Maria Helena Pereira Toledo Machado is a Leverhulme Visiting Professor in the Department of History at the University of Reading and Professor of History at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. An expert on the lives of enslaved women in Brazil, the life story of Geminiana and her children form the focus of her forthcoming book, now in press.

An enslaved woman street vendor and her son. Photographer: Christiano Jr, Rio de Janeiro, 1860.

Content warning: racism and violence

Born around 1840, Geminiana, an enslaved woman, grew up in Maranhão, a province located in the far North of Brazil. She was enslaved to the Belforts, an Irish family who settled in the interior of the province and made their fortune capturing indigenous peoples, clearing the forests, and founding gigantic sugar mills peopled by African people held in slavery. The Belforts’ main fortune came from trafficking these people. As a young girl, Geminiana lived with her mother and sister, along with around a hundred other enslaved people. Her mother, Simplícia, had been able to buy her own freedom, probably through working as a street vendor to save money to buy her liberty while simultaneously performing domestic labour for her enslavers. When one of the Belforts’ daughters married, the slaveholding family offered Geminiana to the newlywed couple as part of their daughter’s dowry. She then went to live with them in Maranhão’s capital city, São Luís. Geminiana subsequently bore four children: two girls and two boys, although one of her daughters sadly died in infancy.

Geminiana’s new enslavers died during the 1860s and the couple’s estate fell into the hands of a relative, who decided to sell some of the enslaved people in 1876, taking them to be valued and listed in São Luís’s market. The sale included Geminiana and her three surviving children. Somewhat surprisingly, Geminiana was able to deposit her price at court, enabling her own manumission. There are no records that explain how she managed to raise this sum, so as historians we can only offer hypotheses. This is so often the case when researching the lives of enslaved women.

One possible explanation is that Geminiana’s mother, who also lived and worked in São Luís, where she hired herself out as a daily domestic, may have purchased her daughter’s manumission from her own hard-earned savings. Another possibility is that Geminiana had her own money, accumulated from her work as a healer (pajé). Thanks to a later criminal case involving the faith healer Amélia Rosa, the queen of healing (pajelança) in São Luís, we have evidence that that Geminiana might have been part of her inner circle.

After her manumission, Geminiana had to leave her three children behind in slavery. Her daughter Isaura, aged around twelve, was sold on soon afterwards. This left her two sons, Jacinto and Inocênci, aged six and eight, who remained on a sale listing for months before finally attracting a buyer. The firm Silva and Teixeira acquired them, whose Portuguese owners ran a bakery. The bakers apparently found the children “cute”, but soon discovered that neither of the boys had much utility. Too small to work, they hung around the bakery counter waiting for customers to buy them treats.

The bakers probably made the acquisition as an investment, hoping to reap financial gain in the long run as the boys grew into valuable men who could generate profits. However, seemingly on a whim, the bakers sold the boys to Ana Rosa Viana Ribeiro, a woman from a rich local family, notorious for torturing her enslaved people. Both Jacinto and Inocênci died within three months of purchase, leading to loud public rumour and speculation about the crimes taking place in Ribeiro’s mansion. We don’t know the anguish Geminiana must have felt about the loss of her infant daughter, followed by the sale of her other daughter, then the deaths of her sons.

Too often, those enslaved and formerly enslaved remain as shadows, if not entirely absent, in archival evidence. Yet we can and should employ techniques of speculation, empathy and imagination as we research the past. Through the careful probing of historical records we can seek to reconstruct the lives of people held in the horrific system of enslavement and bring their biographies to the centre of historical narratives that better inform our present.

Professor Machado’s research is based on the criminal records that followed the death of Inocêncio, which amount to some 800 pages, complemented with other documents, including inventories, letters of freedom, registers on the sales of enslaved people, and baptism and death registers. This documentation allows for an unusually detailed reconstruction of the many aspects of Geminiana’s life story in the context of Brazilian slavery both before and after the implementation of the Free Womb Law of 1870.

Professor Machado’s book, co-authored by A. Alexandre Cardoso, will be published under the title Geminiana e seus filhos: escravidão e morte; maternidade e infância (Bazar do Tempo: Rio de Janeiro, forthcoming June 2023).