I had not slept for 34 hours. After a bad flight and two long bus trips, I was hiking, ecstatic, in a muddy mine. I touched the walls from top to bottom. Perhaps “he” had put his hands there too. I was walking in the steps of Galanga, renamed Francisco, and known as Chico Rei (King Chico).
Story -or legend-has it that 270 years ago, Chico Rei, believed to have been a ruler in Congo, his family, and others were forced aboard a slave ship. The Middle Passage took his wife and children, but he and one son survived. They landed in Brazil and were sent to Vila Rica (Rich Town, founded in 1711) in the region of Minas Gerais, the center of the gold rush. For a few years, half of the extracted gold in the world came from its hills — the city is at 4,000 feet elevation — and rivers.
Like another 21,000 enslaved people (97 percent of them African-born) Chico Rei, it is said, labored in the mines. Working every Sunday for himself, he bought his son’s freedom, then his own, and later purchased the Encardadeira mine — where he used to work. With its benefits, he freed a large number of Africans who in turn bought the freedom of others. They built a church dedicated to the Nubian princess St. Iphigenia. The church is located on the highest hill so that it could be seen from everywhere. Inside are representations of two other black saints: Benedict and Antônio de Noto. Fact or fiction — and there is a lot of the latter, as Chico Rei has gained mythical status and his very existence is in dispute for lack of evidence— it is said that Africans went to mass with gold powder in their hair and washed it away in the baptismal fonts.
Chico Rei is credited by the brotherhood with being the founder of the Congado — a religious and cultural dance and procession that culminates in the coronation of the king and queen of Congo — in Minas Gerais. Congados continue to be held every year at the end of October, on January 1, and on May 13, which marks the abolition of slavery in 1888.
Getting to St. Iphigenia is not easy; I kept on sliding downhill, and though I am fit, I was out of breath. As I sat down on the steps, I reflected on the horrible toll that the gold “adorning” so many Baroque churches in Brazil and Portugal took on Africans and their descendants. Perhaps this is why there is so little gold in their church.
I visited another black house of worship. In the low part of town, the black brotherhood Our Lady of the Rosary — active since 1715 — erected a quaint, rounded edifice called Our Lady of the Rosary for the Blacks. Started in 1753, it was finished in 1785. Its altars display images of the black saints Iphigenia, Elesbao (Ethiopia), Benedict, and Antônio de Noto.
Vila Rica was a haut-lieu of art, music, poetry, and architecture, as well as the birthplace of the most famous Brazilian Baroque sculptor, Antônio Francisco Lisboa (ca.1730-1814). The son of a Portuguese sculptor and an enslaved African, he became known as Aleijadinho (little cripple), as leprosy ravaged his body and took away his fingers. He worked with his tools strapped to his wrists. Aleijadinho’s masterpiece, as an architect and sculptor, is the church São Francisco de Assis, designed in 1766. He died poor and forgotten, but there is an Aleijadinho Museum in his hometown.
In 1823, after Independence, Vila Rica became Ouro Preto (Black Gold) an apt, if involuntary, description of who made the city so fabulously rich (actually the gold ore, mixed with silver turned black when exposed to the air). It is an extraordinary 18th-century town of red tiled roofs and green hills that looks very much today as it did in Chico Rei and Aleijadinho’s time. Walking up and own its vertiginously steep and slippery cobblestoned streets is demanding but rewarding. Every house, fountain, bridge, and church (there are 23 of them), is a piece of art and will remain so: the city has been on Unesco’s World Heritage List since 1980.
To Find Out More
To learn how many people were deported from West Central Africa to the Americas by the transatlantic slave trade, and how many Africans arrived in Brazil, see The Abolition of the Slave Trade: The Forgotten Story.
Books and CDs
NYPL holds several dozen books in Portuguese about Vila Rica/Ouro Preto, slavery in Minas Gerais, Chico Rei, and Aleijadinho. Here are a few titles in English: