Excavating the History of Afro-Brazilian Women

Group of women smile as they pose for a photo during a march to mark the International Afro Latin American and Afro Caribbean Women’s Day (Nelson Antoine / Shutterstock.com)

Only a few pages remain of what is cited as the first known text written by an Afro-Brazilian woman. Rosa Egipcíaca da Vera Cruz—an enslaved African-born woman—wrote Sacred Theology of the Love of the God of Light Shining in the Pilgrim Souls in the 1700s. In 1993, Luiz Mott published an extensive biography of Rosa after finding her in Portugal’s national archives. Rosa was believed to have resided in what is now Lagos, Nigeria, born to the Koura or Courana nation. Enslaved as a child, she was transported across the Atlantic and arrived in Rio de Janeiro in 1725 at six years of age. She was purchased, baptized, and sexually exploited by her male owner and then sold again at fourteen to a family residing in a parish just outside of Mariana, Minas Gerais.

Rosa likely traveled the approximately 250 miles on foot. In Minas, she sold her body, for almost two decades, before experiencing mystical visions and demonic possessions that initiated her archival presence. Her metaphysical experiences led her to end her sex work, give away her belongings to the poor, and enter a charismatic and pious life for which she became known. These experiences also led to exorcisms, church trials to assess her prophetic claims, and a disfiguring beating for being an imposter. Accused of witchcraft, Rosa fled to Rio in 1751 along with Francisco Gonçalves Lopes, a priest, as well as Rosa’s exorcist, spiritual collaborator, guardian, and liberator.

Rosa’s devotion chartered a new course. She took the name Egipcíaca from Saint Mary of Egypt to whose likeness she presumably related — a darker skinned woman, a former prostitute who retreated to the desert of Palestine. With Lopes, she founded a sanctuary for women, many of color, to devote themselves to God. Rosa grew a following, sermonized, and served as a spiritual touchstone. She also learned to read and write. 

With her prophetic visions, saint-like status, and cross-racial and cross-class following, this once-enslaved Black woman through her bold actions exasperated Rio’s Catholic elite. She was denounced and accused of heresy. In 1763, Rosa sailed to Lisbon, with her spiritual collaborator Lopes to stand trial at the Portuguese Inquisition, ending her story in Brazil. Much of Rosa’s book of illuminations, written sometime while in Rio, may have been destroyed in advance of her trial to prevent it’s use as evidence against her. 

Rosa likely died in prison. After her sixth inquisition testimony given on June 4, 1765, she returned to her holding cell and her fate became unknown. Despite a written presence in the Torre de Tombo archive, including her signed statement confirming her prophetic utterances as well as a collection of her letters, her death is undocumented and unknown. Mott, her Brazilian anthropologist biographer, came across her in the Torre archive. Due to the meticulous record-keeping of the Inquisition, Mott drew from Rosa’s testimony to craft her 700 plus page biography, filling it with contextual detail of 18th century slavery and colonialism in Brazil. After more than 200 years of archival slumber, Rosa awoke into contemporary memory.

Today Rosa Egipcíaca survives as a stunning yet lesser-known Black diasporic figure. Her voice fills the discussed Black absence in the archives of slavery with a complicated story of an African-born enslaved woman in colonial Brazil. Indeed, the extensiveness of her testimony and the Inquisition’s search for the so-called truth makes her a rare archival presence. Yet her voice, condemned and likely strategized, perseveres because she was tried. In contemporary terms, Rosa’s story endures in the prison archives of the state. The thoroughness of the Inquisition’s documentation does not symbolically annihilate her. Gabriel Solis and Michelle Caswell remind us carceral archives are prone to do, but Rosa’s story relentlessly hangs on despite her personal disappearance.

Centuries later, her testimony affords and asks for interpretations and reclamations, that in the words of social justice archivists Johnson, Drake, and Caswell, “restore the humanity of those for whom it has been denied.” Their suggestion proposes something simple and powerful: from the records of the enslaved to the contemporary downtrodden our engagement with their documented memories demand that we work to tell a fuller story of their existence and work against the structuring that might otherwise have them remain singularly castigated or simply to be forgotten.

