Colonial Hunts: South America
excerpt from Secret History of the Witches, © 2000 Max Dashu
Subjected to killing conditions in American slave colonies, Africans faced religious and cultural persecution as well. The Inquisition used charges of sorcery and devil-worship to imprison Afro-Caribbeans, among them enslaved Blacks from the mines of Saragossa in Antioquía, Colombia. [Lea] Even before the first auto da fe at Cartagena, a black named Juan Lorenzo was tried as a "sorcerer "; he put an end to his torture by hanging himself in his cell, or so it was claimed. [Contramaestre, 25]
Records show that the Inquisition sentenced Afro-Caribbean women to the stake and other penalties. In 1632 Elena de Vitoria and other Africans were victimized by a witch craze in Cartagena, Colombia. One of them, Paula de Equiluz, escaped burning because of her great skill in medicine and healing. Her death sentence was revoked and she was brought out to do public penance in an auto-da-fé of March 25, 1638. She received 200 lashes-the same penalty imposed on pagans and sorcerers in early medieval Europe-and a sentence of life in prison. Her medical skills were so great that she ended up only serving six years.
It seems that she enjoyed a high reputation as a physician and was allowed to leave the prison in the practice of her profession, numbering among her patients even the Inquisitors and the bishop, Cristóbal de Lazárraga... she earned much money and was charitable in relieving the necessities of her fellow prisoners. [Lea, Inq in the Spanish Dependencies, 465]
In an auto-da-fé on March 16, 1622, we find "four negro witches reconciled [recanted], two negro sorceresses punished" in the Cartagena area. In 1632, more women were tortured, and twenty-one of them were flogged and exhibited to the public in a 1634 auto-da-fé. Ana de Avila, a mestiza widow, escaped the whipping but she had already been severely tortured, and was fined a whopping 1000 pesos. Ana Beltrán had been tortured to death and so could not appear at the public ceremony, but the judges read out a sentence of absolution for her. [Lea 464-5]
Another African named Juan was accused of being "a great bozabide, sorcerer and killer with herbs and taught the Indians much witchcraft..." The mayor, who belonged to an Inquisitorial brotherhood, arrested this man and had him brutally whipped. He had Juan stripped so he could see his wounds and "laughed a lot at the lashes and punishment." Juan died of this torture.
The colonials then swore out an elaborate document insisting that there had not been "even a small sign of injury" from the flogging-only that it had "taken the hair off his head"-so it could not have caused his death. The officials claimed instead that the prisoner had somehow gotten hold of some herbs and killed himself "in despair over his imprisonment." [Contra, 235-36] Such cases replicate the European pattern of killing witches in custody, right down to the insinuations that the prisoners were diabolically resistant to physical abuse by their captors, or that "devils" influenced them to commit suicide.
In El Tocuyo, Venezuela, the Church tried Francisco, an African "herbalist or sorcerer," for magical curing. Witnesses testified that he gazed into a water basin to see the causes and outcome of illness. Many trials at Merida show a strong African religious presence, often mixed with indigenous and catholic ritual, but sometimes nearly undiluted.
The free black Jose Francisco de Guzman testified "that he learned to cure from his fathers in the medicine of his homeland [Guinea, or Africa], just as the Spanish all learn medicine." José used bells, cañutos, cachos, totumas, rather than the Indian ritual implements. However, he staged theatrical accusations of an Indian woman as a "mohan witch" and enlisted church officials to get her arrested. Both were held for questioning; the trial's outcome is not recorded. [Contra, 27, 33, 223-30]
Persecution of African rites continued through the 18th century. In 1746 the Inquisition of El Tocuyo arrested a freed black elder named Francisco Rumbos on charges of "idolatry." An Indian woman told a priest that Rumbos presided over offerings and ceremonies in the dark to summon spirits of the living and the dead. The celebrants, fearing interference from the official clergy, called up the double of a local priest and demanded an answer: "Is Your Honor against us?" (It turned out that he was, since he became the principal witness against them before the Inquisition.) After the ritual, everyone ate and then went to sleep. [Contra, 239-40]
Many cultures contributed to the mix in colonial Brazil: West African, Tupí and other Indian nations, Jewish and Moorish as well as catholic Portuguese. Many in this last category had been exiled to Brazil for practicing witchcraft or other heresies. They added pagan European customs (such as sieve-divination) to the blend. A sizeable number of these "old christians" were incompletely christianized. They did not know catholic doctrine, such as what the trinity was, or even the basic prayers. Often they were skeptics who scoffed at church dogma. Or, they punished statues of the saints, Virgin, or Jesus when bad things happened to them. Brazilians performed Jewish and Moorish and gypsy dances. The authorities complained that they danced and formed conga lines during religious celebrations. [de Mello, 96-9]
CALUNDUREIRAS: AFRICAN PRIESTESSES
Inquisitorial visitations began in the late 1500s. Many muslim and jewish "new Christians" were forced to appear before the inquisitorial tribunal. [de Mello, 101ff] A gypsy woman was interrogated for denying that there was a day of judgment.  Brazilians "lived in panic of inquisitorial inquests." [Mello, 296; the areas most prosecuted were "always those of greatest prosperity." [Anita Novinsky, in Mello, 289] From 1592 to 1595 there were ten autos da fe in Pernambuco and Bahia. The prisoners were whipped bloody and humiliated in the streets of Lisbon. Some got five years in the galleys. 
The famous witch Maria Gonçalves was tried in 1591. She had defied institutional church authority, saying that "if the bishop had a miter, she also had a miter, and if the bishop preached from the pulpit she also preached from the cadeira...," the great chair from which priestesses presided over ceremonies. Gonçalves was commonly known as Arde-lhe-o-rabo, "Burn-tail." Much of her practice concerned sexual matters such as impotence and sterility. [Freyre, 332, TO] She made powders from herbs she gathered in the forest. She was accused of feeding the devil from a wound in her foot. Violante Careira, who denounced her to the Inquisition, was herself soon arrested as a witch after being reported by an ex-lover. [Mello, 102, 121, 300, 239]
The African presence was powerful in Brazil. Captives were brought there in such numbers that communities formed according to African nationality: Yoruba, Nagôs, Gêges, Malês and others. [Mello, 94] A large contingent of Angolans evolved the fusion of African religion, chant, dance and martial arts that we know as capoeira, the "game of Angola." The African peoples syncretized their home traditions with a catholic overlay-they favored Our Lady of the Rosary and Santo Antonio-renaming Dahomeyan or Guinean deities as catholic saints. And they founded religious communities which performed the sacraments of Africa, giving rise to the modern religions of Candomblé, Lucumí, Vodun, Santería and Nyabingi.
People invoked the ancestors with the drums, singing and dancing in ceremonies called calundus. The ancestors appeared to speak, and heal, and warn and protect their enslaved kindred. An account from 1740 tells of leaping, dynamic dances in which people cried out and fell as if dead. After lying entranced and motionless, they rose and spoke of what the ancestors had told them or shown them. [de Mello, 263-4]
A record of 1734 says that Violante Coutinho "danced and did calundures" to the music of drums in her house. The same year an Angolan woman was accused of invoking demons in her calundus at Sabará. Visiting a plantation in 1728, Marques Pereira couldn't sleep at night because the drums and percussion was so loud. His host explained that the blacks brought these divinatory rituals from their lands in Africa. Some slaveholders allowed these gatherings, but the church urged them to crack down. [de Mello, 265-66]
In the 1600s, when Indian nations were still numerous and breakaway African quilombos forged independent forest communities, there were limits on how much cultural repression the settler state could impose. In the 1700s the colonial church and state made a more concerted effort to suppress African religions, even though they had assimilated catholic elements. The Inquisition arrested and tried a large number of African calundeiros. [de Mello, 322]
In Paracatu, the Africans celebrated the acotundá dance, or Tunda. In the center of the room they set an image of a black god who had come "from the land of Coura" to make miracles in Paracatú. Worshippers built an altar around him, placing jars of water, cooked and raw herbs and other offerings. They sang in Courá, a language of the Sudan, and performed divinations. Caetana, a Black priestess from Minas, "said she was god, who made heaven and earth, the waters and stones." Colonial soldiers took them prisoner in 1747. [Mello, 268-9]
The calundureira Luzia Pinta presided over divinatory dances, sitting on her high cadeira like a throne, dressed in Angolan garb and feathered headdress. Unmarried, she was about 50, tall and heavy, with tribal marks on her cheeks. As two Angolan women sang and drummers played for hours, she danced. Luzia entered trance with great trembling, and as the "winds" entered her ears, she prophesied and answered questions. She laid people on the ground and leaped over them several times to cure them. Sometimes she carried a dagger in her hand and prescribed forest leaves to the sick. She untied a belt and whirled it in the air, gave emetic drinks to get rid of sorceries.
