Compadrio: How Afro-Brazilian Slaves Married Under Pretext of Baptism

Stephen Nartey September 16, 2022
Marriage ceremony in Brazil/Photo credit: slavery images

Compadrio, the culture where the enslaved choose free godparents in Brazil became one of the vehicles they used to strengthen their social bond and consolidate relationship with one another.

They essentially found purpose for their lives and sense of belonging in the catholic norm of Compadrio.

Studies reveal that between 1780 and 1850, no less than 5,074 slaves were baptized in the church of Rio Grande with several enslaved from neighbouring villages assigned to a godparent.

Due to the anonymity the culture of Compadrio offered the slaves, they took advantage of it to have parish priests officiate their marriages.

Marriages on plantations were frowned upon because it was difficult to separate a slave from their family and it sparked rebellion in some respect.

In his book ‘slavery and god parentage in the in an Atlantic port city’, Marcelo Santos Matheus, observed that the parish priests provided a cover for the slaves in how the details of their record were captured after baptism.

According to him, there was celebration among the slaves after baptism, the enslaved capitalized on that opportunity to build relationships.

The Compadrio, according to researchers Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz, became a platform where slaves connected with others from different plantations and strengthened their bonds.

The baptism also provided the slave with some form of protection as they impress to have slave masters in some instances as their biological or spiritual fathers.

Researcher Jose Goes observed that the baptism was the only instrument for the slaves to build their new identity and sense of comfort because they were not allowed to participate in other Christian ceremonies.

The Compadrio became a social leveler in the perspective of the enslaved because it eliminated the barrier that existed between the free community of colour and the slaves.

The Compadrio, according to Marcelo, made the slaves a part of the larger family system the catholic order proscribed.

He added that over time, more slaves embraced the baptism because it was not just another protocol, because it held a significant potential of elevating social bonds and relationships among slaves in various plantations.

At a point in time, there were attempts to limit the opportunities of participating in this exercise because of the potential of breeding conflict and sparking the desire for freedom.

But, in the catholic setting in Brazil, it was expedient for slave masters to provide those under their household an opportunity to be baptized.

Ana Maria Lugao Rios, in his paper ‘Compadrio Among Slaves in Nineteenth-Century Brazil’ observed that on small plantations, Compadrio was given capital by the slaves.

The slaves tended to choose free godparents at while whereas on larger plantations they picked their slave masters as godparents.

She said with time slaves families tried to vary their choice of godparents to enable them marry and foster certain links.

Ana said these choices remained unaltered under the studies she conducted. She however pointed out that an important change occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century when a significant portion of slaves chose Catholic saints as godmothers.

The Catholic Church fanned it because it help in the spread of religion, but, for the enslaved, it was an opportunity to strengthen their ties.

Last Edited by:Sedem Ofori Updated: September 16, 2022


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