Brazil is the largest African nation on Earth in population, with the exception of Nigeria, and more Africans were brought there in the slave trade – which ended in 1889 – than anyplace in the Americas. The brutality of slavery there was unimaginable.
Out of this historical horror was born a so-called "mulata" slave of Afro-European extraction in the state of Minas Gerais in the eighteenth century named Francisca da Silva de Oliveira. In the Brazilian context, she was not exceptional in that regard. But this female was no ordinary slave; for she exhibited an inextinguishable drive for survival and social elevation.
Her path toward freedom was paved in some ways by her long-time, open relationship with her White master, João Fernandes de Oliveira— a judge and diamond mine owner who purchased her – which produced several children. Francisca, who would later be known as Chica (Xica) da Silva, was freed by her master, and went from slave to citizen, becoming a property owner who used her wealth to advance her social standings and that of her daughters, who both became of the Brazilian bourgeoisie and into the Afro-Brazilian religious order of the Macaúbas. Her former owner/lover was forced to return to Portugal after his father died. Without her lover’s protection, the White Brazilian elite moved in for the kill. And this put da Silva and her children’s social status in peril, leaving her to deal with her disputed estate. Unable to fully defend her estate, da Silva relocated to a monastery that was owned by her lover. But another version of history says that she and Oliveira both moved to Portugal to live out their days together in peace.
Though her fame would live on through the centuries, albeit in a stereotypical portrayal of her as an immoral, oversexed vixen to White men, as evidenced, first by the 1976 film by Carlos Diegues, and a popular Latin American 1997 telenova Xica, which is still in rotation around the world.
It would not be accurate to compare her with America’s Harriet Tubman, but da Silva used her status as a freewoman to help her Black sisters, as a godmother, sponsor of newlyweds and a patron of many Afro-Brazilian brotherhoods. As Mariana L.R. Dantas writes in her book, Chica da Silva: A Brazilian Slave of the Eighteenth Century, da Silva’s life, “sheds light on the challenges Black women and their descendants faced in colonial slave societies, as well as the strategies they employed to overcome the limitations gender and racial discrimination imposed on their opportunities for social and economic improvement.”
Chica da Silva was not the only one of her kind, but her boldness, bravery, and social astuteness made her a Brazilian immortal.