The Mystique of Chica da Silva

Animated depiction of Chica da Silva held at Casa Chica da Silva (Flickr)

“La negra tiene tumba’o, nunca camina de la’o.” -Celia Cruz

In 1985, West German band Boney M. released its eighth album, Eye Dance, featuring the obscure song, “Chica da Silva” about a formerly enslaved eighteenth century woman from Brazil. Comprised of Afro-Caribbean members from Jamaica, Aruba, and Montserrat, Boney M. was known for numerous disco and reggae compositions including “Ma Baker” (1977) and “Rasputin” (1978) that highlighted the lives of infamous historic figures, but their song about da Silva was different. “Chica da Silva” celebrated a woman who climbed Brazil’s social ladder through concubinage with her former enslaver to attain freedom. The song countered media that ridiculed her as a witch and a seductress while also challenging the stigma of Blackness entrenched in Latin American culture.

Boney M. portrayed Chica da Silva as a resistance fighter against slavery who “fought for her country and became a spy.” While Brazilian books like João Felício dos Santos’ novel, Xica da Silva (1975) romanticized her and films like Carlos Diegues’s Xica (1976) made comic relief of her life and alleged hypersexuality, Boney M.’s song suggested that her pathway to freedom was calculated and for the purpose of upending slavery from within the system.1 Their verses alluded that even if men “laid in the arms” of da Silva, slaves revered her because “the fields were watered with tears cried” for her when she died. Boney M.’s song was reminiscent of Afro-Brazilian singer Jorge Ben’s 1976 samba funk song, “Xica da Silva” that honored her as a Black woman who went from “escrava a amante” (slave to mistress) and ultimately became “imperatriz do Tijuco” (empress of Tejuco).

Aside from the music, poetry, novels, mini-series, films, and carnivals that immortalize da Silva, one monograph captures the real and imagined events of her life. January 2023 will mark the twentieth anniversary of Brazilian historian Júnia Ferreira Furtado’s book, Chica da Silva e o Contratador Dos Diamantes: O Outro Lado Do Mito (released five years later in English as Chica da Silva: A Brazilian Slave of the Eighteenth Century) about the most famous woman from her hometown of Minas Gerais. Furtado’s use of maps, wills, business contracts, letters, along with manumission, census, baptism, and ecclesiastical records unveiled the life of Chica da Silva and how she used hypergamy instead of armed rebellion to improve her social status. Although Furtado’s book focused on Brazil, it sparked a greater discussion about the stigmatization enslaved Black women of the Atlantic world faced in regard to sexuality, morality, motherhood, racism, colorism, and familial legacy.

Furtado’s book dispels myths while also reckoning with da Silva’s legacy. Da Silva was born enslaved as Francisca da Silva between 1731 and 1735 in Milho Verde within Minas Gerais, a state known for gold, gem, and diamond mining. In Colonial Latin America, social status, race, and color determined one’s options in a caste society. Enslaved and free mulattos and Blacks had sexual or marriage partners but these relationships had their downsides. Enslaved partners could be separated and sold by their masters at any time, while free people of color and their children were confined to their usual labor positions without an option to achieve a higher social status. White people usually married each other and chose partners of similar social status and wealth. However, there were many bachelor white men and very few unmarried white women, so many white men took enslaved and free Black and mulatto women as their concubines.2 Free mixed-race women had the highest social status out of all non-white concubines. However, the social stigma of slave heritage and the legal criminalization of Blackness often restricted people of color from gathering in large groups, carrying weapons for protection, wearing luxurious clothing or jewelry, or joining ecclesiastical orders.

Throughout her life, da Silva had four enslavers: Domingos da Costa, Sergeant Manuel Pires Sardinha, José da Silva Oliveira, and João Fernandes de Oliveira. In 1749, da Silva was sold to Sardinha, a Portuguese doctor, judge, and gold mine owner. Under Sardinha, da Silva worked alongside slave girls as a domestic servant who prepared meals, cleaned the house, and did the laundry. In 1751, Sardinha faced a criminal court trial for concubinage with three of his female slaves, including da Silva. After the trial, Sardinha sold da Silva to Priest Rolim. Da Silva adopted Priest Rolim’s last name as her own. Priest Rolim soon sold her to João Fernandes de Oliveira, a diamond mine owner and mining governor of Arraial to Tejuco. Within months, Oliveira and da Silva established a romantic relationship. On Christmas Day 1753, Oliveira granted da Silva her freedom and she became his concubine. The couple later had thirteen children.

As Oliveira’s concubine, da Silva acquired privileges possessed by Brazil’s white elite. When da Silva experienced motherhood, she received a midwife and several slaves to assist her in the deliveries of her children along with wet nurses to breastfeed her infants. Oliveira acknowledged his children with da Silva and made them his heirs when he took his sons to Portugal to receive noble titles in 1770. As for education,only white children and few noble Indians were permitted to attend public schools, but da Silva’s children defied this rule. Her daughters attended a convent and school while her sons studied under tutors in Tejuco and later attended university in the Realm. Da Silva’s sons became chief justice and military officers, while her daughters became nuns or the concubines of wealthy Portuguese men, concealing the African ancestry that made social climbing difficult. After Oliveira’s death, da Silva’s children received dowries and inheritances of money, land, and slaves. Furtado argued that da Silva utilized her sexuality to benefit her progeny in a “bid to erase the stigma of color and enslavement that was hers to leave to her descendants.”

Additionally, Furtado’s discussion of da Silva’s wealth explains the cultural fanfare around her image. As a freed woman, da Silva owned property, lived in a two-story mansion in Tejuco, possessed fine jewelry and a wardrobe complete with capes, silk shoes, and tall hats. She also possessed at least 104 enslaved people who labored in domestic work, cattle ranching, farming, and mining. According to Furtado, formerly enslaved people often “owned” other people to completely cut themselves off from their slave roots and strongly associate themselves with white people in society. While da Silva’s slaves experienced the cruelties of slavery, she did permit them some freedoms: baptism, marriage, last rites, a Christian burial, participation in local brotherhood organizations, and on occasion, manumission.

Additionally, da Silva often had a foot in both worlds as a discreet member of brotherhoods that supported people of color like the Mercês (exclusive to mulattos) and Rosário (exclusive to Africans) Brotherhoods, but also the São Francisco do Carmo Brotherhood, which was exclusive to whites. In regard to her desire to fit into white society while also maintaining brotherhood memberships across racial lines, some argue she may have been a “spy” in white circles to be an informed ally for people of color who planned methods of resistance and rebellion against enslavement and racial oppression. Although da Silva overcame many racial restrictions, there were some social barriers she could not surmount. She was banned from attending the all-white parish church, however Oliveira later commissioned a church to be built for her. When da Silva died in 1796, her family defied racial restrictions that limited mixed-race people to burials in vaults and hospitals by getting her interred at the elite white Church of São Francisco de Assis. Furthermore, while Furtado’s biography demonstrates how da Silva endured social disgrace to eradicate enslavement for her future generations, media scholars like Raquel Luciana de Souza have recently highlighted how other enslaved women of the African Diaspora have done the same. As de Souza has explained, Eurocentric societies often cultivated fractured images of enslaved women like Sally Hemings and Margaret Garner who used concubinage and filicide “should be viewed as an act of resistance by an enslaved Black woman who took charge of her own destiny, her body, and her sexuality in order to survive.”3

The histories and folklores about Chica da Silva’s life are a complexity of racial identity, the scandal of interracial love, and social climbing. Legends, poems, and films have labeled da Silva as a seductress because she influenced her enslaver to grant manumission, “que-manda” (the boss) because she possessed slaves and possibly abused them, and a witch who manipulated white men into giving her access to wealth–a claim that completely denies the reality that sexual relationships between white masters and non-white slaves usually did not involve love, but rape, exploitation or coercion, historian Katherine J. Higgins has argued. Da Silva may not have been a freedom fighter for enslaved people, but she was a master at exploiting systems of domination to gain power and honor for herself and her descendants. Thus the ridicule and dehumanization cast on her personhood is because she never remained enslaved or powerless, as was the expected plight of all people of color in a racial hierarchy. So when Afro-Cuban singer Celia Cruz announced in her 2001 salsa song, La Negra Tiene Tumba’o, that Black women have beauty, intellect, and the rhythm of a conga drum to walk out front and never on the sidelines, one can only imagine she was talking about women like Chica da Silva who put themselves first to access the freedoms they deserve.

  1. Júnia Ferreira Furtado, Chica da Silva: A Brazilian Slave of the Eighteenth Century (New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 301.
  2. Mary Karasch, “Slave Women on the Brazilian Frontier in the Nineteenth Century” in More than Chattel: Black Women and Slavery in the Americas, ed. David Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clark Hine, (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996), 79-96.
  3. Raquel L. de Souza, “Resurrecting Chica da Silva: Gender, Race, and Nation in Brazilian Popular Culture,” in Gendered Resistance: Women, Slavery, and the Legacy of Margaret Garner (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 171-190.
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Menika Dirkson

Menika Dirkson is an Assistant Professor of African American History at Morgan State University. She received her Ph.D. in History from Temple University while her M.A. in History and B.A. in History, Latin American Studies, and Cultural Studies are from Villanova University. She has received grants from the Philadelphia Foundation and Thomas Jefferson University’s Arlen Specter Center for her research on police-Black community relations in Philadelphia following the Civil Rights Era. Dirkson’s research and writing have appeared in articles for the Urban History Association’s The Metropole and the Washington Post. She is currently working on a book entitled, Hope and Struggle in the Policed City: The Rise of Black Criminalization and Resistance in Philadelphia. You can follow her on Twitter @Philadelphian91.