Insanity, the Historian, and the Slave Catcher: “Capturing” Black Voices

First an episode from nineteenth-century Brazil: in 1895 Raimundo Nina Rodrigues, a forensic psychiatrist at the University of Bahia in Brazil conducted a posthumous cranial assessment of a former-slave-turned bandit named Lucas de Feira. Born in Brazil, though a “child of the Africans Inácio and Maria,” Lucas was arrested in 1848 and then executed in 1849 for a range of crimes from murder to theft to rape that he and a band of other runaways committed on the roads between the Port city of Salvador da Bahia, a former capital of colonial Brazil, and the nearby city of Feira de Santana. According to Rodrigues, this band was so feared and hated by people living along the highway that led to the city that after one of them was chased down and killed by the police in 1844, festivals and public celebrations took place as the police paraded his decapitated head through the city. The celebrations broke out again and lasted for three days five years later when Lucas de Feira himself was executed in Feira de Santana. 1

At the time of the writing Rodrigues was concerned with the question of whether or not Brazil could become a modern nation and relatedly whether thousands of formerly enslaved peoples could become healthy, contributing citizens of the new social order. ​”We can only speak of the Brazilian people from a political point of view,” wrote Rodriguez in the introduction to his study of Lucas de Feira. “From an anthropological or sociological point of view,” he continued, “much time will have to pass before we can consider there to be a unified population in Brazil.” 2  It was a blunt, unsparing prognosis for the state of the nation only seven years after slavery had officially ended in the country. Yet unlike many who espoused similarly pessimistic views about the capacity of Africans and African descendants to become “Brazilian” (or Chilean or Peruvian or American or you pick a country), Rodrigues laid a significant portion of the blame at the feet of slavery itself.

The “madness “of black people for Rodrigues was a cause of historically created conditions in the Americas, and resistance to the process of enslavement was no less psychologically damaging than acquiescence or resignation. For individuals like Lucas de Feira, theft, pillage, and violent conflict became ever present options in a fugitive existence that grew from being a method of survival to becoming a routinized mode of existence. And this was not a unique or exceptional form of madness. It was the lot of all maroons to exist and indeed prosper on both the fringes and even in the midst of colonial societies. 3  There was thus always the latent potential for the those who had run away from slavery, and who were already criminalized as a fugitive and understood as mentally unstable for this very desire to become free, to express the effects of living with this psychological duress by embracing the expectation of “criminality.” As Rodrigues himself stated, Lucas may have become “a habitual criminal,” however “the psychological causes of [this] should not be difficult to trace.” Under such conditions, was Lucas de Feira’s criminality explained more by the supposed “sanguinary tendencies” of blacks or by the logic of slavery that structured social relations and informed the range of black mobility? 4

My principal concern since first encountering this incident has been with this relationship between madness, race, and freedom in the post-emancipation era. Of course imperial officials, traders, and colonists had been trucking in discourses about the wild and crazed nature of Africans and their descendants well before the 19th century. They had in fact filled no shortage of books with these kinds of claims since at least the 16th century, when shipments of black flesh to the America’s grew into a full sail business and profiteers felt the need to offer more than one justification for perfecting the production of inhumanity. Still there was something qualitatively different about the ways in which blackness and madness were being related to each other and being experienced by people of African descent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, something different that couldn’t be reduced to the fact that madness had become a professionalized discourse of medicine and surveillance.

So like many a person starting new projects, I brought up this episode with colleagues whenever I heard the often casual but never frivolous question “how’s work”? Fifteen minutes later whoever had opened the floodgates with that inquiry would be still hearing me talk, though I was no longer narrating or explaining or deciphering so much as I was asking them “so what do you think about all of this”?

I was in the midst of playing this scene out with a friend at the recent AHA conference in New York. It was the last day of the meeting, the hotel lobby was a mass of suitcases and suited people with nametags saying goodbyes and checking out, and I sat there going through all of the things that I had been thinking and grappling with about this relationship between madness in freedom when this friend stopped me and said: “wait, they killed him and then partied for three days? so nobody was working? I wonder if black folks remember those three days differently, it makes you wonder whether everybody felt it was a time of celebration or if for others this was just time off or even a time for reflection.” 5  This, I admit, had until that moment never been a consideration for me. I had been so engrossed in the body of Lucas de Feira himself that the “people offstage ” had all but fallen out of my purview. For the next few weeks after this encounter, however, my friend’s queries were foremost in my thoughts when I considered the work that I was engaged in, and soon I was not only asking myself questions about how other enslaved and free peoples in the areas might have reacted to the public execution of Lucas, but also about how other runaways and highway bandits might have experienced it.

I tried to begin at what should have, or perhaps what I assumed, would be the easiest starting point: the other runaways who were a part of Lucas de Feira’s band. From what I knew from preliminary research only one of them had been captured, the same man who had been killed and paraded through city streets some years before Lucas himself was executed. But I could not find his file or name or execution date. Rodrigues never told the names of Lucas de Feira’s accomplices, nor did he provide copious or consistent footnotes of sources that can be tracked down and retraced. Nothing on Google books or any of the books that I consulted that mentioned Lucas de Feira carried any information about his band either. Thus, over the course of a few hours one day, mild frustration became exasperated obsession, and this is how I found myself thinking about the proximity between the function of the historian researching slavery & the function of the hunter who catches runaway slaves.

