Chica da Silva: ‘The Slave Who Became Queen’

Oct 13, 2015
7:54 pm
Depiction of Chica da Silva, Brazilian slave turned socialite (moire g./Flickr)

Depiction of Chica da Silva, Brazilian slave turned socialite (moire g./Flickr)

Very little is known about Chica da Silva; the rest is shrouded in myth. We know she was born a slave in present-day Belo Horizonte in the early 1730s, but that by the time she died 1796, she had joined the upper crust of Brazil’s diamond coast. We know that her mother had also been a slave, from the Gulf of Guinea, but that Chica’s sons would be educated in Portugal’s top schools and receive titles of nobility. We know that her father had been a slave owner and captain-major in the Portuguese army, but that for much of her life, she carried on a very public romance with João Fernandes de Oliveira, who operated several diamond mines and was one of the richest men in Brazil.

In fact, for over 15 years the lovers lived together and had 13 children, though they never married. After Fernandes bought Chica from her second master and freed her, the two moved into a palatial home at Praça Lobo de Mesquita 266 in the town of Diamantina (today a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Ultimately the relationship ended when Fernandes returned to Portugal in 1770 to attend to financial matters; he died in Lisboa nine years later.

Chica continued her gilded lifestyle back in Brazil, as Fernandes had given her all of his Brazilian assets including his slaves. She became a member of several religious societies, two of which were exclusively for whites. Her daughters, who stayed with her while her sons left for Portugal, would receive the kind of education expected of aristocratic débutantes of any color. When Chica died in 1796, she was buried in the town’s most prestigious church.

These facts make up the history of Chica da Silva, and although falsehoods normally have no place in a historical profile, it’s important to mention the myth overshadowing Chica’s life in order to understand her legacy. It’s said, for example, that when an all-white church didn’t let Chica join its congregation, dom Fernandes had a chapel built attached to their home for Chica’s personal use. Since Chica had never seen the ocean, Fernandes is also rumored to have ordered the creation of an artificial lake, complete with a 10-person sailboat for those invited to Chica’s extravagant parties. Due to the high social status she attained during her lifetime, as well as the myths that arose about her in the years following her death, Chica is known by many today as “the slave who became a queen.”

Remembering Chica da Silva — and the many ways in which our African ancestors gained agency, even under slavery — is how we celebrate our heritage.