Academic journal article Journal of Social History

From Ethnicity to Race and Gender: Transformations of Black Lay Sodalities in Salvador, Brazil

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

From Ethnicity to Race and Gender: Transformations of Black Lay Sodalities in Salvador, Brazil

Article excerpt

Black lay sodalities functioned as a very special type of voluntary association for enslaved women and men of African descent in Brazil during the slavery regime.(1) Every African-born slave was obliged to be baptized as a Roman Catholic before or upon arrival in Brazil.(2) Conversion to Christianity immediately gave enslaved Africans equal spiritual rights with the prosperous white laity in the eyes of God; it allowed them to marry in church, to attend mass, and to receive confirmation in the faith by visiting bishops. They were also free to participate in various religious celebrations in honor of Christian saints. Most importantly, such newly converted Christians were entitled to acquire a membership in lay sodalities, which guaranteed a decent Christian funeral and the saying of masses for the deceased. Despite the spiritual equality which all enslaved Africans and their decedents shared with the white laity, in reality the latter never accepted the former into their white lay sodalities as their fellow members. Therefore, lay sodalities were inevitably divided by race. Many white sodalities, especially the prestigious Santa Casa da Misercordia (Holy House of Mercy), which itself owned a number of slaves, limited membership to whites.(3) Mulattoes (pardos) established their sodalities which also excluded persons of African birth and Brazilian-born blacks (crioulos), while accepting white members.(4) This is because many mulattoes were born free and comprised a different social stratum from the slave population and also because mulatto slaves had a great advantage over their crioulo counterparts in the practice of manumission.(5) Therefore blacks, being denied the membership to all white and mulatto sodalities, had to establish lay sodalities of their own with their priorities and agendas. Throughout the colonial period, black lay sodalities proliferated in areas where a myriad of Africans were intensively imported as slave labor, especially in Bahia, Pernambuco, and Minas Gerais. In a black sodality most members were enslaved individuals who were not only desperately poor but also themselves were human commodities owned by others. Therefore black sodalities were naturally badly off and did not own their independent churches or even chapels; white sodalities with their own chapels sometimes allowed black sodalities to build altars for their patron saints and hold ceremonies in honor of their saints.

This article is intended to suggest a new orientation for the scrutiny of black lay sodalities in Brazil. By focusing on the city of Salvador, this essay first examines the significance of ethnicity in the formation and development of black lay sodalities for the enslaved population during the colonial period. Then my focus shifts to two newly established free-born black sodalities during the nineteenth century, one of which later transformed itself into a new type of mutual-aid association named the Protective Society of the Needy (Sociedade Protetora dos Desvalidos). My special emphasis is placed on the meanings of race and gender in these new black lay sodalities.

Black lay sodalities in colonial and early nineteenth-century Brazil have already attracted a considerable amount of scholarly attention. These preceding studies have successfully demonstrated black lay sodalities' unique roles and functions as voluntary associations for African-born slaves, and have placed a special emphasis on ethnicity and group sodality expressed in their memberships and governing bodies.(6) Yet so far very little has been known about black voluntary associations which continued to function after the mid-nineteenth century. Several historians have asserted that black sodalities virtually "disappeared" from the sociocultural scenery in Brazil during the nineteenth century when the general laity's active participation in sodalities declined rapidly because of the secularization process of Luso-Brazilian culture; during the nineteenth century the Church itself became a less decisive factor, with the diminishing importance of lay sodalities whose origins lie in medieval Europe. …

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