A Brazilian Woman’s Story: Changing Identities between Slavery and Freedom in the 1880s, by Visiting Professor Maria Helena Machado

On 2nd March 2022, Visiting Professor Maria Helena Machado delivered a fantastic presentation to the Gender History Research Cluster students and staff at the University of Reading. If you missed the Women’s History Month event, read on for brief summary of Professor Machado’s lecture. You can also read her forthcoming chapter in the edited volume Boundaries of Freedom.  

Mina Yoba, Augusto Stahl, Rio de Janeiro, (1865) Peabody Museum, Harvard University.

In the 1880s, a woman known by two names — a “25 year-old fula (dark skin mixed race), missing her front teeth” — zizagged between the coffee regions of the Vale do Paraíba and the Capital of the Brazilian Empire. Always itinerant, always seeking the freedom to come and go as she pleased, the free Benedicta Maria da Ilha (who was also the enslaved Ovídia) rambled from place to place, hiring out her domestic services and forging bonds with multiple protectors, who would later willingly defend her when she was “unjustly” imprisoned as a fugitive slave. In a peripatetic life that always circled back to the capital city of Rio de Janeiro, Benedicta/Ovídia protagonized multiple flights, misadventures, and hairpin shifts in fortune. An extensive judicial complaint detailed Benedicta/Ovídia’s many comings and goings. In it, our protagonist presented a narrative — her own narrative — of an identity built around constant displacement. Yet meticulous subsequent investigations — which privileged the voices of her master, of judicial authorities, and of medical-legal experts — toppled this constructed identity, concluding that she was indeed Ovídia, a woman enslaved to Major Fernando Pinheiros, a well-established resident of the Imperial Capital. This study unravels during the final years of slavery in the 1880s, a time marked by the widespread dislocation of people at various stages of liberation — slaves, fugitives, and the newly free, seeking new social and geographic spaces in which to recommence their lives. Yet these processes of physical displacement were highly gendered. Men and women coming out of slavery clearly faced different social challenges: among women, the path to autonomy had to be continuously negotiated within the private realm of domestic labor and explicit personal dependency.

Professor Maria Helena Machado is a Levehulme Visiting Professor from the University of São Paulo. We are delighted to have her with us for Women’s History Month.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *