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Priests, Penitents, Pilgrims and Parishioners: Afro-Lusitanians and Religion

Thomas Orum





There is no method to measure piety and religious faith, however, Portugal was an acknowledged bastion of first Christianity then post-Reformation Catholicism. In the eighteenth century observers characterized the Lusitanian religious atmosphere as where the “Roman Catholic persuasion” was” carried to the greatest height of enthusiasm” and all “ who profess a different religion are heretics”. Among the Afro-Lusitanian population, slave or free, religion was a constant companion. The numerous public processions and celebrations which both included or were exclusively for people of color made it impossible to ignore the dominant faith. This proliferation of religious activity provided at the same time social space within society.


These public demonstrations of faith fulfilled obligations that were considered to be civic as well as religious. The piety expressed formed a unified society even if only briefly through the incorporation of all celebrants. Unlike Brazil where syncretic practices were not uncommon and universally acknowledged, if not accepted, in Portugal traditional religion among Afro-Lusitanians while not absent appears to have become subsumed or supplemented by vigorous Christian participation. The latter’s overwhelming effectiveness seemingly made it difficult to retain traditional spiritual loyalties.

The distribution of a population of color throughout Portugal determined they would be incorporated into local parish activities. In 1621 Panoias, Alemtejo had 493 confesados on the church rolls and counted “alguns dos habitantes” as” negros e mulatos”. The establishment of a church named Santa Maria Madalena a-dos-Negros near Leiria must have acquired its name from the majority of its parishioners. In communities with significant non-white or miscegenated populations like Sao Romano de Sado, Alto Sado, Alcacer do Sul, Grandiola and Val de Guiso their participation was inevitable. In Lisbon at the church of Sagrada Coracao de Jesus in Estrela built by Queen Maria a European visitor reported the attendance of “many black men and women, who seemed pious Catholics”. Cleric and parishioner are linked in the continual dynamic of life duties of birth, marriage, celebration of feast days, mass, offerings and burials.

These form a material and spiritual bond, desired or not, among the group. Early on the Portuguese Church had African descended clergy. Their original utilization was to carry and administer religion and its practice in the Empire but numbers found places in Continental Portugal.

A survey of the documentation in Lisbon’s forty parish churches in the eighteenth century would provide a snapshot of Afro-Lusitanian residence and worship patterns. The growth of Afro-Lusitanian confraternities or brotherhoods devoted to specific saints permitted the authorized use of public space which in turn generated socio-private space.

Participation in religious processions provided an opportunity to flaunt sumptuary laws by using prohibited clothing and jewelry in these celebrations. In Portugal these confraternities rarely had their own church as in Brazil. However, in Angra on Terceira island in the Acores Afro-Lusitanians had a church of their own dedicated to Nossa Senhora da Natividade. Nossa Senhora do Rosario the largest brotherhood in existence since 1496 and distributed geographically throughout the kingdom in Lisbon, Cascais, Ever, Lagos, Leiria, Muge Setubal, Alcacer do Sul, Montigo and Moura is evidence of the religious activity and presence of Afro-Lusitanians.

Afro-Lusitanians were in the forefront of the celebration of saints days both specifically theirs and others observed by the general population. On Sao Pedro’s day In Setubal June 1799 an observer described the dancing by groups of the African descended residents. He alleged there was a dual purpose in their celebration, one to demonstrate devotion, the other to earn donations. Robert Southey, the English poet, reported a “ Negro went by carrying Nosso Senhor in a glass case which he proffered to all who met him”. The glass was kissed and money given to the bearer.

The image,according to Southey, had been blessed by the Pope. Pretos dressed in red played trumpets in a 1787 religious parade. A drawing by Nicolau Delorive depicted Afro-Lusitanians seeking alms for the procession of the Terco de Jesus. The Duke de Chatelet saw processions of blacks carrying in “great pomp a number of saints of their own color”. The 1799 celebration of Santo Antonio de Lisboa portrayed as black with” thick lips and carried by a multidao de pretos e mulatos” through the city where walls, houses, plazas and streets had candles and banners forming tents under which there were images in miniature surrounded by flowers and lights.

Pilgrimages have been part of Christian ritual since its inception. They provide a means for the faithful to pay homage to a favorite saint , seek solace, penance or absolution at a shrine. By the eighteenth century there was an annual pilgrimage of Afro-Lusitanians from Lisbon to the Santuario da Atalaia. Located” one league from Aldea Gallega in the Alentejo at Nossa Senhora de Atalaia” the procession drew as one author described a “great concourse of people”. There were “Hundreds of blacks” seen crossing the Tagus en route to the chapel the day of the celebration. Members of the brotherhood devoted to the saint raised funds with street parades carrying an image of the baby Jesus that was the “ same colour as he who carries it about to cater for its mother’s feast”. The author of Sketches of Portuguese Life included a drawing of unmistakenly African descended individuals engaged in soliciting contributions entitled “Outros tempos-peditorio para o cirio de N.S. da Atalaia”. The Virgin of Atalaia itself, supposedly crafted by Diogo the Elder in the fifteenth century, was also painted black.

Reportedly, the population of color making the trip resided in the Barrios Alto and Alfama in Lisbon where there was a concentration of Afro-Lusitanians. This event, as well as the celebration of religious holidays, provided a temporary escape from daily life and its attendant frustrations without severe personal or financial sacrifice.

Atalaia was similar to other obscure shrines in eighteenth century Catholic Europe that rose to prominence with the facility of their fifteenth century ancestors. It was, however, unlike others because the devotees were of Afro-Lusitanian descent. The various manifestations of religion and its practice by the African descended opens a window on an oft ignored population not yet well examined in Portugal.

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