Chica da Silva
Anna Drury | Lancaster University
Freewoman or enslaved, concubine or wife, dangerous seductress or the Queen of Tijuco? These questions surround Chica da Silva, an eighteenth-century enslaved woman from Tijuco (known today as Diamantina) in Minas Gerais, a south-eastern state of Brazil. Much remains unknown about Chica’s life, as well as many other enslaved women’s lives, due to a lack of documentary evidence that recorded their experiences. Despite this, Chica’s story has been passed on over the last three centuries, and continues to capture people’s imagination, not least because she obtained her freedom and became a woman of great wealth and status through her association with a Portuguese nobleman. Unsurprisingly, Chica has become an icon of Brazilian folklore and a mythological figure in Brazilian popular culture. Exploring the myths of Chica da Silva reveals how she has been understood in Brazilian culture, as well as the complex and subjective experiences of an enslaved woman, who ultimately resisted slavery and colonial social norms in eighteenth-century Brazil.
From what we can gather in legal documents (e.g., standard records of birth, property, death, and inheritance), church archives, and oral histories, Chica da Silva was born in Diamantina sometime between 1731 and 1735. She was the child of Maria de Costa, an enslaved African woman, and Antônio Caetano de Sá, a Portuguese man. As an enslaved woman, Chica had extremely limited options available to her. Power relations between free men and enslaved women were hierarchical, unequal, and exploitative, with enslaved women holding the subordinate position. As well as serving their masters in myriad forms, enslaved women would often become concubines as a means of survival, drawing on their sexuality as a resource. Concubinage (informal and long-term relations between free men and enslaved women) was a common practice in colonial Brazil that did not give enslaved women legal protection like marriage would. However, it could occasionally result in male masters granting enslaved women their freedom and enabling them to advance socially and economically. This is precisely what happened to Chica da Silva.
In 1753, Chica da Silva was purchased by João Fernandes de Oliveira, a nobleman sent by the Portuguese crown to administer the mining of diamonds in Tijuco. Chica entered into a union of concubinage with João Fernandes, and only a few months after doing so, she was declared a free woman, no longer enslaved. Their relationship defied typical colonial social relations, as there is evidence João Fernandes did not recognise Chica as a concubine, but as a wife who could exercise initiative and volition in running her and her children’s lives. Despite never officially marrying, João Fernandes and Chica da Silva had thirteen children together, who were unequivocally free people and eventually inherited a great portion of their father’s wealth. According to the historical record, João Fernandes was forced to return to Portugal in 1770. Interestingly, perhaps an indication of her volition, Chica remained in Tijuco as an important member of her community. She participated in and supported religious organisations and artistic activities, learnt to write, and ensured her sons and daughters received an education. Through her relationship with João Fernandes, Chica da Silva dramatically improved her and her children’s condition, achieving manumission and socioeconomic ascendance. Moreover, she and João Fernandes destabilised and complicated the expected pattern of superior/subordinate relations between men and women in colonial Brazil.
So, what remains of Chica da Silva’s life story in contemporary society? By the twentieth century, Chica had undoubtedly achieved mythological status. During the 1950s, Diamantina became more prominent in the national imagination, when Chica’s and João Fernandes’ former home became both a public museum and a site of memory, preserving the history and culture of Brazil. Featured in the museum is a collection of artworks inspired by Chica’s body and her sexuality. Chica can be seen lying down seductively in bed as João Fernandes’ concubine and as an extravagantly dressed free woman with her breasts fully exposed. These artworks highlight how Chica’s sexuality has come to be understood as central to her significance as a historical figure, influencing how she has been remembered in Brazilian popular culture.
“Xica da Silva”, as a popular character, has been created and recreated in Brazilian carnival parades, poems, plays, soap operas, and films. It is interesting to note that these images of Xica are not always regarded as positive for Chica the historical figure. In particular, the film Xica! (1976) and TV series Xica da Silva (1996) have come to be seen by many as fanciful and trivialised representations of her life that present Xica as a sexual, lascivious, and carefree woman. Xica acquires and uses power by mindlessly drawing on her sexual skills, that bend João Fernandes to her will. Dancing and twirling her naked body, Xica performs to the male gaze. Not only do these myths reinforce negative sexual stereotypes of women of African descent, as perpetually immoral and sexually available, they ignore those oppressive power relations between the enslaver and the enslaved. Perhaps most importantly, these popular myths do not offer a critical examination of Chica da Silva’s ability to free herself, through appropriating her body in her union of concubinage with João Fernandes.
Without ignoring those unequal power relations between master and the enslaved, that restricted the ability for enslaved men and women to act, it is possible to understand enslaved men and women’s agency and strategies of resistance against the oppressive and exploitative forces of capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy. Indeed, it is a challenge to speak of agency in the context of slavery, but it is vital to recognise the multiple ways in which enslaved women, in particular, challenged their subordinate positions. Scholars, such as Jenny Sharpe, have carefully considered the ways in which enslaved women may have manipulated their sexual exploitation to their own advantage and achieved a degree of mobility by doing so. Acknowledging this side to enslaved women’s experiences is important, for how the myth of Chica da Silva can be imbued with greater significance.
Chica da Silva exercised volition, as she manipulated the sexual commodification and exploitation of enslaved African women’s bodies to her own advantage. Chica used her body and her sexuality to equalise the power differential between the White male oppressor and the Black enslaved woman. Chica’s relationship with João Fernandes can be understood as an act of resistance against the brutal system of slavery, in which she ensured her survival, freed herself from bondage, and obtained power and prestige. Therefore, popular narratives about her life should not merely reproduce her as a sexual object. Chica da Silva, as the protagonist of her own life, legacy, and myth, should ultimately be recognised as a woman whose choices were deliberate, not thoughtless, and who expressed her sense of her own power through her sexuality.
Barbara Chase-Riboud, Sally Hemings (London: Little, Brown Book Group 2002)
Mary E. Frederickson and Delores M. Walters (eds.), Gendered Resistance: Women, Slavery, and the Legacy of Margaret Garner (Baltimore: University of Illinois Press, 2013)
Júnia Ferreira Furtado, Chica da Silva: A Brazilian Slave of the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)
Jenny Sharpe, Ghosts of Slavery: A Literary Archaeology of Black Women’s Lives (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003)
Anna Drury is a postgraduate student at Lancaster University. Her current research involves rethinking the incompatibility of prostitution and feminism, by revising the analytical concept of choice feminism through focusing on Brazilian putafeminismo, a feminism created by sex workers across Lusophone and Hispanic cultures based upon the ideals of choice, agency, and control relating to sex work. This research will be sponsored by the ESRC.