Early Modern History Workshop with Aldair Carlos Rodrigues
The African Diaspora from an Ethnic Perspective: Scarification and Ethnonyms in Southeastern Brazil during the 18th Century
Aldair Carlos Rodrigues, Yale University and Universidade Estadual de Campinas – FAPESP
Co-sponsored by the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at the Hutchins Center, the Robert C. Smith, Jr. Fund for Portuguese Studies, and the Brazil Studies Program of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.
Abstract: This paper analyzes the structural vectors behind the ambivalence and oscillations of the nomenclature used by the colonial population of Brazil to describe Africans according to their origin, as well as the process through which the nomenclature was fixed. As is well known, “nação” (Portuguese), “nación” (Spanish), “nation” (English), and “nation” (French) was one of the most common categories used to designate the origin of Africans brought by force to the Americas. The term often appeared formally expressed as, for example, ‘José of the Mina nation,’ or simply in shortened form as ‘José Mina,’ ‘Maria Angola,’ and so forth. Yet what did such appellations or ethnonyms designate exactly? Ethnic groups? African kingdoms? Geographic areas? What were the variables behind the configuration of these descriptors? How did they spread? What were the dynamics underlying their use? What meanings did they acquire inside the Portuguese colonies of America? The central argument of this work is that “nations” were not generic terms unilaterally reflecting the interests that dominated the slave trade. Although those interests represented an important factor in the determination and constancy of the denominations, the terms acquired concrete signification during the African diaspora and were subsequently consolidated through the complex interaction of multiple vectors of varying weight and historical context: African realities (coastal or interior origins); commercial aspects of the slave trade; the behavior of slave owners; as well as the very agency of the Africans brought to the Americas by force. In this article, special attention will be given to the role of scarification as a marker of ethnicity in the process of configuring ethnonyms.