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The Influence of Religion in Latin American History (March 2017): Portuguese America

By Joan E. Meznar

Portuguese America

Portuguese exploration of Brazil followed a different pattern from that of Spain. The Portuguese crown, more interested in the Orient, at first left Brazil to adventurers, many of whom formed families with Native women and made their fortune trading brazilwood. Portuguese control of the South Atlantic was tested when the French attempted to establish an outpost in Guanabara Bay. Among them was the Protestant clergyman Jean de Léry, whose History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil provides important material on local flora, fauna, and culture. 

Although Brazil did not have the silver deposits found in the Spanish colonies, the vast fertile land proved ideal for plantation agriculture. By the end of the sixteenth century, the emergent sugar industry demanded ever-larger numbers of African slaves to labor in the cane fields and in the sugar mills. Africans brought with them their own diverse religious practices. Thus, Brazilian culture came to blend popular Christianity from Europe, heavily imbued with medieval notions of the supernatural, with Native American religious practices and African spirituality. Because the Portuguese Inquisition attempted to protect religious orthodoxy in the colony, its records uncover a world where magic and spirits formed part of everyday life. Laura de Mello e Souza captures this culture in The Devil and the Land of the Holy Cross: Witchcraft, Slavery, and Popular Religion in Colonial Brazil. The author elucidates how Iberian popular religion, along with African and American Indian spirituality, shaped a uniquely Brazilian religious tradition.

Carole Myscofski explores the significance of Catholicism for women in Brazil in Amazons, Wives, Nuns, and Witches: Women and the Catholic Church in Colonial Brazil, 1500–1822. Because Brazil was far more a frontier society than Peru or New Spain, written records in general are more scarce, and there are far fewer examples of women recording their own experiences. Although much of Myscofski’s work is based on men’s concerns about the role of women, it is a valuable contribution to the study of women and religion in colonial Brazil.

In part because of the shortage of clergy in Brazil, lay brotherhoods became responsible for sustaining a number of Christian rituals, including sponsoring feast days honoring patron saints and providing elaborate burials for their members. These irmandades (brotherhoods) were governed by statutes submitted to and approved by the Portuguese crown. Organized by individuals who shared cultural and social backgrounds, ethnicity became an important category for membership. Over the course of three centuries, the Atlantic slave trade brought millions from Africa to Brazil, most of whom were baptized into the Christian faith. Thus, Africans of different “nations” joined together in confraternities that were approved by both the church and the state. Recent research has shown that irmandades provided arenas in which Africans and their descendants could maintain (and also transform) their traditional culture. In People of Faith: Slavery and African Catholics in Eighteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro, Mariza de Carvalho Soares focuses on an irmandade of West Africans in Rio de Janeiro in the first half of the eighteenth century. Using the documents of one particular organization, she highlights the broader historical importance of protected Christian communities for Africans who lived in a slave society. Elizabeth Kiddy’s Blacks of the Rosary: Memory and History in Minas Gerais, Brazil, describes the long arc of these institutions, a number of which are still in existence today. Kiddy points to the diversity of the brotherhoods, some tightly linked to the Catholic Church and others surprisingly autonomous. These studies confirm that acceptance of Christianity and the practice of Christian rites did not necessarily mean totally abandoning African traditions. 

Confraternities allowed blacks in Brazil to assume positions of leadership as they discussed and attempted to resolve some of the quotidian problems associated with slavery. João José Reis’s biography of Domingos Sodré, Divining Slavery and Freedom: The Story of Domingos Sodré, an African Priest in Nineteenth-Century Brazil, shows that after independence, slaves and freedmen maintained ties independently to both the Catholic church and to African religious communities. For first-generation Africans in Brazil, Reis concludes, becoming part of a Christian community did not necessarily mean a break with African spirituality. Immersion in both traditions provided more options for negotiating a way out of slavery. While black brotherhoods have been examined most closely in Brazil, Nicole von Germeten’s Black Blood Brothers: Confraternities and Social Mobility for Afro-Mexicans addresses the evolution of these institutions in three regions of New Spain.

Although a growing body of work details the significance of Christian lay brotherhoods for African slaves, more scholarly attention has been given to the continuity of African religious traditions in Brazil. In Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441–1770, for example, James Sweet argues that African religious customs, actually replicated in Brazil, were frequently deployed to resist the harsh conditions of slavery. Historians and anthropologists have been drawn in particular to the practice of Candomblé. Anchored in African spirituality, Candomblé in Brazil provided slaves and their descendants with opportunities to exercise leadership in their communities. Rachel Harding’s A Refuge in Thunder: Candomblé and Alternative Spaces of Blackness shows that Candomblé and other religious traditions brought from Africa allowed slaves in Brazil to engage in a kind of ideological resistance. Coming together to perform African religious rites, according to Harding, proved as significant as outright rebellion for engaging in communal opposition to the masters’ oppression. 

Without written records such as confraternity statutes or Inquisition trial transcripts, the very nature of research on Candomblé continues to engage the attention of scholars. J. Lorand Matory, in Black Atlantic Religion: Tradition, Transnationalism, and Matriarchy in the Brazilian Candomblé, points to what he sees as a central problem in much of the scholarship: while African religious practices in Brazil emerged from the many exchanges between West Africa and South America, the understanding of Candomblé has been shaped by the work of anthropologists of European descent. In particular, he is concerned by the enduring influence of Ruth Landes, who in 1947 wrote The City of Women, in which she recounted her observations of the practice of Candomblé in Bahia, Brazil. Matory argues that Landes, a North American anthropologist, superimposed her nascent feminism on what she observed in Bahia, ascribing far too much power to women in the practice of Candomblé. Stefania Capone takes these concerns a step farther in Searching for Africa in Brazil: Power and Tradition in Candomblé, challenging conventional wisdom on African survivals in Candomblé by demonstrating that not only scholars, but also practitioners have reshaped the memory of connections to Africa to suit their own agenda. Capone furthermore questions the heavy emphasis on Yoruba traditions in studies of Candomblé, pointing to the diverse regional backgrounds of the African population in Brazil, and by extension to the many different traditions they brought to America. 

Works Cited