Inumação desumana: o enterramento dos pretos novos no Rio de Janeiro

Texto da comunicação oral feita na 9ª Conferência Internacional sobre Diáspora Africana da ASWAD, ocorrida novembro em Sevilha.


Hello! Nice to meet you! This presentation has five parts. First: where are the carioca burial grounds. Second: some discoveries about them. Third: which testimonies we already have access to. Fourth: the action of the ancient gravediggers. And fifth: how to explain their conduct.

① Rio de Janeiro was founded in fifteen-sixty-five and became the colonial capital in seventeen-sixty-three. Rio also received the Portuguese kingdom court in eighteen-o-eight and remain as the Brazilian capital until nineteen-sixty.

In the community area of Santa Rita parish existed a slave complex until eighteen-fifty.

The slave traffic indeed obeyed a method, involving sanitarian surveillance, customs house, quarantine, docks, eventual fattening houses, commercial booths, and even a specific burial ground to pretos novos (namely, newcomer slaves, especially who had died before the sale).

② Have you ever found a treasure? What would you do if this treasure was black slave bones? This happens with the couple Merced and Petrúcio Guimarães, who found the last African burial ground of Rio de Janeiro at home, in their living room. Based on the Brazilian federal law on archaeological heritage, Guimarães family has converted their house into a cultural center to celebrate the Afro-American memory. Merced likes to say that the African slave trade has constituted “a black holocaust”.

A pretos novos burial ground is different from the standard parish burial grounds because who were buried there were not creolized, but newcomers Africans.

As we have seen in the map, other places in Rio de Janeiro had served as pretos novos burial ground before Valongo: Santa Rita, São Domingos, Carioca, and Santa Casa de Misericórdia. In Santa Rita, for example, we know there are many remains. And I intend to seek for even more. In this film, you can see us working with a ground penetration radar in quest for new evidences.

③ I would like to show you two historical accounts about these places.

In 1722, Dom João V, king of Portugal, asked the governor of Rio de Janeiro to build the Santa Rita cemetery because of the bad conditions of the burials made near the Franciscan monastery. The king mentioned three problems: the little space available, the risk of hiding corpses and the unworthy manner of bury.

In 1814, after Valongo burial ground had replaced Santa Rita burial ground, the German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Freyreiss wrote about his impressions:

Near the Valongo street is the cemetery of those who escape forever to slavery. In the company of my friend dr. Schaeffer, who arrived here aboard the Russian ship Suvarow in May 1814, on a voyage around the world, I visited this sad place. At the entrance of that space, surrounded by a wall of about 50 fathoms in court, sat an old man in priest’s garments, reading a prayer book for the souls of the unfortunate who had been plucked from their homeland by soulless men, and at about twenty some of the blacks were busy covering their dead patricians with dirt, and, without bothering to make a grave, they threw only a little dirt on the corpse, and then buried another. In the middle of this space, there was a lot of land from which, here and there, the remains of bodies discovered by the rains that had carried the earth and still there were many corpses in the ground that had not been buried. Naked, they were only wrapped in a mat, tied over their heads and under their feet. Probably one buries only once a week and as the corpses easily decompose, the bad smell is unbearable. Finally, a better understanding finally arrived, burning a bunch of semi-decomposed corpses from time to time. (Viagem ao Interior do Brasil, 1906, pp. 224-225)

④ Perhaps to be a gravedigger was a bad job. Some authors, speaking about the significance of death in African culture, explain how the type of death may affect the attitude towards the corpses. As an exterior magic fact, the death may tell much about the life of the deceased. In this case, the habitual contact with the death probably has brought religious discomfort to the gravediggers.

How have the gravediggers handled with this? There was no trace of African burial tradition in the form of inhumation described by either these historical resources. So, we can speak of a lack of habits, representations, and practices. In other words: these deceased could be decently buried by their fellows but in fact, the gravediggers have played reproducing the disregard of their masters to the dead pretos novos.

This apparent contradiction shall be illuminated with the words of the Marxist English historian Edward Palmer Thompson:

Custom took effect within a context of sociological norms and tolerances. It also took effect within a workaday routine of livelihood. It was possible to acknowledge the customary rights of the poor, but place obstacles in the way of their exercise. (Customs in common, 1993:101-2)

⑤ At the same time, Valongo burial ground also confounds the researchers. In twenty years, since its discovery in 1996, the cemetery has changed from a scientific and archaeological site to a historical and protestation site, and then to an activist and sacred site.

In the first stage, the scientists were recognized as heroes; in the second, historians were called to speak inside this new VIP space; nowadays, adepts of Afro-Brazilian religions demand respect for the sacred place.

However, this manifold perspective brings to us some interesting questions about the contemporaneous fetish for the body. How could be a heavily Catholic society so negligent with the deceased? How could be the present-day secularized society so concerned about the dead?

Some concluding remarks:

First, this oblivion was collective in Rio de Janeiro: neither the white people, neither the black people had conserved these memories, even though Santa Rita is a black neighborhood. So, we must be prudent when speaking about “erasing” memory.

Second: there was really some care in Valongo burial ground. When we speak about a “black holocaust”, we may not confuse the poverty of the burials with a mass grave of a concentration camp.

Third: nevertheless, the slave-based society was truly a society of human discard and this needs to be clarified.

Fourth: we must establish some procedures to link the scientific and cultural interests with the proper respect due to our ancestors.

Thank you very much!

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