these secrets. 3. Yet we may not need to insert black women directly into the heart of the movement to see black women engaged in parallel political actions in this moment. For example, struggles over public space were as central to the Tailor’s Conspiracy as were aims to end racial discrimination and slavery. Yet struggles over space were also central to black women working in markets during the movement. Thus once we begin to look beyond the fact of Benedicta’s voice being silenced, and begin to think about black women’s political work outside of the home and in public space through these silences, we can also begin to see how black women’s struggles over labor and space intersected with and perhaps underpinned rebellious movements that were organized and carried out predominantly by men. Let us look more closely at this possibility by briefly considering the importance that struggles over space had in late eighteenth-century Bahia.

Radicalizing Space With Silent Gestures

Though the Tailor’s Conspiracy was certainly a demonstration against the racial hierarchy of colonial Brazil, it was also a demonstration that was carried out publicly. The demands to end racial discrimination and slavery were announced publicly, through handwritten bulletins that were affixed to the most public locations of the city. This, in fact, was the only way to go public with the demands, as there were no printing presses in Bahia until 1808. In addition to the plaza of São Bento, other plazas and churches in the center of the city where free and enslaved people often congregated were also targeted with bulletins. In short, much about the movement was centered on struggles to claim and mark certain spaces as belonging to the “people.”

The proliferation of free people of color in these spaces, in fact, led elites of the time to complain about the growth of “public disorder.” Among the many spaces that elites highlighted as examples of public disorder were the open-air markets known as quitandas. Often situated at the edges of public squares, and often organized and operated by black and mixed-race women, quitandas added to the vexation of elite men who noted that there were three such prominent quitandas in Salvador, including the one at the plaza of São Bento and one that was situated in the most prominent public plaza in the entire city, the Terreiro de Jesus Plaza.” 4 At the time of the Tailor’s Conspiracy in 1798, the Municipal Council of Bahia had attempted to solve the problem of quitandas being visible in or near public squares by having quarters built on the edge of the Terreiro de Jesus Plaza that the women vendors could rent. However the first attempt at such quarters were deemed to small and inferior by most women vendors. When the municipal council attempted to have a second set of quarters built around the plaza of São Bento, quitandeiras considered these spaces to be too large and expensive. 5 Thus they continued to sell in the open-air and continued to live in dwellings of their choosing.

Benedicta may or may not have helped plan the Tailor’s Conspiracy, and the judges gender biased expectations about violent rebellion means that they may or may not have overlooked a number of potential suspects. And while we can never reveal the absolute truth regarding such issues, what is clear from the record is that activities by women like Benedicta were part of what continued to make congregating in the open-air of plazas and church fronts possible for men of African descent. Elite failures the clean-up the “disorder” of the markets- or rather black women’s refusals to be moved off the street and into over-priced, confined, and consigned spaces- meant that it would be more difficult for elites to police and keep closer surveillance over radical gatherings in public.

We can perhaps go even a bit further, however. While there is no proof that Benedicta participated in the movement, the absence of her voice from the interrogation records runs somewhat parallel to the absence of any strong protest on the part of quitanda women to elite attempts to relocate them from the edges of public plazas. The archival record contains no evidence of demonstrations or protestations by women over the municipal council’s relocation plans. All that remains is the voice of elite observers who declare that women simply declined the new housing that was built for them. In this way they radicalized space through their silent refusal, though their remaining in place without demonstration and without making an event out of it. Did Benedicta do something similar with her own home that sat on the edge of the São Bento plaza? To be sure, it is entirely possible and plausible that whoever attached the bulletin to her door did so without her permission and because her business in the square was so popular. Even if we concede this, however, it was not Benedicta who turned the bulletin in to authorities, but a man who had come to pay her back some money that he owed her. Leaving aside for now what this scene may have to tell us about the connections between gender, honor, and credit in the late eighteenth century, what can we take away from the fact that Benedicta herself was not the one to relay news of the seditious bulletin to authorities? Perhaps she did not see it before her customer did, and there is no more to the story than that. However, denouncing black radical movements to authorities has never been an activity that whites or elites have a monopoly on. Plenty of non-white, marginalized persons have historically “given up” such information, particularly when they have had opportunities to translate loyalty to a colonial regime into occupational or social promotion. If Benedicta saw the bulletin but did not denounce it, what are we to make of her silence? Was this another instance of gesturing towards radicalism through an act of silence?

What I am thus suggesting is that we consider not just the silences that are introduced by judges and officials into archives, but also the volitional silences of people who chose not to speak or act. And this exercise should not be relegated to historical subjects who find themselves arrested and refuse to talk, but especially to subjects like black women who refuse to talk prior to or even in the absence of being arrested. How else can we think about and consider the political activities of those who are imagined to have no voice and no participation in the public sphere of the eighteenth century (in spite of constant examples that prove otherwise)? Radicalization or just plain non-conformity for such individuals may not always be loud and obvious. In fact, such quiet gestures and acts may turn out to be paramount for sustaining and carrying out alternative political visions.

  1. “Asentada: Antonio José Alvares de Azevedo branco solteiro,” 1798, 23 August. Autos da Devassa da Conspiração Alfaiates (ADCA), vol. 1, 44. Arquivo Publico do Estado da Bahia (APEB).
  2. “Asentada: João Alves Ribeiro meirinho da moeda desta Cidade,” 1798, 24 September. ADCA, vol. 1, 59. APEB.
  3. See Childs, “Secret and Spectral: Torture and Secrecy in the Archives of “Slave Conspiracies,” Social Text, Forthcoming December 2015
  4. Luís dos Santos Vilhena, “A Cidade do Salvador (B) (Carta II): Quitandas,” A Bahia no século xviii, 3 vols: vol. 1, (Editôra Itapuã: Bahia, 1969), 93.
  5. Vilhena, “A Cidade do Salvador (B) (Carta II): Quitandas,” 93.
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Greg Childs

Greg Childs is Assistant Professor of History at Brandeis University. He is currently completing a book entitled Seditious Spaces, Public Politics: The Tailor’s Conspiracy of Bahia, Brazil and the Politics of Freedom in the Revolutionary Atlantic.