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About the Author

Caio Cesar Esteves de Souza is a graduate student in Harvard’s Romance Languages and Literatures (Portuguese). His interests are focused on archival research, Medieval and Early Modern Literatures and Maritime Humanities. Email: caioestevesdesouza@g.harvard.edu

Where Were the Women in Colonial Brazil?

by | Oct 29, 2020

Exploratory archival research can be a solitary – not to mention thankless – task. Most of the time, we spend many hours going through very old manuscripts whose historical value we can’t even determine for sure. The goal is usually to find some sort of primary source previously unknown to other scholars that could lead either to a shift in how our fields deal with a specific matter or to a better understanding on why we do things in a certain way. That very rarely happens and, whenever it does, there is always a feeling that one could have accomplished so much more if it were part of a collective enterprise instead of an individual’s work. That is certainly how I felt after spending years researching the 18th-century Luso-Brazilian poetry in many different archives in Brazil and Portugal and finding some very interesting poems that were previously unknown. It’s always a little bittersweet. That is why I got so excited when I learned about the project Mulheres na América Portuguesa (Women in Portuguese America) and decided to write about it here.

Part of M.A.P.’s team present their project outside academia to the general public.

We all know that there were women in Colonial Brazil, but we certainly wouldn’t find many of them in traditional Brazilian history books. One problem we face is that primary sources about women living in Brazil during those 322 years are not widely known nor easily accessible. Some work has been done in order to better understand the life of women during that time, but nothing to the extent of what Mulheres na América Portuguesa intends to accomplish. Their goal is very simple: to catalogue, edit and publish in an open access platform relevant documents written by women or about women during Colonial Brazilian history. And this project has the potential to revolutionize the field.

I know I might sound too excited about that project, and I can already hear some of my fellow Brazilianists saying that this text sounds more like an advertisement than a serious discussion about its merits. It isn’t. Skepticism is always a great quality in reviewing academic achievements, and it was certainly my immediate reaction when I first heard a friend talking about M.A.P. Then I read their partial results, their history and their projected next steps. I got in touch with their coordinators and heard more about their team. And when I put all of that together, I noticed that I was looking at something very different from most academic projects I had seen before in Colonial studies in Brazil. It is a collective effort led by two female professors from the University of São Paulo (USP)—Maria Clara Paixão de Sousa (no relation) and Vanessa Martins do Monte—and a team of 25 female graduate and undergraduate students. The project combines up-to-date methods of digital humanities with the traditional rigor of manuscript studies and philology, which unfortunately is not a common combination in Brazilian academia.

A lot of that comes from the background of M.A.P.’s two coordinators. Maria Clara Paixão de Sousa is a professor of Portuguese Philology and Language at USP since 2008, and has focused her works on Historical Linguistics and Digital Humanities throughout her entire career. She also coordinates the Projeto Humanidades Digitais in her department, which is also related to M.A.P. Vanessa Martins do Monte joined the department six years later, and has focused her research on Manuscript Studies, Etymology and Women’s History. She is also the coordinator of the Núcleo de Apoio à Pesquisa em Etimologia e História da Língua Portuguesa (NEHiLP – Support Center of Research on the Etymology and History of the Portuguese Language), M.A.P.’s parent institution.

M.A.P.’s meeting for members to discuss their readings and present their individual results.

M.A.P is a work in progress, currently in a late stage of their first phase, which is centered around building a catalogue of the known texts written by or about women in Colonial Brazil. The researchers are now focusing their efforts mainly in Brazilian and Portuguese archives, but the idea is to catalogue the entirety of that corpus, wherever it may be currently archived. Since throughout Brazilian colonial history other European countries – like the Dutch and French empires – invaded and occupied temporarily some parts of the land that now constitutes Brazil, it isn’t absurd to think that part of their corpus might be located in those countries and written in languages other than Portuguese. What is really interesting in the way they are building their catalogue is that they are georeferencing their sources not by where they are currently located, but taking into account both where they were produced and the localities they refer to.

