The Sisterhood of Nossa Senhora Da Boa Morte and the Brotherhood of Nossa Senhora Do Rosario: African-Brazilian Cultural Adaptations to Antebellum Restrictions

Article excerpt

The slave-ships carried not only men, women and children but also their gods, beliefs and traditional folklore. They maintained a stubborn resistance against their white oppressors who were determined to tear them loose, by force if need be, from their own cultural patterns, and acclimatise them to those of the West (Russell-Wood, 1972 23).

As the slave era evolved, peoples of African descent in the "New World" faced the challenges of desperately attempting to maintain their own cultural integrity whenever possible, while also adapting to the oppressively restrictive environment in which they found themselves. Their survival depended upon their flexibility and creativity two gifts which have always been abundant in African diasporic peoples. In Brazil, several avenues for cultural maintenance and simultaneous adaptation emerged. One avenue was through confraternities (brotherhoods and sisterhoods). The African-Brazilians have been able to maintain their cultural tradition of communalism and religious heritage while integrating aspects of the imposed plantation society culture (religion in this intance).

This article discusses the phenomena of confraternities as one example of the ingenuity of the African-Brazilian people as they maintained their cultural heritage. From a sociocultural perspective, it describes in detail the sisterhood of Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte (Our Lady of Good Death) and the brotherhood of Nossa Senhora do Rosa rio (Our Lady of the Rosary). Much of the discussion centers on the confraternities with major concentrations of African-- Brazilians located in Bahia, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro. Particularly significant is Bahia because, as Landes explains, . '[tihe life of the blacks in Bahia is a model for African-Brazilian folk life in all parts of the country, according to general opinion and Brazilian ethnologists (261)."


Brought to Brazil from the west coast of Africa during the period from approximately 1530 to 1850, the enslaved peoples of Africa were from a variety of cultural groups. The two principal categories of African cultures designated by Brazilian officials were the "Bantu" and the `Sudanese/Yoruba." The Bantu included the Angolans, Congolese, Mozambiques; and the Sudanese/Yoruban included the Nagos Males, Jejes (Gege), Minas, Mandingas and Hausas (Rodrigues 41). As in other parts of the Americas, the enslaved were drawn from all segments of African social structures, ranging from royalty to slaves (Ibid. 40).

The enslaved Africans and descendants in the Americas were faced with, and continue to be faced with, an environment which is sometimes hostile to non-European cultural manifestations. The Africans did not have the freedom of movement and gathering and the sense of community as it was in Africa, no longer existed. Kinship systems were callously destroyed during the capture and enslavement periods.

There is considerable literature which examines the question, "Can a cultural heritage be maintained in such an environment?" Bastide (1967) argues that the African descendants in the Americas do not have africanisms remaining. He argues that, "Slavery brought about a complete break with African customs, and persisted too long to allow any renewal of them. From the time of his emancipation, the Negro was forced to accept the laws of the country in which he lived" (26-27). This view was shared by the Leacocks (1972) and prominent sociologists like E. Franklin Frazier (Bastide 3). Other scholars argue that much of the traditional cultures has been preserved because of the deep rootedness of the basic cultural tenets (see, e.g., Herskovits 1943 & 1969; Katz, Rodrigues).

Cultures are both vibrant and dynamic, while also stable. Their mere presence in an entirely different environment means that modifications must occur. To suggest that the enslaved brought over, and have maintained their ancestral cultures with no variation would be both unrealistic and naive. …