Gender, Race, and Work in Early Modern Portugal

Portugal was at the forefront of the early modern slave trade that began in the mid-fifteenth century, and eventually involved the capture and forced transportation of millions of African people across the Atlantic to newly-established European colonies.  A segment of that slave population remained in European soil, though, including in Portugal itself, where women, men, and children were bought and sold to work at some of the most arduous manual labour.  My current research programme, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), looks at the experiences of Black-African women in Portugal’s emerging economy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Although still in its early stages, my preliminary study shows that any discussion of gender and work among the enslaved, former slaves, and descendants of slaves, must begin with an examination of the specificity of Black-African women’s economic contributions as the reproducers and nurturers of the next generation of slaves.  Some of this evidence can be found in a document called an alforria (letter of manumission), and the present discussion deals with one such example.

The alforria in question was granted on 14 December 1656 by the widowed dona Isabel de Sousa who resided on Rua da Madalena in Matosinhos, near Porto, a town located along Portugal’s northern Atlantic coast.  The document indicates that dona Isabel had a black slave woman called Esperança – a name that ironically means Hope –  who had a three-month baby named Maria, and dona Isabel set out to grant an alforria not to Esperança but to baby Maria.  Most alforrias found in the archives are brief, but this one provides intriguing details and justifications for dona Isabel’s guarded benevolence.  The document begins with the declaration that dona Isabel was raising baby Maria with great love, and since the slave woman was hers, and since she, Isabel de Sousa, did not have any son or daughter, and for the love she had for baby Maria, it pleased her, dona Isabel, that baby Maria be granted her liberty, from that day forward.  Given her title of dona, Isabel de Sousa was a member of the Porto elite, and thus she would have had an inherent sense of entitlement that went with that social rank.

The document further stipulated that no one, be it a future heir or anyone of whatsoever quality, was to contest this liberty, and Isabel de Sousa asked the crown and authorities to implement and guard this enfranchisement letter.  It was also noted that if it pleased god that she, Isabel de Sousa, die before she made her will, she left everything to Maria, daughter of the slave woman, and that Maria’s mother, Esperança, was to take care of Maria while the girl was still a girl.  Isabel de Sousa appointed Manoel de Sousa, resident of Matosinhos, as the executor of her will, and requested that in case of her untimely death, he was to keep an eye on Maria until she reached her majority, which at that time was 25 years of age.

Although we do not know how long Esperança had been a slave in the home of dona Isabel de Sousa, or how Esperança spent her days, the alforria from dona Isabel tells us that among Esperança’s duties was to provide her mistress with a child, and to look after that child.  There was no question of dona Isabel’s sense of proprietorship, for she justified her decision by pointing out that she owned the slave woman, and that she had the slave woman impregnated in her house.  Nothing was revealed in the document about the identity of the man who impregnated Esperança, nor under what circumstances the pregnancy took place, but it is unlikely that she had much choice in the matter, in the manner her body was used for the sake of her owner’s honour and estate.

Dona Isabel’s attitude toward baby Maria, however, is slightly more enigmatic.  Not only did she appropriate the child, but she essentially adopted her as a daughter, with all the concomitant privileges of inheritance in place.  This rather unusual situation begs the question:  Did baby Maria stand to inherit her birth mother, Esperança, the slave woman who, at this junction at least, was not given her freedom?  Questions arise as well about Esperança’s possible feelings about the destiny that awaited her daughter, who, legally, was not hers.  Was she pleased for her daughter’s inherited rank and station?  Was she hopeful, as her name suggests, that one day she, too, would benefit from this arrangement?  There is also the matter of how baby Maria was viewed in the household and community.  With the alforria, she inherited wealth and rank, and if she lived to adulthood, Maria would have been among those young women of privilege who stood to marry into another family of privilege.  Would her inherited wealth trump the inferior social and racial group of her origins?

This example shows the extent to which early modern ideologies about race and gender were intrinsically intertwined.  A white servant woman risked being raped by her master or other male members of the household where she worked, but she ran less risk of being used as a baby machine for her employers.  A black man’s experience was also fundamentally different from that of his female counterpart for he was less likely to be raped, he could not be impregnated, and he would not be charged with raising “his” child that in actuality was not his.  The division of labour along gender lines in the early modern period was extensive and complex, and a look at the experiences of Black-African women adds another disquieting dimension to those historical divisions.

Darlene Abreu-Ferreira is professor of history at the University of Winnipeg. Her research interest is women in early modern Portugal and her latest publication is Women, Crime, and Forgiveness in Early Modern Portugal (Ashgate, 2015).


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