Adelina, the Cigar-Seller from “Narrativas Negras” (2020) | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo is a historian and lecturer based in Leeds, United Kingdom, who specialises in the study of Victorian popular fiction and, owing to his own family history, has lately taken an interest in the history of South America. In this post Stephen briefly discusses a fascinating account of a woman named Adelina, who lived in nineteenth-century Brazil, and whose life story is related in a fairly new book titled Coletivo Narrativas Negras, ed. Narrativas Negras: Biografias ilustradas de mulheres pretas brasileiras (Curitiba: Voo, 2020), 320pp. RRP R$50 ISBN 978-65-990747-3-8

Narrativas Negras front cover


While recent calls to decentre the ‘white’ histories of Europe and the ‘global north’ are to be commended, the dominance of English-language scholarship in many of such scholarly debates means that well-intentioned scholar-activists, who lack a second language, are sometimes unable to meaningfully engage with research produced outside of the Anglosphere.

Inspiring stories of women, for example, who actively worked to undermine slavery are consequently missed and rarely do scholars in the ‘global north’ gain a worldwide perspective on subjects such as forgotten black women’s histories.

But gaining a new perspective on the voices of the oppressed from the world over is precisely what one can gain from a reading of Narrativas Negras: Biografias ilustradas de mulheres pretas brasileiras (2020) [‘Black Narratives: Illustrated Biographies of Black Brazilian Women’]. Published by the Coletivo Narrativas Negras (Black Women’s Narratives Collective),[1] the book is a collection of short and inspiring biographies of, as the title implies, black Brazilian women’s lives.[2]

Early morning in Rio de Janeiro. From Debret’s Viagem. As you can see, slavery was ubiquitous in imperial Brazil

Slavery in Brazil

The book is divided into several sections to include women who led the way in the abolition of slavery, culture, education, sport, politics, and public health. Most interesting from a personal perspective, given my interest in the Empire of Brazil, is the stories of Brazilians who resisted slavery and played a leading role in furthering the cause of its abolition. Slavery persisted in Brazil until 1889 and, as Boris and Sergio Fausto wrote in A Concise History of Brazil (1999), ‘slavery was a national institution’.[3]

Slaves queueing for coffee in Rio de Janeiro. From Debret.

It was such a national institution, argue Fausto and Fausto, that it conditioned Brazilians’ conceptions of social class: To be a slave owner was a mark of high social status, almost the equivalent of having a noble title in Europe:

‘there were plantation and mine owners with hundreds of slaves, small farmers with two or three, and urban households with only one slave … At least until the time that masses of European workers came to central and southern Brazil, manual labour was scorned as “something just for blacks”.’[4]

Even the revolutionaries of ‘Brazil’s 1848’, who consciously imitated the pro-universal suffrage (and vehemently anti-slavery) French Revolutionaries, deliberately excluded the abolition of slavery as one of their demands. As Afonso d’Albuquerque, a supporter of the Brazilian revolutionaries, stated:

The Equality proclaimed by the Republic cannot favour the slaves among us and whoever desires a republican government in Brazil cannot wish to end slavery, since this would mean the abolition of the Republic.[5]

The Arrival of African Slaves in Brazil

Originally, the people who were coerced into working on Portuguese plantations during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were the indigenous peoples. However, as the Indian population declined due to the effects of disease, and the Catholic Church’s increasing prohibitions on the capture of indigenous peoples for slavery, Portuguese colonists needed new sources of labour.

Thus, Portuguese colonisers began importing slaves from Africa. The statistics are truly something to behold. In 1574, Africans made up only 7 per cent of the enslaved workforce. By 1591, Africans comprised 37 per cent of all slaves in Brazil. By 1638, Africans and Afro-Brazilians made up the entire slave population.[6]

Indigenous people carried into slavery by poachers. From Debret’s Viagem.

The lot of a slave was an unpleasant one. When the slaves disembarked at one of the major Brazilian ports, the custom, as Marquês do Lavradio pointed out in the late eighteenth century, was

That every negro who arrived at the ports of the from the Coast of Africa, immediately after disembarking, [came] into the city through the public streets and main thoroughfares, not only full of infinite maladies, but naked … the most horrible spectacle the eyes could see.[7]

The institution of slavery continued even after the proclamation of Brazilian independence in 1822 and into the reign of Dom Pedro II.

Adelina, the Cigar-Seller

The story of one particular slave woman, a cigar-seller named Adelina, caught my eye as I was reading the Coletiva’s book.

Written by Silvia Barros,[8] Adelina’s biography tells us that she was born in São Luís do Maranhão on 7 April 1859. She was the daughter of an enslaved woman named Boca da Noite and a rich slave owner. As the daughter of a slave owner, both she and her mother received ‘different treatment’ (tratamento diferenciado) and, as a result, was taught to read and write from an early age. Differentiated treatment she may have received, but she was in no sense ‘free’. Indeed, her slave-owning father repeatedly promised her that, at the age of 17, she would be freed, although when the day came the ‘father’—for we must use that term in its loosest sense to describe anyone who keeps his daughter in servitude—reneged on his promise.

Modern depiction of Adelina by Veri S.A.

