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.