Balangandas: the ancient jewelry worn by enslaved African women to symbolize their freedom

Stephen Nartey November 14, 2022
Photo via ebay

Salvador is considered a city with rich history when Brazil’s role in the transatlantic slave trade is talked about. The culture of wearing balangandas, jewelry made of gold and silver, by enslaved African women became popular in Salvador during the 17th century, according to the Museum of Ethnography.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was considered taboo for enslaved women to wear decorative clothing and jewelry. As a form of protest and a demonstration of their freedom, enslaved African women who gained their freedom started wearing the balangandas as a sign of their status, according to Sheila Cunha, a seasoned artisan in goldsmiths. 

For centuries these women made this jewelry and wore them to make a cultural statement. Those who did not have gold and silver readily in their possession also wore wooden pendants that carried their own message. 

Freedom was attained by these enslaved women at great cost and enormous work, and in their own way of exhibiting, they invested it in the balangandas. It was also considered a form of payment from slaveholders to enslaved people they favored. 

Another reason the balangandas were of immense importance to them was that they were a way of keeping their wealth close to them and storing value. They, therefore, wore it on their arms, around their waist and on their necks. They are believed to hold some spiritual powers and are therefore worn as amulets by some women. 

The typical balangandas have a distinct look with a silver ring-like structure. The jewelry piece has two parrots sitting on top of the fruit-like metals and connected leaves made of sheet silver. They were made by blacksmiths, according to Michael Blackman, gallery founder and art historian. 

Art historians and some scholars are of the view that the balangandas are among the first authentic Brazilian jewelry of African descent. Each element which makes up the jewelry means one thing or the other. The fig and clover stand for good luck and the fruit represents abundance as well as the gods of African origin. 

In all the different meanings assigned to balangandas, it is the personality and influence the jewelry item weaves around the enslaved African woman when she wears it that is significant. Each balanganda was distinct and made to reflect the taste and meanings the enslaved African woman wanted to portray. There were others who crafted the balangandas as charms with the sole objective to attract prosperity, good health or fortune. 

Another characteristic of the balanganda is the thick chain belts it comes with. The enslaved African women wore it around their waists during ceremonies and string it to the wrist. The jewelry is usually hung on door posts or placed on a high pole when it is not being worn, as reported by House of Good Fortune. 

There is also a subtle meaning of appreciation for some people for wearing the balangandas. In the event of misfortune or an accident, the jewelry is crafted in recognition of the ill-fated incident one gained victory over.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: November 14, 2022


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