Chica da Silva: From slave to elite in 18th century Brazil

Francisca da Silva de Oliveira, or simply Chica da Silva or Xica da Silva (Serro, cerca 1732 – February 15, 1796), was a slave, later freed, who lived in the Arraial do Tijuco, in present day Diamantina, (state of) Minas Gerais, during the second half of the eighteenth century.

She maintained for more than fifteen years a stable consensual union with the rich diamond contractor João Fernandes de Oliveira and had thirteen children with him. The fact that a freed slave reached a prominent position in a local society during the heyday of diamond exploration has led to many myths.

She was the daughter of the Portuguese man Antônio Caetano e Sá and a slave, Maria da Costa, from the Costa da Mina, through an extramarital relationship. It was registered in Arraial Milho Verde, in the city of Serro Frio, which is the current city of Serro. She was released per request of João Fernandes de Oliveira, a diamond contractor.

She was a slave of the Sergeant Manuel Pires Sardinha, owner of mines in the Arraial do Tijuco. In this era she had at least one son, Simão Pires Sardinha, born in 1751, which had as godfather the then Capitão dos Dragões do Distrito Diamantino (Captain of the Dragons of the Diamond District), in homage to whom it is named. The record of baptism of this child does not declare paternity, but Manoel Pires Sardinha named him as one of his heirs in his will, hence the use of the same surname. Simão Pires Sardinha was educated in Europe and came to occupy important positions in the government of the Court. Although there is no evidence, some authors claim that he took part in the Inconfidência Mineira (Minas Conspiracy).

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Zezé Motta as Chica (Xica) da Silva

Then, Chica da Silva was sold or given as a slave to José da Silva e Oliveira Rolim, known as Father Rolim. He was later sentenced to prison for the important role he played in the Minas Conspiracy. He would also come to live with Quitéria Rita, a daughter of Chica da Silva and João Fernandes.

Scene from Xica (Chica) da Silva film
Shortly thereafter, in 1754, João Fernandes de Oliveira came arrived in Arraial do Tijuco to assume the role of diamond contractor, that had been carried out by his father of the same name since 1740. In 1754 Chica da Silva was acquired or freed by the new diamond explorer João Fernandes. By this time she had at least two children, when she then went to live with the contractor, even though they never officially married.
Zezé Motta as Chica (Xica) da Silva

With João Fernandes, she had thirteen children during the fifteen years that he lived with her: Francisca de Paula (1755), João Fernandes (1756), Rita (1757), Joaquim (1759), Antonio Caetano (1761), Ana (1762 ), Helena (1763), Louisa (1764), Antônia (1765), Maria (1766); Quitéria Rita (1767), Mariana (1769) and José Agostinho Fernandes (1770). All were registered at baptism as children of João Fernandes, an unusual act at the time when the bastard children of white men and slaves were recorded without their father’s name.

Xica da Silva film

Between 1755 and 1770, and João Fernandes and Chica da Silva inhabited the existing building in what is now the  Lobo de Mesquita square, number 266, in Diamantina.

Xica da Silva novela remake from 1996

The stable, consensual union of João Fernandes and Chica da Silva was not an isolated case in the Brazilian colonial society of white men’s involvement with slaves. It is distinguished by being public, intense and lasting, besides involving one of the richest men in the region during the economic peak.

Xica da Silva novela starring Taís Araújo 

The lovers separated in 1770, when João Fernandes de Oliveira needed to return to Portugal to receive property left in a will by his father. When leaving, João Fernandes took with his four sons. In Portugal, the sons of Chica da Silva received higher education, occupied important positions in the administration of the kingdom and even received titles of nobility.

Zezé Motta and Taís Araújo in Xica da Silva, the novela

Chica da Silva stayed in Arraial do Tijuco with her daughters and possession of the properties left by João Fernandes, which guaranteed her a comfortable life. Her daughters received the best education that was given to the girls of the local aristocracy at that time, being sent to the Recolhimento de Macaúbas in Santa Luzia (state of Minas Gerais), where they learned how to knit, read, and took music lessons. From there, they only left at the age of marriage, although some followed the religious life.

Taís Araújo and Victor Wagner as Xica da Silva and João Fernandes in the 1996 novela

Despite being a concubine, Chica da Silva achieved prestige in the local society and enjoyed the private perks of white women. At the time, all people were associated with religious sororities according to their social position. Chica da Silva belonged to the  Irmandades de São Francisco e do Carmo (Confraternity of São Francisco and do Carmo), which were exclusively white, but also to sororities of Mercês,  composed of mulattoes , and Rosário, reserved for blacks. Therefore, Chica da Silva had income to make donations to four different sororities and was accepted as part of the local elite composed almost exclusively by whites, but also had social ties with mulattoes and blacks through their sororities. Nevertheless, as was customary at the time, as soon as she was freed she became the owner of several slaves who took care of the household chores of her home.

She died in 1796. As was customary at the time, Chica da Silva had the right to be buried within the church of any of the four sororities to which she belonged. She was buried in the church of São Francisco de Assis belonging to the most important local fellowship, an almost exclusive privilege of the rich whites, which demonstrates that she held the highest social status even several years after the departure of João Fernandes for Togo .

The journalist Antônio Torres in his notes on Diamantina wrote that the body of Chica da Silva was found some years after her death, intact, conserving her “dry black skin.”

The saga of Xica da Silva (released as Xica in the United States) was portrayed in a 1976 film directed and written by Carlos Diegues, based on the novel by João Felício dos Santos. It starred Zezé Motta, Walmor Chagas and José Wilker. It was chosen as the Brazilian submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 49th Academy Awards, although it failed to get a nomination.

In 1996, the now defunct TV station Rede Manchete adapted the film plot to the telenovela (soap opera) format, directed by Walter Avancini, written by Walcyr Carrasco and starring Taís Araújo as the title character. Zezé Motta, who originally portrayed Xica da Silva in the 1976 film also appeared in the television adaptation playing Maria da Costa and also the elderly Xica da Silva. This telenovela marked the first time an Afro-Brazilian actress played the lead role on a TV program. In 2005, SBT re-aired Xica da Silva.

The novela caused much controversy at the time by showing a half-naked 17-year old Taís Araújo. The jurisdiction Criança e do Adolescente (Child and Adolescent) of Rio de Janeiro notified Rede Manchete publicly besides protests of sectors of society requesting of removal of the novela from the air.

Sources: Wikipedia 123

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Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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