Academic journal article African Economic History

SLAVE, FREE, AND FREEDWOMEN: Succeeding Generations of Africans and Afro-Descendants in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Minas Gerais

Academic journal article African Economic History

SLAVE, FREE, AND FREEDWOMEN: Succeeding Generations of Africans and Afro-Descendants in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Minas Gerais

Article excerpt

An Introduction to the Moreira da Silva Family

This study summarizes some of the findings of a research project focused on the reconstitution of seven generations of a family "founded" by a West African slave couple. The narrative unfolds over roughly 160 years and throughout that period is centered on the town of São José do Rio das Mortes. Located in the southeast of Minas Gerais, São José figured among the principal centers of Brazilian gold mining in the early decades of the eighteenth century, although agriculture and ranching were present from the beginning. Indeed, provisioning domestic markets became the mainstay of the regional economy by mid-century and continued to predominate throughout the nineteenth century. That meant that the dynamic locus of the regional economy became increasingly dispersed throughout the rural chapels and districts of the São José parish.1 During the first half of the nineteenth century, the rapid emergence of neighboring São João del-Rei as the premiere commercial center of the captaincy/province of Minas would decisively contribute to a secular decline of the town of São José itself.2 Nevertheless, as the parish seat and municipal administrative nucleus, the vila of São José held on to its urban character sustaining a number of commercial establishments and of tradesmen and their workshops. 3 This urban setting played a role in maintaining generation after generation of the family established in São José, thus suggesting that small towns could constitute an amenable environment for the middling social strata.

My broader research effort investigates multiple aspects of history in the far-flung parish of Santo Antônio de São José dos Rio das Mortes during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The strategy is to concentrate on a relatively restricted area over an extended time span in order to allow for a deeper and more nuanced understanding of historical tendencies and processes-demographic, economic, social, and cultural. That involves a great deal of cross-referencing of data derived from diverse primary sources and such is also the case for the family reconstitution carried out here. The most widely and intensely used sources are parish archives, in particular baptismal records and marriage registers, as well as burial records and other ecclesiastical papers.4 A set of three nominal lists-one ecclesiastical and the others elaborated by local political officials-allows both for an overview of the community under focus at different points in time and for the social contextualization of some five generations of descendants within that community.5 A few notarial documents elucidate three manumission processes crucial to the family history, while a small number of wills and probate records yield a fair amount of information relative to the property and wealth of some third and fourth generation family members and its transmission to surviving members.6 The municipal council of São José generated a varied body of documentation. Of particular interest are certain fiscal records, lists of local militia members, and accounting records of local public works and council business.7

It is my contention that the extremely diversified empirical base that characterizes the research effort will allow for an investigation into how female family members participated in the ownership of property and management of wealth. The urban nature of the Moreira de Silva clan precluded agricultural land holding during the entire period under focus, but a good deal of real estate located in the town appears in the sources. And, of course, up to the mid-nineteenth century, there were often slaves to manage, both in the domestic setting and the local labor market. At the same time, despite the illusiveness of available evidence, there are indications that the women of the earlier generations engaged in commercial activities. While it is not easy to pin down exactly what those activities might have been, this is an area where the African roots of Moreira da Silva women are most obvious. …

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