Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Chapter 7: Between Memory, Myth, and History, Transatlantic Voyagers of the Casa Branca Temple (Excerpts)

A group of practitioners photographed in 1902

In the seventh chapter of Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Interactions, Identities, and Images, Lisa Earl Castillo looks at the lives of African freedmen critical to the early days of the Casa Branca, one of the oldest Afro-Brazilian temples in the city of Salvador, Bahia. In connecting the trajectories of these freedmen and their travels across the Atlantic, Castillo shows how they represented a transatlantic network connecting Lagos, Salvador, Paernambuco, and Rio de Janeiro. She works to deepen our understanding of Afro-Brazilian former slaves who went back and forth between Brazil and the Bight of Benin after gaining their freedom, and in doing so, she shows how exchanges between these regions continued after the Atlantic slave trade had stopped. 

Founded in the sixteenth century, the coastal city of Salvador, capital of Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia, was one of the most active slave ports in the Atlantic basin for nearly three hundred years. Today the city’s winding streets are home to three million people, 80 percent of whom have some degree of African ancestry. Not surprisingly, Africa has left a profound mark on Bahian culture. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in Candomblé, a religion that developed from West and Central African beliefs and practices mingled with Catholicism and some indigenous influences. 

Candomblé is practiced throughout Brazil but is most prevalent in Bahia, where it is generally regarded as having originated. In the oldest terreiros (temples), the elders speak of return voyages to Africa undertaken by the founders after obtaining their freedom from slavery. At one such terreiro, the Casa Branca, collective memory holds that the temple was founded by two priestesses, Iyá Nassô and her spiritual daughter, Marcelina da Silva, both African freedwomen consecrated to the thunder deity, Xangô. The founding is said to have occurred after a seven-year journey that ended in the Yoruba city of Ketu. Returning to Bahia, the two women were assisted in performing the inaugural rites of the sacred space by a babalaô (priest of the Ifá oracle) named Bamboxê Obitikô. Another devotee of Xangô, Bamboxê had come with them from Africa in order to participate in these ceremonies. This myth of origin has captured the attention of many scholars, but for want of evidence it has lingered in the uncertain domain of legend.

Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Interactions, Identities, and Images edited by Ana Lucia Araujo is available in hardcover. It is also available as in different ebook formats, which start at $19.99 to purchase and $9.99 to rent. Professors who wish to use this book along with others in the slavery studies collection for their classes should use the Cambria Book Cloud, which allows for the bundling of ebooks at only $9.99 per title for each student.