Brazil has the largest population of blacks outside of Africa, estimated at 90 million people, mostly descendants of the Portuguese slave trading operations that began in the mid-1500s.
Over a third of captured Africans forced into slavery were taken to Brazil to work in the sugar plantations and mining industry. Slavery was not abolished there until 1888.
This gorgeous book, translated by Jane Springer, tells the story of an enslaved African woman who lived in the late 1700’s in the Brazilian state Piauí. Her partial story became known after the 1979 discovery of a letter by her, in which she petitioned the governor to be allowed to be sent back to her family.
Originally Esperança lived on a cotton farm where she and her family were owned by Jesuit priests. The priests taught her to read and write, and apparently did not treat her as badly as other slave owners.
When the priests were expelled from Portugal and its colonies in the mid-eighteenth century, Esperança was separated from her husband and half of her children, and sent to work as a cook in the home of a cruel slaveowner. She sent a letter to the governor, explaining that both she and one of her sons were badly beaten, and that she and the other slaves had not been able to attend confession or baptize their children. She concluded:
“…I ask you, for the love of God and for his favor, to consider my request and send me back to the farm I was taken from, so that I can live with my husband and baptize my daughter.”
The author notes that no one knows if Esperança ever received a reply.
Nevertheless, September 6, the date of the letter, is now known as “Black Consciousness Day” in Piauí.
Brazilian illustrator Luciana Justiniani Hees has created stunning vivid pictures employing elements from the rich Afro-Brazilian culture. (You can learn more about this culture at multiple sites on the web such as this one.)
Evaluation: This is a very interesting story and a way to educate Americans on slavery in other places. It is also so thought-provoking to consider the fate of this educated, talented woman, and to wonder if she ever got the relief for which she prayed. It would have been better – certainly for her – if this story had a clear, happy, ending, but the ambiguity about her fate also serves as a useful lesson.
Published in English by Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press, 2015