Luzia told one slavemaster that the reason his slave had stolen some money from him was that he was sleeping with her and not giving anything to her.  Several people denounced the Angolan priestess to the Inquisition. They arrested her in 1742 and sent her to Lisbon, where the inquisitors locked her down in the "secret cells" as a hard case. They tortured her as she called on Santo Antonio, trying to make her confess to a pact with the devil. Luzia Pinta had to appear in an auto-da-fe and was banished for 4 years. [Mello, 352-7]
In 1753 we read that Maria Canga danced until a "wind" entered her head, successfully divining a way to get gold. A slave prosecuted as a "sorcerer" in 1756 kept an altar to his African god in the roof of his house, made offerings to it, and held calundus there. The black leader Domingos Calandureiro hosted gatherings of Africans who danced and drummed in his house. He was arrested in 1769 for the ceremonies and for curing with "witchcraft." [Mello, 265-6]
The African institution of the akpalô -- old women storytellers-- survived in Brazil. The akpalô "would go from plantation to plantation telling stories to other black women." They earned a living through this profession. [Freyre, 342] The syncretistic "Mandinga bags," became popular among all classes and ethnic groups. Worn mostly by men, these amulet pouches probably originated from the Sahelian custom of wearing protective writings, often Koranic verses. African-Brazilians assimilated catholic saints and symbols into their pouches, while still including talsimans such as small bones, roots and pedras de ara. [Mello, 210]
The enslaved Jose Francisco Pereira was well known among Lisbon's Africans as a mandinguero. He was arrested in 1730 for making and wearing bolsas de mandinga. He told the inquisitor that he used them with the understanding that they were "a thing of God." The inquisitor countered with a comment that reveals much about the racist attitudes of the colonial church: "How could he understand that the mandinga was a thing of God if he saw that only the blacks used it?" [Mello, 321]
In 1750 the African Mateus Pereira Machado was arrested in Bahia for having bolsas de mandinga. Three years later the Inquisition deported him to its Portuguese prisons, where he landed in the secret dungeons [carceres de secreto]. After the great 1755 earthquake liberated Machado from prison, he supported himself rebuilding the streets of Lisbon. After the Inquisitorial prisons were repaired, he was imprisoned for seven years. Conditions were so terrible, he feared he would go mad. [Mello, 328] In fact some prisoners were driven insane. One man, no more than skin and bones, lost his mind. As he approached death, his jailors dumped him at a hospital, to die in anonymity. Death in the inquisitorial prisons was not unusual. Conditions in the dungeons were abysmal. Released prisoners could barely be recognized by those who knew them. [Mello, 329]
The count of Povolide reported outdoor ceremonies of Africans along the Mina coast in 1780. De Mello identifies them as precursors of candomblé meetings, with images on an altar, offerings of chickens' blood, live goats and bolos de milho. "Povolide saw the event as a sabbat, trying to frame it as witchcraft was in Portugal." [Mello, 291]
The Inquisition took exactly this approach of interpreting African religious gatherings as diabolist cabals. They accused the slave Manuel de Piedade of attending sabbats, of giving blood to the demon as a brown goat and cat. He was tortured several times until a "confession" was obtained, then sentenced to be lashed until the blood flowed, followed by prison and perpetual penitential dress. [315-6]
Yet again, torture was used to get the desired confession of painful and pleasureless sex with the devil. As in Europe, the monks made their African prisoners recite detailed accounts of being sodomized by the devil's cold member, painfully raped so that the blood flowed, on and on: "... the inquisitor wanted to know more every time, demanding details..." [Mello, 319-20; she compares this enslaved man's ordeal with that of "the Galician witch La Solina" who was forced to recount anal rape by the devil.]
Inquisitorial trials of Africans targeted them not only for practicing their religion as a group, but for individual acts of resistance. Enslaved people resorted to spiritual self-defense against the endemic violence against them. They buried bundles under thresholds where the masters would walk over them, or put things in their food and drink. The enslaved Josefa put water she had used to wash between her legs in the masters' food. Joana put a piece of cipo picão root under her tongue when she had to talk to the mistress, to protect herself.  In Minas many slaves took scrapings from the soles of masters' shoes to prevent being beaten. The scrapings also figured in a mixture buried under the master's doorway to make him sell someone away. [Mello, 206-9] Resistance was also practiced collectively, most often in religious contexts. The African Antonia Luzia called together "black and brown women to adore dances" and sought the ancestors' help in "dominating the masters' wills." 
