black history indigenous rights

Tereza de Benguela

This weeks Illustrated Women in History was written by Manu Escrita, and illustrated by Cecília Silveira. It will be featured in the Illustrated Women in History zine #5 which will be available in February. 

Tereza de Benguela, also known as Queen Tereza, is one of the most important figures in Afro-Brazilian history and the inspiration behind Black Women’s day, celebrated in Brazil since 2014 on July 25th – a date widely known as the International Afro-Latin American and Afro-Caribbean Women’s Day. Born in Africa, probably in the early 18th century, Tereza was captured and trafficked through the port of Benguela in current day Angola, sold and sent to the westernmost region of Brazil, in present day Mato Grosso state.

There, she met her life partner José Piolho and together with a group of other slaves, the couple was able to escape farther inland. Together, on the bank of the Guaporê River, they founded a maroon community under their leadership as a royal couple, which became known as Quilombo do Quariterê or Quilombo do Piolho. In the mid-eighteenth century, José Piolho was killed during one of the several attacks launched by the local gold rushers, known as Bandeirantes, on the many maroon communities in the region. Queen Tereza, who survived the attack, gathered her people and rebuilt their Quilombo, becoming the sole ruler. For two decades, she led a politically organized and self-sustainable community. She negotiated trading arms with white people in order to create a defense system and build a strong military capability to protect her community. She commanded the raiding of local colonial villages to obtain guns and objects that could be forged into working tools. At the political and economic level, she instituted a parliament surrounding herself with warrior counselors and organizing a self-sustained community based on labour division. In addition to hunting and fishing, the Quilombo produced agricultural goods such as fruits and vegetables, raised cattle, and planted cotton to produce fabrics both for local consumption by the community and commercialization in the region’s markets.

In 1770, military forces loyal to the crown and led by Luiz Pinto de Souza Coutinho attacked Quilombo do Piolho, killing and arresting its entire population of 109 people, composed by 79 black runaway slaves and 30 indigenous rebels. Queen Tereza was taken by the authorities and, according to divergent sources, she either kill herself or was tortured to death in the public square. The Quilombo over which she ruled for over twenty years was once again rebuilt a few years later by the resistance, only to be forever decimated in the later years of the eighteenth century.

The legend of Tereza de Benguela has lived on for over 200 years in Afro-Brazilian oral history and was even the topic of the main theme of Viradouro Samba School in the Carnival of 1994. This raised an interest among academics to research historical sources and attempt to reconstruct her life and contribution to African resistance in colonial Brazil.

In 2014, Mato Grosso state’s senator Serys Slhessarenko proposed that Brazil used the date of July 25th, which was already celebrated in the world as International Afro-Latin American and Afro-Caribbean Women’s Day, to celebrate black women’s contribution to Brazilian history while naming the holiday as National Tereza de Benguela and Black Women’s Day. Nearly 250 years after her death, Queen Tereza’s legacy in the history of black resistance was finally recognized. However, there is much to be done to pay homage to the contributions of black women as a whole and around the world.

As Afro-Brazilian author Jarid Arraes once put it: every black woman is a maroon.

Text: Manu Escrita 

Illustration: Cecília Silveira 

A collaboration of Atelier Madredeusa, an independent press and arts studio by and for women. 

Sources here, here, here, here, here, here and here

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