Lilia Moritz Schwarcz | Historian and Anthropologist |

 Records verifying the existence of enslaved men and women in São Paulo date back to the beginning of colonisation. However, in the 16th and 17th centuries, and for much of the 18th century, the presence of Africans was immaterial, mostly because of widespread multi-crop agriculture for subsistence purposes, which was largely based on indigenous labour. The distinction between the two workforces was so pronounced that the latter were known as ‘Negroes from the land’, while Africans were called ‘Negroes from Guinea’ or ‘Negroes from Angola’. As early as the 1540s, the Captaincy of São Vicente imported slaves from Guinea to complement the indigenous workforce used in sugar production. However, in comparison with the competing large-scale plantations in Pernambuco and Bahia, the presence of enslaved labour in the capital of São Paulo remained discreet.  


According to data from that era, in 1765, São Paulo’s total population was 20,873 people, of whom 5,988 or 28.6% were enslaved. These figures did not vary greatly during the whole of the 1700s. Based on the 3,398 death records found in São Paulo’s Metropolitan Curia Archives, 489 deceased slaves in the capital of the Province and its surrounding areas were identified as ‘slaves from Guinea’, which is where the majority of local Africans came from 


In any case, it is clear that at this point São Paulo was less a place of landing and settling and more a place of passage for Africans. In the first half of the 18th century, the majority of Africans registered in the Province were heading to the mines of Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso or Goiás. It was only in the second half of the 18th century that there was a significant increase in the numbers of enslaved people, mainly due to recession in the mining economy.    


However, the Province’s economy was still based on a budding agriculture mainly for exports, and was therefore not a particularly attractive place for slave traders. São Paulo was known as a place organised around smallholdings, which were maintained by a small number of captives, who were usually busy with the production of food. Both in the city and surrounding areas, the majority of landowners only had a few slaves. This was a typical scenario throughout this period in São Paulo, which was shaped by an economic transition to large-scale enterprises for exports 


Even though urban slavery in São Paulo gained significance in the beginning of the 19th century, this was quickly retracted following the end of international slave trafficking in 1850, when the rise in prices meant that those enslaved would be sent to coffee plantations. It should also be mentioned that in the 1870s, a series of abolitionist movements gained momentum, and São Paulo became both a stumbling block for slave owners and an alternative for runaway enslaved men and women who found refuge in the capital.   


Under this particular configuration, we see the emergence of the category of slavery by profit or for rent. Slaves by profit were those who headed to the streets in search of daily earnings, and then reported back to their masters at the end of the working day. The dynamics of this type of work created a fairly autonomous group, as the workforce was employed short-term and moved around the streets practically freely. Enslaved people were also hired as blacksmiths, porters, builders, barbers, cobblers, tailors, greengrocers, healers and as workers and craftsmen in small factories.  


The fact is that, in contrast to other large ‘Black cities’ that developed around slavery, in São Paulo urban slavery was characterised by small property clusters headed by widows, single women and modest families. Furthermore, the city followed the general trend of ‘creolisation’, both via natural reproduction and because of the difficulties faced by owners in the context of buying new slaves, which at this point were a highly valued workforce. Whereas there was a high concentration of slave labour in large coffee plantations, in the city the number of slaves per household was typically not more than five, and the average master owned only one slave.       


However, it is important to highlight one aspect: in these smallholdings, the majority of workers were women and children. This is explained by the fact that in São Paulo, the population was not as wealthy, and therefore purchased enslaved women and children, who were cheaper. As expected, the great majority of these women carried the heavy burden of domestic work and were subjected to highly degrading treatment. On one hand, many enslaved women worked selling low-value items, such as eggs, bacon, fresh fish, flour, cheese and vegetables, mostly at Rua da Quitanda, Ladeira do Carmo, Rua do Cotovelo, and in the surrounding areas of Juquery, Anhangabaú and Luz – becoming the famous quitandeiras (market sellers) who spent the day at their stalls or sold their products door to door. On the other hand, recent research shows that if the choice of roles for an enslaved woman was extensive, then becoming a wet nurse was in highest demand. An abundance of rental and sales ads published in newspapers at the time reveals this side of slavery, which was deeply embedded in the imaginary of that era. The wet nurses represented at least according to official narratives the more ‘romantic’ image of slavery, as they were tasked with ‘offering’ the gift of milk to their little (white) masters or ladies. 


The idea of kindness and abnegation was associated with these servants without acknowledging the feelings of exasperation they must have suffered. Firstly, in this type of iconography, there is always one person missing: the slave’s child, abandoned in a baby hatch or, with any luck, cared for by an older friend the person who showed real kindness in this case. Furthermore, when looking at these pictures we seldom question who must have been standing right in front of the wet nurse at the moment the photo was taken: typically her master or mistress, who demanded her to hold the child tightly to ensure the photograph was not blurry. Finally, we could argue that, at least formally, they were included in the picture not as characters but as extras. After all, in the great majority of cases, these ladies’ identities are unknown. In the pictures they are simply fulfilling their role: they are Black wet nurses. At the click of the camera, all we know about the identity of these enslaved women is the place and position they occupy within the domestic sphere.   


