Can slave tourism be beautiful? Visiting sites in Brazil

Standing outside of the church of the slaves
Standing outside of the church of the slaves

I prepared myself for the wave of guilt I would soon feel. After walking up and down hills, looking at my tourist map, and asking for directions repeatedly, I had arrived at the church, Igrega Matriz de Santa Efigênia dos pretos (roughly translated as church of the Saint mother Efigenia of the slaves).  I was visiting Ouro Preto, one of Brazil’s oldest colonial  towns,  now a UNESCO heritage site. Founded in the 17th century, Ouro Preto, literally black gold, became famous because of the discovery of gold in its hills by Portuguese soldiers. Soon after, the town filled with more Portuguese fortune seekers, bringing with them enslaved Africans to mine the gold for the benefit of the Portuguese crown. Three centuries later, the town continues to be an important cultural and touristic hub for Brazil. It has preserved cobblestone streets and a myriad of centuries old Portuguese-styled churches.

The day before visiting the church of the slaves I meandered through Ouro Preto’s city center, focusing on the praça de Tiradentes, a main plaza in the historic town. This plaza was filled with Brazilian and foreign tourists alike, and we stumbled over the cobblestones to peer into ancient

The many tourists waiting to enter St. Francis Assis church in Ouro Preto
The many tourists waiting to enter St. Francis Assis church in Ouro Preto

cathedrals and crevices of this preserved town. Visiting these more famous churches with throngs of tourists was overwhelming, and I wished to get off this highly trodden path. Little did I know that the next day my desire would be granted.

I set off early the next morning for the mine of Chico Rei, a famous enslaved African who was a Congolese prince that worked in the mines in Ouro Preto. Through his leadership and resistance to slavery, he bought his own freedom and helped to construct Igreja de Santa Efigenia. Now, he is a legend in black Brazilian history. Inside of the mine where he worked, I took a guided tour with a local from the area. Whereas yesterday in the city center I was unable to avoid other history seekers such as myself, I was the lone tourist visiting the former gold mine. Judging from the guide’s expression when I entered the mine’s premises, tourist interest in old colonial history did not extend to colonial slave history.

I descended into the mine. The walls were extremely low and tight, and a string of lights lit our path. As my guide led me through the mine’s tight passageways, my body flinched and my lips quivered. The mine was suffocating; I had to bend and to walk crouched to explore its depths. As my guide recounted the history of the enslaved Africans who once worked within these confines, I thought about the walls of dirt surrounding us, the weight of the town on top of us, and distance we had traveled from the sunlit filled entrance. I wanted to leave IMMEDIATELY. Embracing my fears and newly awakened claustrophobia, I listened and cried for the souls of my ancestors, millions of mothers, fathers, daughters, and children who forcibly kidnapped from their homes to build the economies of the New World and European metropolises. While slavery in southern USA differed from that of colonial Brazil in many ways, both forms shared sexual and physical exploitation and dehumanization of black bodies. I left Chico Rei’s mine sad, reminded of the brutality of human nature.

The cramped passageways in the former gold mine
The cramped passageways in the former gold mine

However upon arriving at the Igreja de Santa Efigênia dos pretos an hour later, my feelings of sadness were replaced with guilt–a guilt for admiring a church that represented the paradoxes of the slave trade in Brazil. The church, built by contributions from Chico Rei and other slaves was the lone place sanctioned for slave worship in Brazil. Sitting on the outskirts of town and 30 minute walk from the historic center, the church is only visited by people seeking its story because of its distance from other touristic buildings. Gazing at its hallowed gates, I marveled at its exterior beauty. The façade of the church was covered in a yellow and white paint with a stone trimming on each column (see picture). Inside the church, paintings of angels aligned the ceiling in colors of blue, pink, white, and green. This church was one of the most beautiful churches I had ever seen. It was an architectural masterpiece of grandeur and Catholicism, the sacred and the profane. But how could I admire this church when it was built by slave labor? How could I appreciate the architecture of a building that represented spiritual domination of Catholicism over enslaved African’s existing beliefs? In this moment, I felt reverence, pain, sadness, and beauty.

The entrance to Igreja de Santa Efigenia
The entrance to Igreja de Santa Efigenia

Outside, the courtyard remained empty of tourists except for 3 gentleman from the local community offering guided tours inside the church.  Like the dearth of tourists visiting the church and the absence of the mention slavery in the description of Ouro Preto on UNESCO‘s page, forgetting and ignoring slave history in Brazil is an easy thing to do in Ouro Preto. Yet behind the majestic façades of government buildings and inside of gold trimmed churches are stories of years of human enslavement, slave resistance, and God. I pray that future tourists visiting Ouro Preto and other historic cities are courageous enough to embrace all histories, even those that make them feel uncomfortable, claustrophobic, and guilty.

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One thought on “Can slave tourism be beautiful? Visiting sites in Brazil

  1. Regina – I spent a few days in Ouro Preto about 6 years ago. Amazing place, but your write-up was absolutely riveting and fascinating. I wish I could go back, now, and see it as you saw it.

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