Júlio César Medeiros da Silva Pereira
“Take off your shoes, for the ground you tread is sacred.”
– Exodus, 3:5
This epigraph reminds of Moses’ call on Mount Sinai that would change the history of the Semites for all time. I cite this passage as a reverence to the room where we now stand. Even though it is located across the ocean from Africa, we may find the remains of thousands of enslaved Africans who died after the Atlantic crossing in this small plot of land of 100 square meters once called a cemetery.
Once forced out of motherland Africa, the diaspora spread across the world and irrigated with their blood those places where fresh human black flesh was bought and sold cheaply. In Brazil, this place was called Valongo.
The greed of slave traffickers did not spare even the youngest. During the slave trade, Africa became incapable of supplying the growing demand for adult labor in farms and started shipping off more and more children, many of whom are buried in the old Pretos Novos Cemetery in Rio de Janeiro, the largest slave cemetery for newly arrived enslaved persons in the Americas. Curiously, bodies were never properly buried cemetery. They were piled on top of one another above ground, something which would have been unacceptable for Africans since it would mean a permanent separation from the ancestors.
A report from a burial held on December 18, 1827 is a testament to this. Joaquim Antônio Fernandes de Sá had sent the body of an enslaved child whose name and age are unknown. On page 146 of the yellowing death records from the Parish of Santa Rita, the organization in charge of the cemetery, we can only find a short description of this child: “daughter of a slave named Thereza”.
We know very little about Thereza, the mother of this child. We don’t know where she came from in Africa, nor the name of the ship that brought her, but we do know she was baptized and was probably a single mother. After that we may only infer facts from a universal sentiment of motherhood. She was a mother, and once enslaved she suffered a double loss. First, losing her freedom by the hands of men greedy for the slave trade’s high profits. Then she saw death take away her daughter who was laid to rest as an indigent in this cemetery, lifeless, nameless, with no respect or dignity.
Like thousands of other enslaved women who arrived and thousands still to arrive, Thereza was subjugated and violently attacked in her human condition. She must have wept for losing her identity when she received a name that wasn’t hers, she must have lamented being alone and far from her people when giving birth, she must have suffered seeing her ancestral roots being cut by denying her offspring a decent burial, let alone seeing the little body wilt away in a ground inebriated by all the life blood left to dry there.
According to custom, the body of adults or children deposited there without appropriate death rituals would be piled in the center of the plot to be burned, broken, disarticulated and dismembered, thus clearing space for new arrivals.
Nonetheless, there is one thing that the executioner’s hands could not take from Thereza’s daughter: her filiation. As the daughter of an African woman, she becomes elevated to a maternal belonging which makes her beautiful and dignified – and this alone could suffice. We are given our humanity by the origin of our existence more than by a name or reputation. It is connected to the person that bore us and who first fed us from breasts not always full of milk, but nonetheless true.
Like Thereza’s daughter, at least ten percent of all enslaved souls buried in this holy ground were aged between zero and eight years old. It is estimated that from 1808 until 1830, at least fifteen thousand enslaved persons were buried in this cemetery. Most of these bodies are nameless. Records show that “crias” was the name given to children up until age four, and “molecas” or “moleques” given to all those until age fourteen.
This is the case of a child who was brought from a brigantine from the African port of Benguela on December 18, 1824 who did not survive the mistreatment nor the infectious ship during the Atlantic crossing. After perishing in the Valongo Market, she was buried under the inscription “a new moleca”. Another little one had an equally descriptive but more painful record: “a nursing ‘cria’”, as babies under age two were called.
Death was far from democratic, especially at the Pretos Novos Cemetery. Among the thousands of enslaved Africans trafficked into Brazil, children and pregnant women had a high mortality rate, and what killed the mother usually killed the child. One of the death records show that in 1828 “mother and daughter” from Luanda did not resist the hardships of slavery and also had their bodies deposited there.
Thousands of other children whose names we will never know rest on these grounds. They are a reminder of a not so distant past where people bought and sold human lives regardless of gender or age – whose bodies were discarded, rotting in piles of stench, becoming a burden for the local population who wished to get rid of a most undesirable neighbour.
We still have thousands of Thereza’s sons and daughters who have lost and still keep losing their lives in the alleys and ditches of the city. Their lives are nipped at the bud and their bodies not properly buried.
It is impossible to ignore the thousands of Therezas born in this country and who, like their African mother, agonized in slavery during their lives, feeling prejudice on their skins, and losing their children to our social ills. This ground is sacred not because someone has been ordained to liberate their captive people. Rather, it has been consecrated by children like Thereza’s daughter whose innocent blood still remains in this tiny plot of land, in a country that resists in giving these lives their due worth.
Júlio César Medeiros da Silva Pereira is a Ph.D. in History of Science and Health by Fiocruz, Master’s in Social History from UFRJ, and a B.A. in History by UERJ/FFP. He is a Senior Lecturer of Contemporary History at Universidade Federal Fluminense, in Rio de Janeiro. He is the author of Above ground: The Pretos Novos Cemetery in Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro City’s General Archive, Editora Garamond, 2014, 2nd ed.), and Kijane Kueza: a Very Able Warrior (National Library in Rio de Janeiro and Universo dos Livros, 2014). He is also the director of historical research at the Pretos Novos Institute for Research and Memory (IPN), in Rio de Janeiro, and he is the coordinator of the Sankofa Study and Research Center, that researches health and disease in remaining communities, slavery, and the death and burial of the enslaved.