Iyá Nassô, known in Brazil as Francisca da Silva, was an important priestess of the Yoruba orixá (deity) Shango, founder of an Afro-Brazilian Candomblé temple, and an African-born slave who obtained freedom and returned to Africa.
Born in Yorubaland (present day Nigeria, Togo, and Benin), Iyá Nassô was enslaved as an adult and shipped to the city of Salvador da Bahia in Brazil. Her Yoruba name suggests she may have been a major figure in the royal court of the Oyo empire. By the late 1780s, Oyo was rocked by internal power struggles resulting in its collapse in 1835. One of the many battles fought during this period was probably responsible for the enslavement of Iyá Nassô. She and one of her sons arrived in Brazil around 1810 and were baptized as Francisca and Domingos. They obtained their freedom sometime before 1822, adopting the surname da Silva.
Iyá Nassô formed a relationship with fellow freedman José Pedro Autran by 1824. In that year Autran became godfather to Thomé, another enslaved son of his wife’s who had been separated from her at the time of her enslavement. This suggests that Iyá Nassô had been informed of her son’s arrival in Brazil and was taking steps to symbolically recreate their kinship. Iyá Nassô and her husband later provided the funds to purchase Thomé’s freedom.
By the early 1830s, the family had attained a privileged degree of economic prosperity and material comfort. They owned at least two houses and some slaves, mostly Yoruba-speaking women. Iyá Nassô founded a temple, Ilê Iyá Nassô Oká, which sometimes functioned in the couple’s home
Political fallout from a slave revolt known as the Malê Rebellion shattered the family’s peace in 1835. Iyá Nassô’s two sons, Thomé and Domingos, were among the more than three hundred Africans imprisoned in the aftermath. Despite week evidence, the two were convicted. Their mother appealed for their sentence to be commuted to deportation, offering to pay their passage herself and swearing to follow them, never to return to Brazil. Her request was granted. At the end of 1837, Iyá Nassô, her husband, her sons, and around ten of their slaves departed for the West African coast.
The family went to Ouidah (in today’s Benin), where they were offered land and established a new religious community. They also were involved in export trade to Brazil. Two years later, their former slave Marcelina returned to Bahia and assumed leadership of Ile Iyá Nassô Oká. It is unclear how long Iyá Nassô lived after resettling in Ouidah, but she appears to have died before 1859.
Read the full, original biography by Lisa Earl Castillo in The Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography
Castillo, Lisa Earl, and Luis Nicolau Parés. “Marcelina da Silva: A Nineteenth-Century Candomblé Priestess in Brazil.” Slavery & Abolition 31, no. 1 (March 2009): 1–27.
Falola, Toyin, and Matt Childs, eds. The Yoruba Diaspora in the Atlantic World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.
Reis, João José. Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.
James Almeida, Briona Jones, and Steven J. Niven
Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.