In this true visual politics that oppose the visible and the invisible the rationale behind this set of documents becomes almost evident. On one side, we see the young masters and, on the other, their enslaved servants. The child’s name and surname is carefully written down, allowing them to embody the future of the families that they proudly represent in the pictures. Nonetheless, their nannies are just nannies: a face, a body, an outfit, an accessory or even a tool to restrain the child and ensure a successful portrait.  


These pictures were so common that they became standard: a sort of visual convention always present in countries in the Americas and the Caribbean where slavery was prevalent, and which received the majority of the largest-scale diaspora of modern times. The role of these photos was strategic: two people of different origins, social status and colour are conjured into a sort of romantic orchestration of African slavery, if ever a system that posits the ownership of one person by another could be defined as romantic’. 


Therefore, these images have an ambivalent relationship with the reality they attempt to represent. If, in the moment of its creation, this type of visual document served as a model or at least its naturalised violence did not trigger any sort of unease today these images cause a great level of discomfort. A discomfort elicited by the blatant inequality of the situation, the scene’s artificiality and, at the same time, the confirmation that these ladies existed in the past and that the only way to remember them is to note down their expressions, their small gestures, and the details inscribed in their bodies. 


It is precisely this ambiguous and protean element that is worth exploring here. We will never know if there were feelings of affection or revolt between the wet nurse and her young master. But undoubtedly there was affection and revolt, affection with revolt. The situation was meant to symbolise an affective relationship, which paradoxically revealed the contradiction of a system marked by violence and the affirmation of a rigid hierarchy.  


According to anthropologist Didier Fassin, in certain situations, “the body remembers,” that is, it reacts to instances that recall trauma, violence, and in the case of these mothers, the separation from their children.1 Marcel Mauss, in an essay that is considered a classic today, explains how all of us perform bodily techniques that create a grammar that is as legible as written grammars.2 Furthermore, faced with the repeated, almost identical photos of this genre, we feel that we are looking at a catalogue of wet nurses, grasping the tension that these photos created and create between subject and object.3 


In these photos which are today lost in the past the wet nurses’ bodies say a great deal about the present. In their own way, they are retelling the story of a country that cannot escape the fate of being the last nation to abolish slavery in the Western world and of having received more than 45% of the African men and women who were forcibly taken away from their homelands. Therefore, these images look somewhat like ghosts: they haunt us to reveal that the present is as a matter of fact weighted by the past.    

Lilia Moritz Schwarcz is Full Professor at the Department of Anthropology at Universidade de São Paulo (USP). She was Visiting Professor at Oxford, Leiden, Brown, and Columbia and was nominated Global Scholar at Princeton in 2010. She was granted the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 2007 and the highest honour from the Brazilian National Order of Scientific Merit in 2010. She is the author of amongst others, Retrato em branco e negro (Companhia das Letras, 1987, winner of the APCA Prize), O espetáculo das raças (Companhia das Letras, 1993; Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 1999), Racismo no Brasil (Publifolha, 2001), As barbas do imperador (Companhia das Letras, 1998, Jabuti Prize/Book of the Year; Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 2004), A longa viagem da biblioteca dos reis (Companhia das Letras, 2002), O sol do Brasil (Companhia das Letras, 2008, Jabuti Prize/Biographies), Brasil: uma biografia, with Heloisa Murgel Starling (Companhia das Letras, 2015, shortlisted to Jabuti Prize/Social Sciences) and Lima Barreto triste visionário (Companhia das Letras, 2017). She coordinated, amongst other publications, volume 4 of História da vida privada no Brasil (Companhia das Letras, 1998, Jabuti Prize/Social Sciences) and the collection História do Brasil nação (Mapfre/ Objetiva, APCA Prize). She published, A batalha do Avaí (Sextante, 2013, ABL Prize), with Lucia Stumpf and Carlos Lima; Pérola imperfeita: a história e as histórias na obra de Adriana Varejão (Companhia das Letras/Cobogó, 2014), with Adriana Varejão; the exhibition catalogue Histórias Mestiças (Cobogó/Instituto Tomie Ohtake, Jabuti Prize/Art book 2016), with Adriano Pedrosa; and Dicionário da escravidão e da liberdade (Companhia da Letras, 2018), with Flávio Gomes. She curated the exhibitions: A longa viagem da biblioteca dos reis (Biblioteca Nacional, Rio de Janeiro, 2002), Nicolas-Antoine Taunay e seus trópicos tristes (Museu de Belas Artes do Rio de Janeiro and Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, 2008) and Traições: Nelson Leirner leitor de si e leitor dos outros (Galeria Vermelho, São Paulo, 2015); and co-curated Histórias mestiças (Instituto Tomie Ohtake, 2015), Histórias da infância (MASP, 2016), Histórias da sexualidade (MASP, 2017) and Histórias Afro-Atlânticas (MASP/Instituto Tomie Ohtake, 2018). She is Associate Curator of history and narrative at MASP and a columnist for Nexo newspaper.  

1 Didier Fassin. Enforcing order. An ethnography of urban policing. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2013.
2 Marcel Mauss. “As técnicas corporais”. In Ensaio sobre a dádiva. São Paulo: Cosac & Naify, 2013.
3 Allan Sekula. “The Body and the Archive”. In October 39, 1986, pp. 3-64.