Reassessing the life of Chica da Silva: A tale about Brazil

There is no doubt that Brazil’s history remains under-researched and under-theorised. Especially with regards to the country’s extensive colonial legacy, different periods can be open to negotiation and interpretation, but most of which are still stuck in a range of stereotypes that say little about the complexities of its characters.

The biography of the 18th-century slave, Chica da Silva (1732-1796) is one of these attempts to re-interpreting history in all its caveats. Silva lived in the village of Tejuco, in the modern city of Diamantina, a city in the north of the Minas Gerais state. She has become notorious and iconic to contemporary audiences due to programmes and films featuring her life.

Owned as a slave in a big household, she managed to be sold to the Portuguese diamond merchant João Fernandes de Oliveira, a representative of the Portuguese Crown. Despite the blur that surrounds her life after marriage, the few accounts amount to an extravagant lifestyle. Owner of dozens of slaves herself, she lived in a lavish house, entertained herself with exotic goods and lots of guests.

Besides the colourful details of her biography, this is at the same time a tale of class mobility that has attracted so much attention. How much of it was true? What does this tell us about colonialism, race, and mobility in Brazil? It was indeed an extraordinary life,  even for modern Brazil, with such a meteoric rise even to modern day standards. Her fairy tale is also about challenging the order, but also focuses on her personality as a distinctive trait that would allow her to move forward.

In sum, her grace and power would carry an antidote against a racist and obscure society. Examples abound in her lifetime: if the Church does not allow your presence inside, let’s build a new one; if she could not travel to the sea, she made them build a lake. IHer myth is as sociological as it is celebrity-driven. To the left, she was an icon of resistance that would inspire the black movements; to the right, she showed how racial relations in Brazil were not too harsh.

A documented reassessment was made possible thanks to “Chica da Silva: A Brazilian Slave of the Eighteen Century” (Cambridge University Press), a book by Junia Pereira Furtado. The book’s main merit stems from Furtado valuable effort to shed light on Silva’s physical existence in the 18th century, still doubted by some, as well as to confirms further details of her life. Furtado is successful in placing Silva’s in a wider context, moving her into a less spectacular place.

Silva’s life, according to the book, was not an average one. This is for sure. After all, any black individual breaking the 18th-century social contract, based on slavery and inescapable use of African individuals as economic commodities, could not have lived a normal life; leave alone a rise-up to own and ostentate a luxury lifestyle.

On the other hand, in her will to balance, Furtado also recognises the impossibility to tell more about Silva, except that once married to a white Portuguese man, she behaved as many other women in her condition. The evidence failed to show anything more than an uninteresting life after her establishment in society.  No surprises or breaks from the order what one would see in a woman of her wealth, whether of black or white skin.

What strikes me after reading Furtado’s enlightening account is the transformation of this character over time. Silva’s story is one of a slave’s luck, from the senzala into the heart of the Catholic, colonial Portuguese society. Instead, the conventional saying tells us that all glories from her marriage to a white, rich man stem from her sexuality and outstanding beauty. This attractive picture is the way in which she has appeared over centuries (since the 19th century at least).

The documents also tell us about the conservative turn of Chica da Silva, different from the confrontational stances that soap opera authors have told. Once her husband returns to Portugal, her option, for instance, was to hide in religious “sisterhoods”, sustained by members of the elite. The book also informs us about the fate of her sons, some of whom once moving to Portugal, had deliberately erased her presence from their backgrounds.

In sum, Chica da Silva’s trajectory is not only one of a rise-and-shine at expense of struggle against the gold-fed establishment of Minas Gerais, an important piece of Brazil of the time. Her trajectory is one of confirmation of the mechanisms of inequality and the ephemeron fractures that allow a few to emerge from time to time. As Furtado encapsulates it, it is about the average black lady “Chica”, an archetype so common in countryside Brazil, and one of a sexual volcano, white man temptation “Xica”, graphed in a marketable x.

Confronting the homogenised Xica (like in Caca Diegues’ eponymous movie or in the famous soap opera of the extinct Manchete TV), Junia Furtado’s book dismantles this portrait, but not necessarily puts up another one. We simply don’t know more about it. After many trips paid to archives in Brazil and Portugal, what she achieves is to fit an otherwise disruptive character into Brazil’s course of history. Maybe because these documents are so revelatory of Silva’s ordinariness, to the extent of the deceptive, that this book is not more popular than it deserved.

Back to the starting argument, there are signs that the recklessness with history is changing. The new Joaquim movie released in 2017, directed by Marcelo Gomes, gives a new direction to the image of the martyrised hero. Who knows this film could be the beginning of a critical re-appraisal of the country’s heroes, at least as the media see it.

As Furtado’s study digs deep into Chica da Silva’s contradictions, it is possible to assert that Brazilians have cared very little about history. If they did not do so, they could search for new meanings and, in the meantime, find opportunities to reflect on past misconceptions that could offer new teachings for the present’s faults.