Several posts ago I wrote briefly about “Pai contra Mae” (“Father against Mother”), a short story by the Brazilian writer Machado de Assis about a slave catcher who is running out of time to catch a pregnant fugitive and collect the ransom. A successful capture will help secure the financial stability of his family, while failure to capture and collect pay will almost certainly force him to put his own child up for adoption. Aside from the way that the story locates white thriving and black death as social practices that are inextricably bound to one another from womb to tomb through slavery, the story now intrigues me by what I see when I read the actions and the dispositions of the slave catcher in the narrative. Whereas I used to see a clear enemy, a character that it did not take much time or thought to hate before even starting the first line on the first page of the tale, I now see someone whose search for fugitives that cannot be located as sometimes uncomfortably parallel to the search carried out by historians in archives. For despite the fact that slave catchers and historians search for fugitives for different reasons, the reaction to coming up empty on an archival or a field search is strikingly similar. On both accounts there is some frustration, but what is more- and this is important- there is some lamentation as well. The slave catcher of course laments cash missed, working days spent with no monetary recompense. This is the lamentation of destitution. Indeed as Machado’s narrator tells us of the slave catcher in his story, once the runaways “didn’t come up and jump into his arms anymore” and “you could see in his face that his pockets were empty” when he came home, his baby was born and “the fathers joy was enormous, as was his sadness, too.” 6  The historian meanwhile laments the voices lost to the ethereal world, the narratives that can never be relocated or recovered or recorded. This, in other words, is a lamentation in search of vindication.

Many of us have heard this or even engaged in this way of thinking ourselves: “if I could just get one more voice ” or “I wish I could find more more on this individual, but they fall out of the record after such and such.” Or on the flipside, when we see these impressive and painstaking feats of scholarship that manage to reconstruct a life or several lives across multiple generations from slavery to freedom, perhaps we say to ourselves “I wish I had done that.” And while I do not denigrate or question the importance of any specific works in this vein of recovery I certainly now wonder more broadly about what are the ethics of (and whether there are limits to) the will to know when we write and engage with histories of the enslaved. For the drive to gather more information about subjects is a drive born out of the need to keep tragedy and loss at a comfortable, analytical distance, and it is the same drive in fact that undergirds constructions of archives to begin with. 7 When as a historian, in other words, is it okay to let fugitives remain at large, to not follow the dictum of the discipline and rigorously comb the archive for more evidence and traces of a subject who was clearly trying to avoid being captured and documented and disciplined?

Let me provide a closing example to give the problem I am stating a more coherent and practical expression. Here we will need to rewind almost 100 years prior to Nina Rodrigues’s cranial assessment of Lucas de Feira. The scene is still Salvador  but the time is 1799. High court judges in Salvador are wrapping up a case of sedition in which numerous handwritten bulletins had appeared in all of the most public places of the city in August of the previous year calling for the end of Portuguese rule, the end of racial discrimination, the end of slavery, and better wages for soldiers and artisans. Thirty-nine individuals had been imprisoned for almost a year and five free men of color who for some reason or another were found guilty of playing a leading role in the movement were sentenced to death. Only four of these men would end up being executed, however. The fifth man, whose name was Luis Pires, escaped from the city when news broke that other men he knew had been arrested in connection with the appearance of those handwritten bulletins. Pires was not captured by authorities in 1799, or any year after that as far as I can tell. Should we lament that he never got to tell his side of the story, that he never got to explain what his role was in everything that happened in 1798? Should we track him down and try to find out what happened to him after 1800 to see whether he was still involved in radical, anti racist politics or not? Perhaps him escaping was a singular bright spot in what was otherwise a dark moment for people of color living in Salvador da Bahia. Perhaps, then, we should let that be and celebrate that he was never interrogated and executed rather than wondering what he would have to say, or wondering and lamenting how incredible his life story and the historical analysis that would come of it would be if we could only find more information about him.

In the end, then, the verdict is still out about those bandits who worked closely with Lucas de Feira in the 19th century. Maybe some of them wished that they had been interviewed or been allowed to speak & be represented in the archive (though at the moment I of course highly doubt this). In the case of Luis Pires, however, things are a bit more clear. He clearly ran to escape being arrested and documented by those “urban overseers” of Bahia, the police. 8. Rather than lament a lost voice, then, I will celebrate it and hope that in the future when the police come to shut down and coercively record (and distort) the voices of radical black dissidents that more of us get lost beyond recovery.

  1.  Raimundo Nina Rodrigues, “Lucas de Feira,” 103-109, in Rodrigues, As coletividades anormais, (Edições de Senado Federal, 2006), 105
  2. Rodrigues, “Lucas de Feira,” 105
  3. Yuko Miki, “Fleeing into Slavery: The Insurgent Geographies of Brazilian Quilombolas (Maroons),” The Americas, 68, no. 4, 2012, 495-528
  4.  Rodrigues, “Lucas de Feira,” 108
  5. Big thanks to Jessica Krug, whose own outstanding work on the intellectual history and politics of maroonage has stimulated my thoughts on the subject.  See Krug, “Social Dismemberment, Social (Re)membering: Obeah Idioms, Kromanti Identities and the Trans-Atlantic Politics of Memory, c. 1675-Present,” Slavery & Abolition (2014), 1-22
  6. Machado de Assis, and John Charles Chasteen, transl., The Alienist and Other Stories of Nineteenth-Century Brazil, (New York: Hackett Classics, 2013) 67, 70
  7. Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression,” transl. Eric Prenowitz, Diacritics, Vol. 25, No. 2, (1995), 9-63; 10-11
  8. Rachel E. Harding, A Refuge in Thunder: Candomblé and Alternative Spaces of Blackness, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), 116, 140
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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.