Surprise Heirs: Illegitimacy, Patrimonial Rights, and Legal Nationalism in Luso-Brazilian Inheritance, 1750-1821 - Vol. 1

By Linda Lewin | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
A Forgotten Population of Heirs
Natural Offspring

I certify that in the year 1780 I baptized and placed the holy oil on
the child Joaquim, the illegitimate son of Francisca das Chagas, a
free, unmarried mulatto woman, herself illegitimate and baptized
in the parish of São João of an unknown father, then a servant in
the house of the Rev. Joaquim Gonçalves de Figueiredo …

Pe. Alberto Caetano Alves,
Bairro da Caturra, Minas Gerais 1

When the Rev. Robert Walsh, an Anglican clergyman who resided in Brazil during 1828 and 1829, found the birth certificate of Col. Joaquim Francisco das Chagas Catete published in a Rio de Janeiro daily newspaper, he was astounded. As a candidate aspiring to be an elector in the Province of Minas Gerais, Col. Chagas Catete had used the press to respond to the slander that he was an emancipated slave. Since freedmen were ineligible to vote under Brazil's 1824 Constitution, the accusation of slave birth had been an attempt to disqualify him from acquiring status as a prestigious player in the national system of indirect elections. Walsh was nonetheless shocked by a politician's public confession in the press, identifying himself as a matrilineally natural offspring, not to mention the inference that the would-be legislator had been fathered by a country priest. He could not resist drawing a cultural contrast: “I doubt if there could be found, amongst the humblest class in England, a man who would establish his right to vote by such an exposure.” Col. Chagas Catete's use of a newspaper to publish the parish registry's verbatim record of his baptism produced the desired effect. It scotched any rumor his mother had been a slave at the time of his birth, verifying that he was born free. Furthermore, as even Walsh was obliged to concede, the act of divulging one's individual qualidade as maternally natural—in this case, of acknowledging that one was of unknown father—carried little consequence: “In Brazil, where so many in high station are themselves the founders of their own families,” he acknowledged, “respectable descent is but little regarded, except by the few who have a claim to it.” 2

-42-

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