A cleric writing to the Inquistor of Lisbon declared that in the colonies, many "deceivers" claimed to be witches, "usually Blacks and Indians." He advised that they should be flogged, for otherwise they would continue practicing. [Mello, 321] Fearing that their captives used self-protective or retaliatory magic, slavemasters often tortured people they suspected of casting spells over them. The slave Joana was accused of bewitching an Indian slave allied with the slaveholders, and ultimately blamed for the death of her mistress. They tortured and beat her, then turned her over to the Inquisition. [Mello, 208-10]
The case of Luzia da Silva Soares shows the brutal atrocities slaveholders committed in the belief--or the excuse --that they were being sorcerized. Senhora Carvalhos went to Luzia's cabin to punish her, but said that a sudden pain in her arm prevented her from opening the door. After that, she got terrible headaches whenever she saw Luzia-who caused them, she claimed, by boiling herbs-and her arm hurt when she had Luzia punished. Luzia later explained that the mistress hated her because she suspected her husband of having sex with her. The slave Francisco, who the Carvalhos consulted about the mistress's illness, told them Luzia had bewitched her. Luzia said that he betrayed her to the masters out of spite, because she refused to have sex with him. Francisco told them that only Luzia could lift the spell. Her protestations and denials were useless.
Senhora Carvalho's father and husband tortured Luzia terribly, accusing her of a pact with the devil. They fired huge irons to red-hot incandescence, stripped their captive and burned her flesh, leaving wounds everywhere. Luzia's "confession" was no help to her. Since the mistress had not improved, the Carvalhos men resumed the torture. They pierced her tongue with an needle, tied her to a ladder and put fire to her feet. Nearly unconscious, Luzia yielded up the confession of diabolical pact they demanded.
No matter: with implacable hatred, they ripped her head with a thin cord, put thorns under her nails, broke and dislocated her bones, poured boiling wax on her genitals, and gouged out one of her eyes with a sharpened stick. They exacted more confessions: of putting roots and white powders around the house, burying sorcerous boxes, killing the mistress' daughter with magic. Still unsated, the masters had Luzia severely flogged, then tied to the ground where flies and insects swarmed over her wounds.
Luzia da Silva would have died if other slaves had not come and washed her wounds, a succor that risked castigation, and endured it, for compassion's sake. Her health destroyed for life, Luzia survived in a disabled state. The Carvalhos turned her over to the Inquisition with their accusations of sorcery and devil-pact. Even the inquisitors were horrified at how the Carvalhos had mutilated Luzia, and released her. [Mello, 345-52] Yet such torture by slave-holders was not unusual: other sources mention eyes gouged out, teeth kicked in, faces burned and breasts cut off. [Freyre, 351]
Violations of this degree were not extraordinary in Brazil, or in any of the American slave states. It was against this background that the prophetess Kimpa Vita exhorted Angolans not to venerate the cross "because it was the instrument of Christ's death," an emblem of oppression and torture. These African christians became known as the Antoniados. [Mello, 114]
INDIGENOUS TRADITIONS AND INFLUENCES
The native Brazilian cultures became the most obscured. The voices of the Tupí and Tapajós and Gê were drowned out in the furious slaughter and land seizures of the 1500s and every century that followed. The colonials refer to catimbos, indigenous gatherings where people danced, singing and shaking the sacred rattles. An account from Grão-Pará around 1765 refers to people speaking with souls during night rituals of this kind. [de Mello, 271]
Angela Micaela of Marajo island had mysterious visitors who appeared by night to speak with her from a tree [find]. She said that the christian god only had to do with the dead, not the living. It would be better to adore the sun, or moon, or Time, "because only they should be adored as lords of the living." [de Mello, 134]
Native Brazilian languages, ceremonial, herbalism and healing had immeasurable impact on the meld of cultures that emerged in the 1600s and 1700s. The Tupinamba, with their incomparable knowledge of the medicinal rainforest plants, were known as great healers. The Tupinamba pajés "blow on the painful spot, sucking and spitting out the evil, and infusing its cure." [Mello, 168]
Most Brazilian curandeiros (healers) were African, Indian and mestizos. Africans contribued their own extensive knowledge and shamanic traditions to the mix. Wearing feather headdresses, they sang at the feet of the sick person, shaking rattles. As the curandeiro entered trance, the roof shook, and a voice answered questions. [Mello, 166, 271] Most accounts assume that these rituals were based on fraud, but overlook the probability that people expected these voices on the roof to belong to participants in the ritual, but inspired by the deities invoked.
