ROSA EGIPCIACA: An African Saint in Colonial Brazil
Federal University of Bahia, Brazil
Paper presented at Symposium
PROPHETS, VISIONAIRES AND THEIR PUBLICS IN THE AFRO-ATLANTIC WORLD
University of Maryland, USA, College Park,
October 8-11 1998
An African Saint in Colonial Brazil
Universidade Federal da Bahia, Brazil
Rosa was a young Negro girl from the Costa da Mina in West coast of Africa (Nigeria), belonging to the courana nation. She arrived in Rio de Janeiro aboard a slave ship in 1725 when she was six years old. Her first owner, José de Sousa Azevedo, “after deflowering and abusing her”, sold her to the Minas Gerais government when she was fourteen. In Minas, by a happy coincidence, Rosa was bought by the mother of the famous man of letters, Friar José de Santa Rita Durão, and went to live in the parish of Inficcionado, two leagues away from the town of Mariana, Capital of Minas Gerais. Like so many other slaves from one end of the Colony to the other, the Negress went on to survive by selling her body and her sexual favours to the concupiscent miners, who used gold dust to buy goods and pleasure from the few women who ventured close to the spoil heaps. This venereal trade provided the African slave with a wealth of experience and helped to rub off her rough edges, all of which was to be of great use in her topsy-turvy future.
In 1748, now almost 30 years old, after falling foul of a strange illness – which made her face swell, caused a tumour in her stomach and resulted in her having fainting fits – Rosa decided to change her life and sold what few belongings, jewellery and clothes she had, gave away the rest of her things to the poor and became a devoted churchgoer, attending the countless masses and liturgies which were celebrated in the baroque churches in the Minas region, the construction of many of which was completed in the exact same decade. It was during one of these pious peregrinations that she came across Father Francisco Gonçalves Lopes in the Chapel of São Bento, a region of Inficcionado, carrying out incredible exorcisms on some possessed souls. At that time he was priest of the parish of São Caetano, in the same District. He was so effective and accustomed to driving the devil out of the bodies of whites and Negroes alike that his nickname was “Xota-Diabos” (one who drives out devils). Awestruck by the diabolical ceremony, Rosa was possessed by seven devils. She said that she felt as if a cauldron of hot water had scalded her body and fainted, falling to the floor and wetting herself in the process, splitting her head open on the stone below the altar to São Benedito, a black Franciscan saint. A second exorcism in his parish convinced the priest that the Durão’s slave was possessed in a special way, since, when she was vexed she gave edifying sermons, always concerned that everyone present should be perfectly well behaved in the churches, forcibly removing and throwing into the street whosoever chattered or disrespected the Holy Sacrament. When she was possessed by Satan, she spoke with a deep voice, fainted and claimed to have celestial visions, having seen Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in the heavens on several occasions. She also heard several choirs of angels who taught her some prayers and even was subject to a revelation as to the whereabouts of a spring of water with miraculous powers at the foot of a mountain, where a church in honour of Saint Ann was later built. Her visionary fame spread throughout Mariana, Ouro Preto, São João del Rei, always accompanying the exorcisms of the devil exorcising priest. In São João del Rei, in the Church of the Pillar Rosa interrupted the preaching of a capuchin missionary, yelling that he was Satan himself. She was arrested and taken to the headquarters of the bishopric, in Mariana, where she was flogged so hard on the pillory that she almost died and for the rest of her life the right hand side of her body remained half paralysed. After recovering from her torture she sought out the newly arrived bishop of the Diocese, Don Frei Manoel da Cruz, who put a group of theologians in charge of finding out whether the incorrigible visionary was really possessed or merely an impostor. After a series of trials – including testing the poor tormented creature’s resistance to a lighted candle – the flame of which she withstood for five minutes under her tongue! They concluded that it was nothing more than a sham. Because of this the people began to say that she was a witch and so she fled to Rio de Janeiro, helped and protected by the inseparable Xota-Diabos, who was now over fifty years old.
