NPR logo
Brazil Enslaved
  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/439257489/439727489" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Brazil Enslaved

History

Brazil Enslaved

Brazil Enslaved
  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/439257489/439727489" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

An enslaved woman is sitting with her white charge in her lap. She is well dressed in a pristine white headdress and an off-the-shoulder blouse, wearing bracelets and rings and necklaces. She stares straight at the camera, somberly.

The image was probably commissioned by the family as a memento, according to experts. It creates the illusion that nannies in the slavery period were held in affection and even esteem. But the reality was very different, says Maria Elena Machado, one of the foremost experts on slavery in Brazil.

A nanny with child, photographed in 1870 in Salvador de Bahia. i

A nanny with child, photographed in 1870 in Salvador de Bahia. João Goston/Moreira Salles Institute hide caption

toggle caption João Goston/Moreira Salles Institute
A nanny with child, photographed in 1870 in Salvador de Bahia.

A nanny with child, photographed in 1870 in Salvador de Bahia.

João Goston/Moreira Salles Institute

She says when you look at the images of enslaved women in Brazil, there are tiny ghosts in the pictures. Where are the black babies of these women?

To find out, Machado says she researched the case of one enslaved woman who was being used as a wet-nurse for her white charge. Her name is Ambrosina, and Machado discovered her story while combing through old court records from the last years of slavery in Brazil, which ended in 1888.

"She was very young, she had a son named Benedito," Machado says. "And by ironic coincidence, the white child is called Benedito as well. And she has to breastfeed the two babies."

But Machado says Ambrosina didn't have enough milk for both. Her child was forced to drink unpasteurized cow's milk.

"At the end, she was so so tired, so desperate," Machado says, that she put a cloth in the white baby's mouth to quiet him because he was crying so much, and he sucked so hard on the rag that it got caught in his throat. The white baby died. It's unclear from the records what happened to Ambrosina or her child after she was jailed and put on trial.

Machado says the story shows the incredible stress these women were under when trying to deal with being a mother and a slave.

But actually, being able to keep your own child and nurse another was rare.

Machado says research has suggested that 92 percent of Rio's enslaved wet nurses, who were being rented out by their masters, had been separated from their own children. It was a big industry in Rio at the time. Machado says newspapers regularly advertised this service.

A black woman with white child on her back, Bahia, 1860 (left). An enslaved woman with a sleeping child on her back in an undated photo (right). i

A black woman with white child on her back, Bahia, 1860 (left). An enslaved woman with a sleeping child on her back in an undated photo (right). Moreira Salles Institute hide caption

toggle caption Moreira Salles Institute
A black woman with white child on her back, Bahia, 1860 (left). An enslaved woman with a sleeping child on her back in an undated photo (right).

A black woman with white child on her back, Bahia, 1860 (left). An enslaved woman with a sleeping child on her back in an undated photo (right).

Moreira Salles Institute

Brazil is believed to have one of the largest archives of photographs of slavery in the world. That's because slavery in Brazil ended so late there, and the last few decades of the practice coincided with the beginning of photography.

Many of the pictures have been unknown outside the country. One institution, the Moreira Salles Institute, opened up its photo library to me, and I wanted to see what these images tell us about what women experienced under slavery in Brazil — and what that can tell us about some of the challenges in the country today.

Curator Sergio Burgi says most of the images "are almost staged photographs, all of [the subjects] are completely conscious of the photographer."

They show the three main spheres enslaved women occupied at the end of slavery in Brazil. The first group included those who worked in the fields. Burgi says one image shows an enslaved woman breastfeeding her child and surrounded by other field workers who are all barefoot, as it was not allowed for slaves to wear shoes in Brazil.

"You realize, because of the presence of the kids and women, how being a mother in that situation was completely stressful because you would carry to the field all the young kids and they would be there for the whole day," Burgi says.

Slaves at a coffee yard in a farm. Vale do Paraiba, Sao Paulo, 1882. i

Slaves at a coffee yard in a farm. Vale do Paraiba, Sao Paulo, 1882. Marc Ferrez/Moreira Salles Institute hide caption

toggle caption Marc Ferrez/Moreira Salles Institute
Slaves at a coffee yard in a farm. Vale do Paraiba, Sao Paulo, 1882.

