Memorializing slavery and making slavery part of official initiatives remains a problem in a country like Brazil, where slavery was outlawed only in 1888. Obstacles prevent this painful past to become visible in the public space. Moreover, even though the heritage of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade was not always recognized in official initiatives by governments and institutions, slavery and African culture have always remained alive in Brazilian popular memory. Today the emergence of an Afro-Brazilian civil rights movement, the denunciation of present social and racial inequalities, the fight against racism and the denunciation of white supremacy have led to the development of different forms of cultural assertion by black Brazilians.
After the end of the military dictatorship in 1985, the new Brazilian constitution of 1988 established for the first time that racism was a crime. In addition, it also established that remnants of quilombo (marron) communities had the right to ownership of land they occupied. Also in 1988, the Palmares Cultural Foundation was created to promote and preserve Brazilian black heritage. More recently, the inclusion of Afro-Brazilian history and culture in the curricula at the primary and high school levels (Law number 10 639 of January 9, 2003) was made mandatory. Also, until the end of this year, all Brazilian public universities have to implement affirmative action targeting Afro-Brazilians and populations of indigenous descent.
As these measures are implemented, there are important initiatives to publicly promote the role of African and Afro-Brazilian historical actors, such as Zumbi of Palmares, Queen Nzinga, Chica da Silva, and Na Agontimé.
The promotion of the stories of these forgotten black historical actors is helping reconstructing the memory of slavery and rewriting Brazil’s official history. Yet, the persistent obstacles in conferring permanent public spaces to the memory of slavery indicate how difficult is to deal with its slave past, in a country where the majority of the population of African descent still occupy the lower rankings of Brazilian society.
But despite these hindrances, some of these African characters and slave characters have been widely celebrated for several decades, especially during carnival, a popular festival held all over the country every year. Among them is Chico Rei, who remained remained alive in Brazilian popular memory and visible in the popular festivals led by the old Catholic black brotherhoods. The popular celebrations and Chico’s story were also incorporated in pieces of Brazilian classic music like the ballet Maracatu do Chico Rei (1939) by Francisco Paulo Mignone.
Chico Rei in popular memory
In 1964, the school of samba Salgueiro of Rio de Janeiro staged Chico Rei’s story. The samba song titled Chico Rei, composed by Geraldo Babão, Djalma Sabiá, and Binha, highlights Chico Rei’s story. It describes how Chico was captured in Africa by the Portuguese, faced the horrors of the Middle Passage, was eventually sold into slavery in Minas Gerais, and later purchased his freedom. The lyrics reads:
He lived on the African shore
in a regal and ordered tribe
whose king was the symbol
of a laborious and friendly land
One day, this calmness was lost
When the Portuguese invaded their country
To enslave them in Brazil […]
It was an amazing idea
to hide gold powder in his hair
And his fellows did the same
Every night, coming back from the mines
they went to the church and washed the gold
from their hair into the sink
and then stored it somewhere else
until they’d saved enough
to purchase their freedom
each one at once, they were freed
and then the king
worked under the sun of freedom
he bought some land
Having discovered gold, he then became rich
Despite deportation and the inhuman conditions of slavery, the lyrics underscores resilience. It emphasizes how the enslaved population of Brazil adhered to the values of the Catholic church, how their work in the mines allowed some flexibility, giving the slaves possibility to save money to buy their freedom. The lyrics, showing how Chico Rei overcame his slave status and became a prosperous man, transforms his status from an enslaved victim to a redeemer hero.
In later years, Chico Rei was the topic of the play Chico Rei: A Salamanca do Jarau (1965) by Walmir Ayala. He was also a carachter in the novels Lembrando Ouro Preto e Aleijadinho: Reisado, congado, Chico-Rei (1965) by Angélica Rezende and Chico Rei: romance do ciclo da escravidão nas Gerais (1966) by Agripa Vasconcelos and in the motion picture Chico Rei (1985) by Walter Lima Jr. In all these cultural productions Chico’s story was reproduced with slight variations. In addition, in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, local black associations created groups named after Chico Rei to promote the history of Afro-Brazilian heroes.
But who exactly was Chico Rei?
Chico Rei is an enslaved legendary and popular character. According to the various stories that were propagated during the twentieth century, Chico’s name was Galanga. He was a king (rei), born in the early eighteenth century in the Kingdom of Congo in West Central Africa. In the different versions of the story, Chico, his family, and other residents of his village were captured and sold into slavery in Brazil, where they were sent to Vila Rica (present-day Ouro Preto), in the gold and diamond mining region of Minas Gerais.
