A Family Story: Seven Generations of Africans and Afro-Descendents in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Minas Gerais

Thursday, January 3, 2013: 1:40 PM
Salon V (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Douglas Libby, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais
This paper examines the trajectory of a West African slave couple and six generations of their descendents in the Vila do São Josť do Rio das Mortes over a period of some 160 years (c. 1735 – c. 1895). The primary sources under investigation include parish registers, nominal lists, wills and testaments, probate records, notarial papers, fiscal and other documentation produced by local council authorities, as well as official correspondence and records generated by colonial, metropolitan, provincial, and imperial administrations. The narrative built around the unfolding lives of succeeding generations aims at providing a varied set of ways of analyzing family formation, racial and social relations, occupational opportunities, and the complexities of upward and downward social mobility in the context of a small urban community in colonial and provincial Minas Gerais. The extraordinary geographical stability of this “colored” family of middling social and economic standing challenges the notion that non-elite populations were constantly on the move during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. That same stability also suggests that historians need to investigate more thoroughly the consolidation and continuity of middling social and economic groups in the broader context of a slave society that is all too often reduced to a simplistic dichotomy between masters and slaves. In a slightly different vein, the emergence of clear patterns of endogamy underscore the remarkable importance that family relationships themselves took on over time. Such endogamy might be thought of as constituting a strategy aimed at dealing with a complex reality in which color lines were much more sharply drawn than recent scholarship would suggest.