Confraternities

Church and state were far from separate in Rio de Janeiro. Unfortunately, there was a strong racial divide in the capital city. This meant that black slaves did not mix in white churches. However, that did not mean that masters wanted to keep slaves out of religion. It was deeply ingrained in all aspects of life as it was. A missionary with the Methodist Episcopal Church reaching out to colored people in 1837 noticed that slave masters took pleasure in the slaves’ knowledge of Christ.[1] In the midst of dealing with harsh masters, the slaves of Rio de Janeiro were able to retreat to the support of brotherhoods (confraternities). Brotherhoods became prominent after the transatlantic slave trade. White confraternities were also present at this time, but once again, African ones became necessary as this undervalued people group was far from welcome to worship amongst the whites. Fortunately, people from all backgrounds in terms of class and race were welcomed in slave fraternities. These organizations were religious and charitable by performing a multitude of good works, and they were organized so both men and women could be involved in them. Confraternities operated in various places such as churches, convents, chapels, and more.[2] As a woman on an 1831 voyage discovered, Africans were able to become priests and carry out funeral services.[3] They could also participate in their own politics through the election of a king and queen in these tightly knit communities. As seen in the photo below, slaves could be baptized by their own priests in their brotherhoods. Confraternities supported hospitals, asylums, cemeteries, and churches through maintenance and health care support. These brotherhoods sustained themselves thanks to donations, membership fees, and tax grants for good works. The money helped fund their funerals, an aspect of brotherhood that was considered very important, and even bought freedom for select slaves.
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Many of the confraternities dwelled in the cities due to large populations of blacks in these areas. Rio De Janeiro had one of the largest black populations in Brazil, and it was therefore a center for Slave Confraternities.[4] These religious groups were still involved in the many traditions of the Catholic Church such as festivals and feasts.[5] The photo below shows us slaves on Quitanda Street in Rio de Janeiro in 1868 celebrating such a festival. Confraternities were part of the church. They were not detached from it. Even though slaves dealt with abuse and suppression, confraternities were blessings that could not be taken away from them. Confraternities let slaves form their own societies within society so that they could participate in activities that the less oppressed surrounding them engaged in. Such organizations united slaves for common causes and enabled them to maintain individuality and a level of power in a world where slaves were seen as animals made to be dominated.

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[1] Zion’s Herald, (Boston, American Periodical Series II, 1837), 134.

[2] Patricia Mulvey, The Americas, (Academy of American Franciscan History, 1982), 39.

[3] The Friend; a Religious and Literary Journal, (Philadelphia, American Periodical Series II, 1831), 186.

[4] Mulvey, The Americas, 40.

[5] Mulvery, The Americas, 40.