Escrava Anastacia

I learned about Escrava  Anastacia while in Canindé for the pilgrimage to pay respects to Saint Francis of Assisi. I ran across a statuette of her in one of the shops and was intrigued. Later, I looked up who she was. She’s respected on the level of a Saint even though she’s not officially a Saint in the catholic church. From, In PRaise of Black Women: Heroines of the Slavery Era (pp. 17 -30):

“She was fifteen years old when she was deported to Brazil. Her forehead concealed memories of abduction and mourning. Memories of marching in a single file in the blazing sun, of lamentation, of the fetid human warehouses, of crossing the Atlantic, of loss.

On the docks of Bahia, the newcomer wanted to survive at any price, even at the risk of losing herself, just like those around her: her balaoms, her travel mates, her “boat” brothers and sisters.

Anastasia’s youth and grace helped her remain in town, in the house of Lord Abaete.

She was able to please her masters, worshiping the very ground they walked on. But, while she navigated as easily amidst the kitchen copper as the drawing room gold, fear never left her side.

Her whole world could collapse at any time: this she knew. And she showed herself obsequious enough to share Master Abaete’s bed when he took a fancy to her limber body, to her permanent and forced good humor, to her eyes that submission covered with invisible eyelids though she seemed to gaze at him with undying compliance.

Masters are not always easy to please, but Lord Abaete was among the most unpredictable: he was like the novisangue flower, which lashes out with claws where one expects petals and with petals where one expects claws.

He was one of the most flexible masters in Bahia. But, suddenly, he would go into a rage, wanting enslaves whipped for no good reason; he would sow atrocities in his wake and end the day crying on the shoulder of the enslave he had  punished.

When Anastasia became pregnant, Lord Abaete sent her to a farm he owned not far from Bahia, in a place called Corte. One moment, he marveled before the child and shed tears before the young African woman, accusing himself of being the worst man on Earth, a traitor to Jesus and His cohort of angels. The next, having remembered this world, he accused himself of being an imbecile and gave random orders throughout the fazenda, jotted down ideas for punishments in his notebook and then attended them crazy, angry, and fire-eyed. Then he disappeared for several months, leaving Anastasia to the usual course of her servitude.

Anastasia was about to turn seventeen and had never felt like a mother. Soon, the child was sent to the infirmary, then humbly buried in a little sack. Because Lord Abaete abandoned her, the bookkeeper, the overseers, and the foremen at the sugar mill became more bold.

Anastasia tried to live her youth in the arms of a pombe, a young enslave who had come on the same boat as had she and whom the vagaries of the slave trade had brought to the Corte farm. Then she tried to forget the pombe. Two more children were born of her, the offspring of everyone and no one, who would also end up in little sacks.

Now she had strange dreams: clear water flowed in her veins, carrying a whole population of larvae, of insects with strident cries. Sometimes she awoke, her mouth filled with an astonishing feeling: has she not done her best, between a rock and hard place, like all women? And, if this were so, if everything turned out the only way it could, then why was this ball of shame in her throat, why?

After bearing one child after another, Anastasia lost her vitality and slowly slipped and “fell” to the rank of field slave. All the way at the bottom of the slave ladder, field enslaves kept the African traditions. Attending nightly batouques and other clandestine ceremonies, Anastasia began to remember; at last she was initiated into the cult of the Yoruba, who were a majority in this part of Brazil.

The Yalorixa, the high priestess, was an old, emaciated enslave whose body was ashen with scars and whose feet had been eaten up by fleas. But, when she led a ceremony, she suddenly became the grandmother of Africa’s saints. One evening, a wave hoisted Anastasia, who felt as if carried away from the world. Her eyes drowned  and her legs floated, her arms slowly rowing the air. There was no doubt, the young woman was possessed by the goddess Yemenja, queen of the deep waters and mother to all the other gods, the very same one the whites called the Virgin Mary.

The next day, Yemenja’s spirit dictated a message that the young woman scrupulously transmitted with the sweetness and inflection of the holy voice:  “All those who have good legs should run away in order to set up a land of welcome for the gods of Africa. And the others, those who cannot shake the weight of their chains, those who are too young or too old, or too broken, they should from now on be able to look at the masters in the eyes, right in the eyes, just as any creature of the land, sea, or sky who gazes at other creatures, just like him… .”

Very quickly, these words were brought back to the foremen, who repeated them to the overseers, who relayed them to the bookkeeper, who straight away took the necessary measures. Anastasia was beaten with a disc with pointed tips that left gaping holes under her skin, then the young woman’s wounds were cleaned and she was sent back to the fields.

In the following days, a group of enslaves wanted to take her into the woods of Santa Catarina, near Petropolis, where there was a quilombo from Mozambique. But, alas, Anastasia was unable to accept. She had to remain with the stragglers, those too old or too young, those too broken, in order to bring them Yemenja’s word. After the departure of her disciples, an iron mask was fitted to her face to keep her from speaking; every evening, two overseers came to remove it for a few minutes so she could feed herself. However, Yemenja kept speaking through the young woman’s eyes, and these words were even deeper and more moving than those the young woman’s mouth spoke before.

Eventually, imprisoned by a spiked iron collar, Anastasia was sold to a merchant from Rio, who buys pecas, ebony pieces, by the ton. With a tight metal snout over her mouth and a collar resting on her shoulders, she reached the pier and entered the belly of a boat for the second time, to finally end up at the warehouse in Rio. Standing not far form the main dock, the warehouse was an austere building, newly whitewashed, windowless, except for a few holes punched out for ventilation; it resembled a  kind od stationary cattle car. Each day she was put out for sale and inevitably brought back to the warehouse because of the troubling rumors surrounding her. No buyer ever came forward for her.

Only one look from her, it was said, was enough to overwhelm an enslave. Then, after she was put in a dungeon, into the absolute night of stone walls, it was said that her thoughts sent out ill currents that pushed blacks to rebel, pure and simple, So, she was trown in a deeper dungeon—-to no avail.

One day, deep in a hole, Anastasia was found dead. The iron collar had eaten away part of her throat and her shoulders, which explained the pronounced smell that had emanated from her in her last days. Her body was already stiff and the mortician was unable to close her eyelids:  she was buried, eyes wide open.

Every day, at the Noir de Rio Museum, in the Igreja do Rosario annex, hundreds of people pray before a great painting that depicts Anastasia in her mask and collar. Heaps of flowers are brought to her painted feet. People also invoke her in the provinces, especially in Benfica, Sao Paulo, Bahia, and Belem de Para. A small pamphlet circulates, which includes the text of all the prayers one can address to the Saint and all the supplications, depending on the nature of  one’s affliction.

But the women from Brazil address her for reasons altogether different; their most common and powerful prayer might be the following:

Anastasia, holy Anastasia,

You who were borne by Yemenja, our mother,

Give us the strength to struggle each day

So we may never become slaves,

So that, like you, we may be rebellious creatures

May it be so. Amen”