If enslaved and other Black people historically have some archival life, as Saidiya Hartman’s scholarship suggests, many have done so in the archives of the criminalized and contained. In their predicaments of “judgement and classification,” Hartman observes historically how black women archivally gain voice in the conditions of “surveillance, arrest, punishment, and confinement” (2019, xiv). In colonial Latin American and the Caribbean, specifically Afro-descendant enslaved women, like Rosa, Ursula de Jesús in Peru, and Thisbe in Trinidad, all are registered institutional because they were tried for sorcery and witchcraft in search of the truth of their actions. Rosa was forced at her own hand (as is hypothetically the case) to destroy her own book, to save her own life, whereby erasing the repository of her own truth. What remains of her book, along with her extensive testimony, persist as evidence in the archives and vantages of the state. 

Of course, with changing social and intellectual lenses, Rosa’s testimony per Mott now serves as a chronicle of state persecution and prosecution of black and gendered alterity, spiritual diversity and of physical and mental health. As such, Rosa reads in conjunction with the countless voices of (wrongfully) overly criminalized Black and other persecuted people who have resisted and self-advocated against the intersecting forms of repressive hierarchical power. Kelly Lytle Hernández’s reclaims these often fragmented, yet dissenting archival voices as a rebel archive, comprised of those who survived the institutional will to destroy them. Women like Rosa leave a rebellious archival footprint for their willingness to risk speech and eventually death on behalf of their truth. Their outspoken autonomy transforms into evidence of their agency and thus their humanity. 

Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments provides an example of a restorative and humanizing effort. She describes her archival efforts as “to recover the insurgent grounds of [Black girls and women’s] lives; to exhume open rebellion from the case file, to untether waywardness, refusal, mutual aid, and free love from their identification as deviance, criminality, and pathology” (2019: xiv). In this spirit, restoring Rosa’s humanity means interpreting and listening for other kinds truths; reimaging her not as prophetic or rebellious, but as a Black woman seeking to help those most vulnerable, the enslaved, the dark and less white, the disabled, the lost. It might be reading her through a proto-feminist lens concerned not only with women’s destitution and social exile brought on by racial patriarchy and its exploits, but one cultivating a type of connection with the unseen world that encouraged mystical and interior vitality. Rosa may have offered a weekly experience of grace, an example, even a model for others struggling in despairing circumstances. Her revelation and existence may not have been worthy of the beatification her persona seemed to desire, but an angling to create space, specifically for disenfranchised women of color, and substantiates a historical account of black feminist praxis.

Rosa’s convictions, and likely her charisma, were grand enough to engage her diverse following. As anthropologist Laura Lewis suggests, racialized women like Rosa, in their claims to knowledge and divine contact exercised an unsanctioned power that “helped free people from their sanctioned places in the colonial social hierarchy while bringing others under their control” (2003: 109). Rosa’s vision and enigmatic embrace seemingly provided something unarticulated and substantial about living in the hierarchies and demands of the colonial regime. 

At least one black Brazilian feminist organization audibly claims Rosa’s lineage. The Rio-based black women’s organization Criola documents Rosa as belonging to a group of “women who stood out in the struggle to overthrow the slave regime…Their stories, personalities and different forms of resistance are elements that forge our black female identity.” Criola dignifies Rosa as a complicated social visionary and worker and an ancestor to Black women’s identity, claimed or unclaimed. This is but one example of Rosa being humanized and restored.

Rosa’s archive offers possibilities for counter-narratives, new social histories, that do the slow steady work of invigorating a fuller picture of those who have come before and lived edgily and vulnerably. But she also restores possibility. Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley writes, “We need alternatives to that painful, slaveheld past that colonial and plantation records so precisely and soul-crushingly document for us…” Rosa’s life and historical lineage dances among the prophetic and the philanthropic enveloped by a will to persist and create a life on one’s own terms. Her dedication to her own truth and envisioning of another world offers a rich archival grounding for contemporary racial projects that continue to dream, in Hartman’s language, dream “how the world might be otherwise.” 

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Celeste Henery

Celeste Henery is a cultural anthropologist working at the intersections of race, gender, and health. Her work explores what it means to feel well in a world crosscut by inequality. She is a Research Associate in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Comments on “Excavating the History of Afro-Brazilian Women

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    Compliments, good paper!

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    Very enlightening piece !

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