Esperança Garcia was an enslaved Afro-Brazilian woman who wrote the earliest known slave petition in Brazil in 1770.
While no documentation of Garcia’s birth or death survives, a later inventory places her birth around 1751 and describes her as creole (American born). She was raised on a Jesuit estate and taught to write before their expulsion from Brazil in 1759. Esperança’s petition describes her as a cook of African descent, practicing Catholic, wife, and mother of two children. Garcia lived in northeast Brazil in the captaincy of Piauí, where she labored on the Fazenda dos Algodões (Cotton Plantation). Garcia’s duties included making manioc flour, cleaning cotton, weaving hammocks, and extracting castor oil for lamps.
The September 6, 1770 petition was addressed to Gonçalo Lourenço Botelho de Castro, governor of the Piauí captaincy and reads (translation by Luiz Mott):
I am Your Excellency’s slave, under the administration of Captain Antonio Vieira de Couto, married. Ever since the Captain went there to administer those lands, he took me from the Fazenda dos Algodões, where I lived with my husband, to be a cook in his household, where I am very unhappy. My first complaint is that my son, who is only a child, was beaten severely so that blood came from his mouth. As for me, I can’t even explain it, I am a punching bag. My second complaint is that I have been here with my fellow slaves for three years without being able to confess. My child and two others still need to be baptized. I ask Your Excellency for the love of God and your high charge, take notice of me, command your servant to send me back to the farm where he took me from so that I can live with my husband and baptize my daughter. I am Your Excellency’s slave, Esperança Garcia.
An accompanying document to the letter narrates the captain’s atrocities against his slaves, which prompted Esperança to flee several times, resulting in even more cruel punishments when she returned.
A list of workers on the estate from 1778 lists Esperança as 27 years old, creole, and married to 57-year-old Ignácio, from Angola. The pair had seven living children at the time.
Garcia was a pioneer in denouncing the cruel treatment of slaves in Brazil. When the letter was discovered in 1979, Esperança Garcia became an important icon for the black movement in Piauí. The letter’s date, September 6, became a state holiday commemorating the Afro-Brazilian presence in the history and culture of Piauí. Furthermore, a local maternity hospital was dedicated to Garcia, a statue of her was placed in the Centro de Artesanato (Center for Artisan Crafts) in Teresina (Piauí’s capital), and many nongovernmental organizations founded by Afro-Brazilian women bear her name.
Edital Ministério da Cultura and Universidade Federal de Pernambuco. “Carta de Esperança Garcia: Uma mensagem de coragem, cidadania e ousadia.” 2013. http://culturadigital.br/cartaesperancagarcia/esperanca-garcia/
Rosa, Sonia. Quando a escrava Esperança Garcia escreveu uma carta. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Pallas, 2012. [published in English as When the Slave Esperança Garcia Wrote, trans. Jane Springer.] Toronto: Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2015.
Sousa, Valdulce R. C. “A carta da escrava piauiense Esperança Garcia: Uma análise sociolinguística.” Paper presented at XXIV Jornada de Estudos Linguísticos, 2012, Natal.
James Almeida and Steven J. Niven
Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.