Slaves at a coffee yard in a farm. Vale do Paraiba, Sao Paulo, 1882.

Marc Ferrez/Moreira Salles Institute

The second were urban slaves. The images from the institute show women selling food on the street. In one image, three women wearing turbans sit against a stone wall with baskets of plantains in front of them. The slaves were allowed to sell produce that they may have cultivated on their day of rest, as long as most of the profit was returned to the master. During the waning days of slavery, enslaved people were allowed to buy themselves out of servitude.

A photo from 1875 in Rio de Janeiro shows women street sellers called "quitandeiras," also known as "slaves who earn." A portion of the profits was returned to their masters. i

A photo from 1875 in Rio de Janeiro shows women street sellers called "quitandeiras," also known as "slaves who earn." A portion of the profits was returned to their masters. Marc Ferrez/Moreira Salles Institute hide caption

toggle caption Marc Ferrez/Moreira Salles Institute
A photo from 1875 in Rio de Janeiro shows women street sellers called "quitandeiras," also known as "slaves who earn." A portion of the profits was returned to their masters.

A photo from 1875 in Rio de Janeiro shows women street sellers called "quitandeiras," also known as "slaves who earn." A portion of the profits was returned to their masters.

Marc Ferrez/Moreira Salles Institute

And then there is the third group of images, showing domestic slaves and the nannies who worked inside their masters' homes.

These women were among the most vulnerable. "Women were in danger to be raped, to be abused, to have children inside the master's house," Machado says.

Even after slavery ended, certain practices continued. "After abolition, the habit to have a nanny inside the house remained," Machado says, but as an employee.

And this where the links between slavery and modern Brazil are most obvious, she says.

House slaves, 1870, in Salvador de Bahia. i

House slaves, 1870, in Salvador de Bahia. João Goston/Moreira Salles Institute hide caption

toggle caption João Goston/Moreira Salles Institute
House slaves, 1870, in Salvador de Bahia.

House slaves, 1870, in Salvador de Bahia.

João Goston/Moreira Salles Institute

In Brazil today, at least 600,000 people are formally registered as domestic staff — nannies, cooks, cleaners. And of those, 96 percent are women. More than half of those women, according to recent statistics, are from the darker-skinned, poorer sectors of society.

The nannies who work with the wealthy are all obliged by tradition to wear white uniforms. (Private clubs only allow nannies to enter with their charges if they are dressed in white). If you look at the pictures from the Moreira Salles Institute, you can see that tradition began with slavery in Brazil.

Sonia dos Santos is a professor and an activist with the black women's rights group Criola. I showed her the images and asked her what she thought of them. She said it reminded her of a statistic she recently heard, that 1 in 5 black women are domestic workers in Brazil today.

"This social condition of inferiority ... is more than just because they are domestic workers, it's because they are black and because they are women," dos Santos says. During slavery, black men were deemed more valuable than black women, even though black women were a huge part of the slave economy.

She says you can still feel that hierarchy in Brazil today. She says there still needs to be a profound change in the country.

As for the pictures themselves, curator Sergio Burgi says we know a lot more about the white men who took the images — all famous Brazilian and foreign photographers of the era — than about their subjects. Burgi says many show enslaved women who were dressed up and shot in a studio for pictures that were then sold commercially.

"You are looking at individuals in a way, and that's [something] very powerful that only photography can bring you. But somehow it's also ambiguous, in the sense that it doesn't tell the whole story," he says.

History has forgotten these women's names, if it ever even knew them. But their legacy — that story — is still being told today.

A slave with her child, photographed in 1884, Salvador de Bahia. i

A slave with her child, photographed in 1884, Salvador de Bahia. Marc Ferrez/Moreira Salles Institute hide caption

toggle caption Marc Ferrez/Moreira Salles Institute
A slave with her child, photographed in 1884, Salvador de Bahia.

A slave with her child, photographed in 1884, Salvador de Bahia.

Marc Ferrez/Moreira Salles Institute

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.