Not yet free, Adelina was sent to work as a cigar maker and sold her wares in the street. Such ‘freedom’—to leave the plantation, that is—for slaves in Brazil was not uncommon; many slaves worked on what might be called a ‘self-employed’ basis and were called escravos de ganho. These slaves were permitted to earn their own money by selling merchandise or offering services but they had to pay a fee to their master for the privilege of doing so. In Adelina’s case, the cigars were made by her father, so she was, so to speak, doubly in debt to him for both her limited freedom and the products she could sell.

At other times, with the master’s permission, a male slave might be allowed to go begging (paying, of course, commission to the master), and a female slave might be allowed to become a prostitute under the same terms.[9]

Adelina’s Abolitionist Activism

An unfree cigar seller Adelina may have been, but her time as an escravo do ganho was transformative. As she plied her trade in the taverns of the city of São Luís, she would always stop at a park named the Largo do Carmo. It was here that many abolitionist activists congregated to hear speeches and she made friends with many of the students who were active in the movement. More importantly, she was inspired by the students’ message.

Like the heroine of a modern-day thriller, Adelina began to live a double life. She remained a slave. But her unique knowledge of the town and its environs, and especially of all the places where it was easy for a person to ‘disappear’, meant that she soon established herself as valuable resource for abolitionists—particularly the radical Clube dos Mortos (Club of the Dead), a student-led activist group—who were on the run from the police.

Through such means she also helped fellow slaves to escape from plantations as well. Adelina’s role in helping slaves escape from plantations is well-remembered by an enslaved woman named Esperança, who, having fallen in love with a Portuguese merchant and becoming pregnant by him, fled with him to Ceará.

Largo do Carmo in the 1950s


Written in simple Portuguese, the book is an easy read and I encourage other people to seek this out for themselves to discover the stories of women aside from Adelina. Slavery was eventually abolished in Brazil in the 1880s but, as for Adelina herself, nothing is known of her later life. At the end of her entry in the Coletiva’s book, however, a poem honouring her has been inserted:

In the streets cigars she sold,

Which her father manufactured.

While doing this she learnt,

How many people spent their lives.

She had a soul most just and

Thus abhorred all forms of slav’ry.

Hail cigar woman Adelina,

From São Luís do Maranhão.

(Translation my own)

Charutos na rua ela vendia,

Que o seu pai fabricava,

Cumpria a tarefa e aprendia

O que na vida se passava.

Ela tinha a alma justiceira,

E abominava a escravidão.

Salve Adelina, a charuteira

De São Luís do Maranhão.

(Original Portuguese).


[1] The names of the Brazilian writers who form this collective are Anna Carolina Cardoso, Bruna Emanuele, Bruna Silveira, Enilse Esperança, Carol Bicalho, Flávia Souza, Gau De Laet, Heloísa Santana, Júlia Rodrigues, Juliana Cavalli, Leticia Fiuza, Lídia De Paula, Luana Simonini, Luiza Nasciutti, Maíra Oliveira, Márcia Gomes, Maria Vitória, Mariana Oliveira, Mariane Diaz, Raissa Lauana, Sabrina Santos Souza, Sheila Martins, Sílvia Barros, Tabatta Santos, Taís Espírito Santo, Thaís Santos, Vanessa Carolina and Vivi Oliveira.

[2] There were a number of illustrators who worked on this book as well and who provided the images accompanying the women’s stories (and for many of them there are no images which survive): Alda Gomes, Amanda Daphne, Amma, Ana Luisa Maisonnave, Anna Cunha, Áustria Fernandes, Beatriz Gabino, Bruna Melo, Daiely Gonçalves, Dani Fonseca, Dika Araujo, Fabiola Teixeira, Flávia Borges, Flávia Carvalho, Francisca Nzenze, Gabi Almeida, Gabriela Emmerich, Helena Butturini, Ina Gouveia, Isabella Souto, Isadora Ribeiro, Karen Couto, Lígia Mattos, Luísa Castro, Manoela Campos, Marcela Guimarães, Mariana Seragi, Mayara Smith, Mika, Millene Vilela, Nicolle Bustamante, Pamela Araújo, Prisca Paes, Rachel Gomes, Rayssa Da Penha, Soo Sakai, Suryara Bernadi, Theodora Moreira e Veri S.A.

[3] Boris Fausto and Sergio Fausto, A Concise History of Brazil, Trans. Arthur Brakel, 2nd edn (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 28.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Nancy Priscilla Naro, ‘Brazil’s 1848: The Prareira Revolt in Pernambuco, Brazil’, in The European Revolutions of 1848 and the Americas, ed. by Guy Thomson (London: Institute of Latin American Studies, 2002), 100–124 (111–12).

[6] Fausto and Fausto, 37.

[7] Bráz Hermenegildo do Amaral and Jean-Baptiste Debret, ‘Valongo: A Notorious Slave Market’, in The Rio de Janeiro Reader: History, Culture, Politics, ed. by Daryl Williams, Amy Chazkel, and Paulo Knauss (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 41–42.

[8] Silvia Barros, ‘Adelina, a charuteira’, in Narrativas Negras: Biografias ilustradas de mulheres pretas brasileiras, ed. by Coletivo Narrativas Negras (Curitiba: Voo, 2020)

[9] Fausto and Fausto, 27.