The Indian healer Antonio gave the sick Antonia Jeronima a brew of grated barks and tree roots to drink. He asked for lights out to consult his pajés about what was wrong with her. He started singing in his language. When he stopped, a violent wind was heard shaking the the roof of the house. A voice greeted the participants and asked the woman how she was. This voice assured her that god would heal her through Antonio. [Mello, 270]
In the mid-1700s, the Angolan calundureira Luzia Pinta found out what ailed sick people by sniffing and blowing on them. The enslaved Bernardo Pereira Brasil cured by sucking things from patients' bodies and spitting them out. The Church ordered him flogged with 60 lashes in the main street. The slave José healed many people by sucking and smudging with herbs while saying unknown words. Leonor Francisca practiced Brazilian healing methods in Lisbon, sucking harmful substances from her patients' heads and toes. [Mello, 169-70]
Many healing rituals were described as expulsions of sorceries. The Afro-Brazilian healer Domingos João used powders, had people bury roots under their doorway, gave drinks of chopped herbs that caused them to throw up impurities. The enslaved curandeiro João worked with water, herbs, and a stone from a fish head, and performed a ritual binding black and white cords around the sickbed. Domingos Alvares healed numerous diseases that doctors had no effect on: paralysis, coughs, cankers on the cheek. [Mello, 177]
In Minas in 1763, the free black Domingos Marinho told authorities that he went to the curandeira Maria Cardosa for treatment of various illnesses. She and her 16-year-old godson Antonio said prayers over him "in their tongue" and ran a stone along his body, then a razor fastened to a ball of yarn. [Mello, 71] Inquisitors accused the Indian Domingas Gomes de Ressureicão of dealing with the devil. She cured trembling with white, red, and black roses and prayer. They ridiculed Gomes' healing methods and forced her to forswear them. 
The Portuguese Ludovina Ferreira learned to do magical cures from the Indians. She was apprenticed to the Indian healer Antonio around 1735. Ludovina is described chanting songs in a native language and blowing smoke on a patient from an herbal cigar. The patient got up completely recovered. [Mello, 270] Another European, Maria Joana, learned prayers from the Indians, sometimes adapting Portuguese formulas to them. The mulata Luzia Sebastiana taught her an Indian chant with blowing and spitting, and charms invoking the jaboti and the gaivota. [Mello, 236-7] Maria Joana also learned love magic: how to make a rinse with the supora-mirim herb, then repeat a charm at a crossroads at midnight, and how to invoke a certain insect and smoke her genitals with its resin. She used leaves of the caãxixo tree and the urubu giriá to attract men, mixing them in with tobacco she gave them. This witchcraft served her well; when the man she lived with brought another woman into the house as his lover, she gave him a drink that put a stop to it. [bicho, Mello, 236-8]
Isabel Maria de Oliveira put perfumed roots in her intended's clothes and chewed alcaçuz roots to fill him with passion. Florencia de Bomsucesso took carvões to crossroads and threw them on the road, invoking the spirits to make man come to her door. The enslaved Marcelina Maria cooked an egg and slept with it between her legs, then served it to the man she wanted. Another spell called for the woman to wet a finger with her sexual juices and make crosses over her lover's eyes so he would not leave her. [Mello, 239-40]
This female witchcraft thrived among poor women, prostitutes, and women of all races. The inquisitors' attempts to stamp it out were in vain. Maria Barbosa gave her husband a brew that made him sleep for three days straight. She lived the life of a libertine, bringing her lovers around in front of her husband and eventually throwing him out of the house. Other witches and wantons moved in.
Maria Barbosa had already been exiled to Angola for witchcraft. In 1610 she was arrested again in Bahia on charges of witchcraft and having "destroyed many men." Her banishment did not go into immediate effect because Maria had powerful men on her side. (She had once accurately predicted the future for the governor of Angola.) Maria ended up in the inquisitorial prison. She was famous among the prisoners for her sorceries, her powders and herbs. An African sorcerer came to her cell to supply her with herbs. She was sent to Lisbon for trial but her ship was captured by pirates. She ended up in Gibraltar and eventually went through an auto da fe in Lisbon. [Mello, 335-8, 189, 196]
A new Afro-Brazilian religion, the ancestor of Candomblé and Umbanda, arose during these centuries. Temple communities headed by babalawos and maes de santo ("mothers of the holy") created sanctuary in the midst of slavery and dispossession, keeping alive the gods of Dahomey, and with them, hope and strength.
Historians have generally ignored the colonial persecutions of Indian and African priest/esses and healers. Their numbers exceed those of the Salem hunts, but are eclipsed by them in the popular mind. South American witch persecutions were imposed on populations with living traditions of priestesshood. Unlike the New England "witches," these women really did practice shamanic arts and religious traditions. They belonged to a culture of resistance that defied hierarchies imposed by their oppressors.
Copyright 2000 Max Dashu
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