Still according to the legend, after working for some years in a mine, Chico figured out ways to amass resources to purchase his freedom. He started hiding gold in his hair, and with the earnings he made, he eventually purchased his freedom. Still according to the story, Chico became a very prosperous man and bought a gold mine in Vila Rica that allowed him to buy the freedom of his family and other members of his village who were enslaved there.
There is also another version of the same story. In this second version, Chico’s former master gave him the gold mine as a gift to thank him for his good services. Once a freedman, Chico Rei and his fellows built the Church of Santa Efigênia that houses the Catholic lay brotherhood of Our Lady of Rosary.
Chico Rei’s name is present in the collective memory of the members of the Catholic brotherhood of Our Lady Rosary in Minas Gerais. His story is also extremely important to understand how Brazil negotiates with its slave past. Yet, there are no primary sources confirming Chico’s existence. Moreover, it is hard to determine if the legend emerged during the period of slavery or if it is a more recent phenomenon.
Probably, the first reference to Chico Rei’s story appeared in the book História Antiga de Minas (1904) by Brazilian historian, journalist, politician, and lawyer Diogo Luiz de Almeida Pereira de Vasconcelos (1843-1927). Since then, the story was largely disseminated in the various editions of the textbook Histórias da terra mineira (1914) by Carlos Góis (1881-1934). Chico’s story was also reproduced in the essay O colono preto como fator da civilização brasileira published in 1918 by Afro-Brazilian historian Manuel Querino (1851-1923).
Chico Rei’s Mine
In the last decades, Chico’s legend has been updated in other initiatives intended to promote tourism in Ouro Preto. In 1946, the son of a local resident discovered the entrance of a mine that was blocked with stones, while playing in the courtyard of his mother’s house. Convinced that her son had found the Encardideira mine, described in Carlos Góis’s book Histórias da terra mineira, Maria Bárbara de Lima decided to lighten the tunnels of the mine (of approximately 1 mile) and name it Mina do Chico Rei (Chico Rei’s Mine). Today, the mine, which includes a small restaurant, is opened to public visitation.
Over the last fifty years, several other popular and scholarly works published in Portuguese, English, and Spanish contributed to disseminate Chico’s story. Although not based on the existence of primary sources, as a memory device, the legend highlights elements that are aimed to respond to the needs of the present, to the necessity of showing that enslaved men and women resisted enslavement, not necessarily through violent means, that they were resilient, that in their homelands in Africa they carried names, had families, and were even members of the royalty.
Chico’s story brings together elements of the experiences lived by several enslaved men and women who came from Africa to work in the minas of Minas Gerais, who joined Catholic brotherhoods, and who after many years were able to purchase their own freedom. His story also helps to construct a biography of an enslaved hero in a country that despite having imported the largest number of Africans in the Americas only recently started to pay attention to its slave past and to value its African and Afro-Brazilian historical actors.
This article is an expanded version of an encyclopedia entry to be published in the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography edited by Franklin W. Knight and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016)
Most works on Chico Rei were published in Portuguese, see the references below:
Araujo, Ana Lucia. Public Memory of Slavery: Victims and Perpetrators in the South Atlantic. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2010.
Araujo, Ana Lucia. “Slavery, Royalty and Racism: Representations of Africa in Brazilian Carnaval.” Ethnologies 31, no. 2, “Figures Noires/Black Diasporas,” special issue edited by Francine Saillant and Pedro Simonard (2010): 131–167.
Ayala, Walmir. Chico Rei. Rio de Janeiro: Editôra Civilização Brasileira, 1965.
Góis, Carlos. Histórias da terra mineira. Belo Horizonte: Edição e propriedade do autor, 1914.
Kiddy, Elizabeth W. Blacks of the Rosary: Memory and History in Minas Gerais, Brazil. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.
Querino, Manoel. O colono preto como fator da civilização brasileira. Salvador: Imprensa Official do Estado, 1918.
Rezende, Angélica de. Lembrando Ouro Prêto e o Aleijadinho. Reisado, Congado, Chico Rei. Belo Horizonte: Imprensa Oficial do estado de Minas Gerais, 1965.
Silva, Rubens Alves da. “Chico Rei Congo do Brasil.” In Imaginário, cotidiano e poder: Memória afro-brasileira, edited by Vagner Gonçalves da Silva, 43-86. São Paulo: Selo Negro Edições, 2007.
Vasconcelos, Agripa. Chico Rei: romance do ciclo da escravidão nas Gerais. Belo Horizonte: Editôra Itatiaia, 1966.
Vasconcelos, Diogo Luiz de Almeida Pereira. História Antiga de Minas. Belo Horizonte: Imprensa Official do Estado de Minas Geraes, 1904.