Some remarks

On the significance of the documents

Much of the documentation we found about women in Portuguese America, especially in the first centuries of occupation (1500-1600), was produced because the colonial administration and its auxiliary spheres of power deemed it necessary to record, in writing, the deviations from their established order. 

This is particularly true regarding the documents produced by the Tribunal do Santo Ofício, or Portuguese Inquisition, which acted in the colony as a continuation of its powers in continental Portugal. In fact, until now, all the documents from the 16th century that we have managed to gather up to this moment are at the Tribunal do Santo Ofício (hereinafter TSO) Fond, under the safeguard of the National Archives of Torre do Tombo; in addition to confessions, denunciations and processes, also private letters that were kept as ‘evidence’ among records of inquisitorial processes. Thus, it is from the records written by men who imprisoned them and questioned them that we recovered a large part of the memory about the daily lives of women in the early years of the colonization of Brazil. Even the rare words of women from the 1500s (and the 1600s) who reach us by their own pen, in the form of personal letters (such as those from Vicência Jorge, Isabel Gomes, Catarina Garcia de Cabreira, Domingas da Rosa de Morais and Inês Fernandes) they are found in papers kept in the Archives of the Inquisition, because they have become evidence of ‘sins’ and crimes.

This illustrates the first disturbing point in the work of building a memory on women in Brazil: as the remaining documentation from the first centuries of Portuguese America is marked by the very contingency of its preservation, for the most part the documents were produced (and preserved) because these women attacked and were disciplined by the colonial order.

This has in the first place the consequence of a very particular framework given to women in the documents. Reading this documentation allows us to analize how these women were seen by society at the time, much more than it allows us to form an ‘objective’ portrait of the profile of women in Portuguese America. They appear in the documents, in particular those of the first centuries, marked by the bias of their conditions as people whose lives deserved registration – this registration being, in all cases, the registration of lives that deviate from the established order.

This also has an intense relationship, we believe, with the themes dealt with in the documents – and therefore, indirectly, with the design of everyday life that we managed to build from them. In the documents produced by TSO, the themes of women’s reports that ‘confess’ or denounce “things touching the Holy Office” (Tribunal do Santo Ofício (TSO). Sins are, of course, what was considered ‘sin’ – in the sexual life, daily habits with a meaning of religious or heretical practice, and ‘blood sins’ (Judaism).

In the set of inquisitorial documentation contained in the M.A.P. Catalog, the verbs that mark the typical dialogicity of the TSO’s mode of action often appear: “asked” and “answered”. The central characters are also recurrent and appear referred to by their proper names, by the role they played and by different social characterization terms: Manoel Francisco (notary), Francisca Luís and Isabel Antônia (defendant, woman, resident, married, convicted), Heitor Furtado de Mendonça (visitor, sir).

In this way, the remaining documentation from the first centuries of Portuguese America is marked by the very contingency of its preservation: for the most part, they come to us because these women suffered, because they attacked the colonial order, because they were disciplined by it. And, ultimately, because their conduct needed to be recorded in writing, in accordance with the inquisitorial logic.

Notable exceptions in this regard are the sixteenth century documents in our inventory, which, although they are also of a legal nature, are not part of criminal proceedings – such as the case of women named or who filed property registrations or ‘Cartas de Datas‘, the’ Donas‘, – “Maria Jorge and her sister Agostinha Rodrigues, widowed owners of the first settlers of this village …” (CMJ, 1657b), “Maria de Pinha, widowed owner, resident and settler of this village ...” (CMJ, 1657a ) – almost always linked to their condition as heirs. The inclusion of these documents in our inventory echoes Russel-Wood’s (1977) warning about the importance of primary sources in the sense of composing a documentary universe consisting of a broad spectrum of testimonies that allows historiography to be less stereotyped from each historical moment.

Apart from the special case of the ‘Cartas de Datas’ from Jundiaí, we can say, however, that the remaining documentation from the 16th and 17th centuries, much of it prospected in the archives of the Inquisition of Lisbon, is very strongly marked by the cleavage of sin and pain.

As we approach the 18th and 19th centuries, the roles of the Inquisition become less present in our gathering of sources – but still, the vast majority of documents we find are lawsuits and other legal instruments in which, although there is no longer the mark of the ‘sin’, the cleavage of ‘crime’ is very strong. In particular in the most recent documents of our inventory, we no longer have this mark of the subject-sin, but the mark of the subject-crime, subject-complaint, subject-supplication. In these documents there is a bifurcated situation: the legal instruments brought by women to the administrative spheres (requests, petitions, denunciations, complaints …) and the instruments brought by the public administration or by third parties (deeds, donations, complaints, case files). In the first group, some of the most frequent themes are: ‘crimes against honor’, assassination attempts, property attacks (such as arsons), common thefts, theft and forgery of freedom letters from formerly enslaved women, disrespect for the ‘Law of the freedom of wombs’ (after 1871), marital abuse, property misappropriation, complaints about domestic services rendered and unpaid, broken promises of marriage, family abandonment and abductions. The second group, constituted by instruments moved by the public administration or by third parties (deeds, donations, complaints, case files) in which women are cited as parties – victims, accused or witnesses (other than those motivating the text) -, some of the themes are: accusations of mistreatments of women, kidnappings, request for the release of imprisoned women; and denunciations (by men) of ‘scandals’ (by women).

All of this poses, therefore, important questions regarding our possibility of learning about the daily lives of women through the reports recorded in these documents. Most of the records are indirect – that is, made by one man’s fist and skewed by another man’s inquisitive gaze; a few of them, however, allows us to get in touch with the materiality and substance of the writing of women who were effectively able to pick up the pen. It is through the cracks in the curtains that, in a continuous movement, the writings reveal and hide glimpses in the lives of women in Portuguese America.

In the theatre of memory, women are faint shadows

Michelle Perrot, 1989