Here’s one example of one of those documents and how it is catalogued by M.A.P.: in 1592, a woman called Inês Fernandes sent a letter from Madeira Island – a Portuguese territory off the Northwestern coast of Africa – to her partner who was living in Brazil at the time. He was her cousin and had a son with her in Madeira. Then he left the island promising to come back and marry her later. Less than two years after that, not getting the authorization from Rome to marry his own cousin, he decided to get married to another woman in Brazil. Inês Fernandes, who was left behind in Madeira, writes to him not knowing about his marriage, and asks for money for her and their son who were starving on the island without any support. Her letter ended up in the hands of the Inquisition, and caused an investigation about her partner’s bigamy. He is found innocent, and is only condemned to pay the costs of that process. We don’t know what happened with Inês Fernandes and their child, but her letter was preserved in the inquisitorial process to the present day. At M.A.P.’s georeferencial catalog, that entry is found in Madeira, under the number 9, with a string that connects it to Bahia in Brazil. Currently, that manuscript is preserved in the National Archive of Torre do Tombo in Lisbon. Their choice of referencing the original route of that letter instead of locating it in Lisbon makes it easier for researchers interested in either the history of Brazil or Madeira during the 16th century to access it without having to go through a multitude of documents who have been centralized in Torre do Tombo.

It is possible to search their catalog in a few different ways. The most interesting is, in my opinion, the already mentioned georeferencial catalog (it can be found here, in Portuguese). However, the most practical way to find individual manuscripts is by either searching the name of the woman they refer to or the specific topic that relates to one’s own research through this page. Since most of the primary sources are in Portuguese, it goes without saying that a reading knowledge of the language is necessary in order to really take advantage of their results. However, M.A.P.’s commitment to making these sources known to a broader audience led the team to prepare a simplified English version of their website so international scholars can have some contact with those texts and the project itself.

M.A.P. is taking its first steps towards the project’s next phase: presenting a complete edition of all of the sources they have already catalogued. So far, their corpus is made of 150 documents, which is already very impressive, and it will certainly be expanded through time. In order to edit all of those manuscripts with philological rigor and a true commitment to the development of digital humanities in Brazil, M.A.P.’s team is taking advantage of eDictor, an open-source software developed by Maria Clara Paixão de Sousa and two colleagues – Fabio Natanael Kepler and Pablo Picasso Feliciano de Faria – a few years ago. The software makes it possible for them to present a modernized edition of a text – which is incredibly helpful to non-specialists – and yet make the original spelling of the manuscript accessible to philologists without compromising the text’s legibility. They have already uploaded a prototype of what those editions will look like once their corpus is completed, and it can be found here. In that prototype, it is possible for the reader to access the spelling of the manuscript – which has been modernized by M.A.P. – by simply passing the cursor over the edited text. It has an amazing legibility allied with great philological rigor – which is something difficult to find even in critical editions published in the traditional book format.

That is the type of project that cannot be developed by a single person. It is truly an impressive collective effort of Maria Clara Paixão de Sousa, Vanessa Martins do Monte and their 25 students. It is also not a project that should be run with such a limited budget, a fact which unfortunately has become an estabilished reality of academic life in Brazil – specially within the humanities. The fact that more than 75% of their students can’t access any source of funding for their extraordinary research is really a shame and holds back the development of a research group with promise to revolutionize both the fields of Colonial studies and Women’s studies in Brazil. That project deserves and requires more funding in order to preserve the dignity of their team of serious researchers and to provide access to different archives that require in-person exploration outside of São Paulo.


He would like to acknowledge here all of those students who dedicate themselves to their research despite the huge limitations that lack of institutional support places upon them: Aline Yone Nunes Marques da Silva, Ana Carolina Estremadoiro Prudente do Amaral, Ananda Catharine dos Santos Mota do Carmo, Andrea Cristina Natanael da Silva, Beatriz de Freitas Cardenete, Carla Angelino Di Lorenzo Midões de Mello, Daiana da Silva Teixeira, Elisa Hardt Leitão Motta, Gabriele Franco, Giovana Citrângulo, Giovanna Poloni, Laryssa Albino Bezerra Rogério de Oliveira, Maria Clara Ramos Morales Crespo, Maria Lina de Souza Jeannine Rocha, Mariana Marques da Silva, Mariana Rodrigues de Vita, Mariana Lourenço Sturzeneker, Mayara Feliciano Palma, Nicólli de Lima Garcia, Patrícia Brasil Silva, Priscila Starline Estrela Tuy Batista, Raquel de Paula Guets, Renata Morais Mesquita, and Sofia Tonoli Maniezzo Zani.

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