Lay Catholic brotherhoods constituted important religious, social, and civic associations among African-origin and African-descended people in Portugal, West Central Africa, and Portuguese America in the early modern period (1450–1850). Lay Catholic brotherhoods (irmandades), also known as confraternities (confrarias) and sodalities, functioned as spaces of devotion oriented around one or more patron saints. In the Portuguese Atlantic world, free and enslaved people of African origin and descent utilized the associations to prioritize collective devotion, mutual aid, and burial rites for members. Mutual aid could include small payments during illness, assistance with manumission process completion, and internment of deceased members under the auspices of the sodality. Lay Catholic brotherhoods functioned as critical sites of transculturation and belonging for people of African origin and descent in the 1490s in Portugal, by the early 1500s in areas of West Central Africa with an entrenched Portuguese presence, and in Brazil beginning in the colonial period (1500–1822). Confraternities became a common facet of lived experience and religiosity for African and African-descended Catholic devotees across the Portuguese-speaking Atlantic world. Associations were governed by organizational charters generated by founding or elected directorate members that required approval from Catholic Church leaders, the Crown, and provincial-level state authorities. Confraternities had juridical personality and recognition from ecclesial and state officials as semi-autonomous entities or corporate bodies. Members could exercise and experience limited levels of autonomy, even in slave-holding colonial environments. Within brotherhoods in Portugal and in its overseas imperial territories, ethnic and racial stratification was predominant, but not absolute. Confraternities acted as institutional sites where West, West Central, and Southeastern African ethnic group identities held importance and deep social meaning across several centuries. Confraternity participants engaged baroque Catholicism, which emphasized collective action including celebration of the saints and related rites relying on music, movement, and festivities. Brotherhoods functioned as critical sites of proselytization, but also came to serve as spaces for local member imperatives that incorporated African cultural expression, esthetics, and worldviews.
Black Brotherhoods in the Portuguese Atlantic
Alicia L. Monroe
Portuguese America and the Vocabulary of Colonial Poverty (1500–1750)
At the beginning of the modern era, in Catholic spaces, the lexicon of poverty was linked to a vast semantic repertoire related to scarcity, impotence, and inferiority that was reorganized in theological and judicial sources after intellectual debates in the 13th and 14th centuries. In the 16th century, when it was possible to observe another moment of change in reflections on the poor in Europe, the political incorporation of the natives of the New World and the advance of the enslavement of Africans added new challenges to governing the “poor.” Not only because it was necessary to extend the use of the vocabulary of poverty to populations that were little or not at all known, but also because the experience of the Americas presented an ethnical dimension of previously unexperienced proportions. In this way, whether in the Iberian peninsula or in the Americas, references to the poor assumed political perspectives that sought to intervene in the daily life of communities and which organized themselves under the ethical and moral precepts of second scholasticism. In Portuguese America, as colonization advanced, religious orders, ecclesiastic institutions, establishments that provided care and welfare, municipal councils, and administrative bodies formulated their own uses of this vocabulary through an intellectual heritage which added new forms of identification of shortage and necessity. Initially, this did not involve recognizing the material penury of city populations. Rather, it was concerned with developing justifications for governing free populations—whether Portuguese, Indigenous, African, or mestizo—which composed the political vocabulary of colonial spaces. In turn, enslaved Africans and indigenous people were integrated into specific social groups, defined by their judicial status and their moral minority, which excluded them from the civic language that characterized reflections on poverty in the Western tradition.