Once in Rio, she continued to be possessed by the same malign spirit, albeit less intensely. Following the suggestion of one of the many fervent churchgoers who assiduously frequented Rio’s churches, Rosa revealed her tormented life and spiritual gifts to the Franciscan provincial leader, Friar Agostinho de São José, and from that date onwards, 1751, she became an assiduous frequenter of the Convent of Santo Antônio, which even today sits astride the hill overlooking the Largo da Carioca. Rosa’s mystic life made a deep impression on the Franciscan monks who witnessed her fulfilling all the pious rites in fashion in centuries gone by: long periods of fasting; self flagellation and torture, frequent communion. They referred to Rosa as the “Flower of Rio de Janeiro”. It is appropriate to point out that at that time, despite the institutional discrimination of the Negro race, subjected to slavery and the cruellest torture, the Catholic Church sought to offer models of holiness to the enormous demographic contingent represented by the Negroes and their half-caste descendants who abounded throughout the colony. It was at this time, the mid 18th century, that the Church made known throughout Christendom the cult of Saint Benedict, Santo Elesbão, Santa Efigênia, Santo Antônio de Noto (or Catigeró), all Negroes like Rosa, all examples of humbleness, resignation and holiness. Don John V, king of Portugal and Brazil, the very same, with tears in his eyes, wrote to the Brazilian clergy insisting that they did not let the slaves die without being baptised during the voyage by slave ship from Africa to Brazil, and that they undertook the rapid evangelisation of these unfortunate descendants of the Prestes João. Thus it was that a future saint happened upon this “aggiornamento” of the Church – and this was undoubtedly just what the Franciscans wanted. Furthermore, having a saint on ones doorstep, created a tradition, resulted in pilgrimages and hefty donations for the convent, thereby being a guarantee of the maintenance of the candles on the altars and other costs associated with liturgical actions.
After having a supernatural vision, the courana Negress changed her name to Rosa Maria Egipcíaca da Vera Cruz. Shortly after returning to Rio, Our Lady obliged Rosa to learn to read and write, which task she accomplished satisfactorily, thus becoming the first African known to date in Brazilian history to have mastered these secrets of the alphabet. Egipcíaca was a 6th century Coptic former prostitute who, after a divine revelation, converted to Christianity and became a hermit in the Palestinian desert. By adopting the same name, our former courana prostitute sought to identify her life with that of the saint from centuries earlier.
Also as a result of supernatural inspiration, Rosa Egipcíaca decided to set up a retreat for worldly women who wished to exchange the love of men for that of the Divine Spouse. With the aid of a sizeable donation received from a priest in Minas Gerais, who was a devotee and admirer of the virtues of the former slave, together with permission received from Bishop Don Antônio do Desterro, the foundation stone of the Retreat of Nossa Senhora do Parto was laid in 1754, taking in a small chapel not far from the Largo da Carioca, on a site occupied today by the Rua da Assembléia. Once the Retreat was built, it provided shelter for around twenty damsels and former ladies of the night, twelve or so of whom were Negresses or mulattos. They lived off donations from the faithful or from the families of the recluses and followed the routine common to such lay religious institutions (without perpetual vows), including the collective recital of the Office of Our Lady and other liturgies, as well as the work involved in the upkeep of the pious house and other common activities. Amongst the recluses were three daughters of one of Rosa’s former owners, a friend of Xota-Diabos.
Mother Rosa – as dozens of her devotees now called her – refined her visions, writing them down or dictating them for her scribes to note down everything that she saw and heard, whether it was revealed by the saints, the Virgin Mary or whether it came from the mouth of God himself. Ever encouraged and venerated by Father Francisco Gonçalves Lopes and her monk confessor, the courana Negress wrote more than 250 pages of the book entitled “Sacred Theology of the Love of the God of Light Shining in the Pilgrim Souls”, in which she stated that the Boy Jesus came every day to feed on her breast and, grateful, combed her woolly hair; that Our Lord exchanged his heart for hers, and that she carried the Blessed Jesus in her bosom; that she had died and risen from the dead; that Our Lady was the mother of Mercy and that she, Rosa, had received from God the title and duty of being the Mother of Justice, so that the future of the souls that went to heaven or hell depended on her judgement; that she herself was the spouse of the Holy Trinity, the new Redeemer of the world.
Such religious megalomania was encouraged by the priest Xota-Diabos, who had a copper image made in which Rosa posed as if she were a saint, wearing a Franciscan habit, with five shields, a cord and rosary beads at one side, treading on some devils and saving a soul from purgatory, whilst a slender Saint Michael crowned her with a splendid wreath. As they recited Our Lady’s Litany, everybody bowed reverently towards Rosa, who was praised by the priest – and who had said one more than one occasion that “Rosa left Santa Tereza Dávila leagues behind” and that that Celebrity of the Church was no more than an “errand girl” to the black African.
Many of the faithful frequented Rosa’s Retreat, some to hear her advice, others in search of the Mistress’s “relics”: a sort of biscuit made from flour and Rosa’s saliva, kept especially for this purpose. Prophesying that Rio de Janeiro would be flooded and destroyed in the same way as Lisbon after the terrible earthquake of 1755, Mother Rosa convinced dozens of families to seek refuge in the Retreat, ensuring them that only they would survive the flood and that this new Noah’s Ark would go out into the ocean to encounter King Sebastian – who went missing more than two centuries earlier in the Moroccan sand banks -, and who it appeared had chosen Rosa to be his wife.
It was not so much her unfulfilled prophesies, nor her ecstasies or epileptic revelations which lead to her downfall: she incurred the wrath of the Rio clergy by railing against some priests who set a bad example by talking in church during a ceremony, and she was denounced to the Bishop in particular after forcibly removing from the church of Santo Antônio a lady from the high society whose behaviour was also not up to expectations. Rosa was arrested and put into the city’s dungeon, where more than 20 witnesses were called to inform against the eccentricities of the black devotee: so it was that all her religious follies were revealed, such as claiming to be the Mother of God, Redeemer of the universe, superior to Santa Tereza, an object of idolatry in her retreat. She and father Xota-Diabos were sent to Lisbon and heard by the Holy Office in 1763. After only a few sessions of the inquiry, the priest declared that he had been taken in by the Negress’s falseness, alleging that he was not well versed in theology and that he believed in the good opinion that the provincial leader of the Franciscans had of her. He asked to be forgiven for his naivety and excessive credulity: his punishment was to be banished for five years to the far south of the Algarve, as well as no longer being allowed to confess or exorcise. As for Rosa, she gave a show of authenticity, insisting during many of the sessions of the hearing that she had never lied, nor invented anything: all the visions, revelations and ecstasies were real. Without a doubt, she believed that she was predestined and that God in his mercy had chosen her to reveal his intentions to the world. Whereas the inquisitors insisted that she tell the truth, that it was all a pack of lies intended to draw attention upon herself, Rosa insisted upon the opposite: “I saw and heard it all.”
The final session of questions put to the African clairvoyant occurred on the 4th of June, 1765: on that day she related one of her visions. When she was about to take communion she had heard a supernatural voice which said to her: “Thou shalt be the queen bee gathered up into the hive of love. Thou shalt make the sweet honeycomb and place it on the table of the celestial feasts, and it shall be the sustenance and nourishment of His guests.”
From then on, without explanation, the records are interrupted. Of the more than one thousand records relating to witches, sodomites, bigamists and blasphemers that I have had the opportunity to consult in the Torre do Tombo in Lisbon, I cannot recall any other incomplete record. The inquisitors were particularly fastidious about noting down the outcome of the judgement: or the punishment to which the accused was sentenced, or whether they died of an illness in prison, or committed suicide, or were sent to be burnt at the stake or to rot in exile. Inexplicably, the record of Rosa’s case ends with the inquisitors saying: “As it was late in the day no more questions were put to her, and after these notes were read, heard and understood by her, she said that they were the truth and signed them together with the Lord Inquisitor, after which she was sent to prison.”
There are two hypotheses: either Rosa, former Mother Rosa Maria Egipcíaca da Vera Cruz, died unknown in the inquisitorial prison, whether from a natural illness or from old age, and the scribe or doctor of the Holy Office, due to her insignificance, forgot to record her death, or, who knows, maybe the Boy Jesus himself took it upon himself to set free his old wet nurse, grateful and nostalgic for the welcoming lap of the old black woman…
Based on the life of this former African slave, some crucial aspects of Brazilian colonial society are worthy of greater reflection, or even revision. For example, in a context where to be Negro was the same as being a slave, and where the Africans were scorned as being an inferior, crude race, of “impure blood”, how should we explain the veneration and even idolatry with which countless whites – including her former owners and members of the clergy – treated the Negress Rosa? Why are some visionaries, who revealed the same hallucinations and spiritual exercises practised by Rosa, to be found on today’s altars, whilst the “Flower of Rio de Janeiro” was discredited by the ecclesiastical hierarchy and relegated to oblivion?
Such was, in short, the amazing life of the Negro girl from Africa, who came aboard a slave ship and landed in Rio de Janeiro in 1725. Her record, – which bears the number 9065 and is kept in the National Archive of Torre do Tombo (Lisbon) – remained totally unheard of until 1983, when we were fortunate enough to discover it.
Luiz Mott, Ph.D. in Anthropology, is full professor of the Department of Anthropology of the Federal University of Bahia, Brazil, author of the book Rosa Egipcíaca: Uma Santa Africana no Brasil. Rio de Janeiro, Editora Bertrand, 1993, 750 pages. <email@example.com> – Caixa Postal 2552, Salvador, Bahia, Brasil.