chapter  4
16 Pages

The Expansion of Afro-Bahian Religious Practices in Nineteenth-Century Cachoeira

Cachoeira and Sao Felix, which sit opposite each other on the banks of the Paraguagu River in the Bahian Reconcavo, have populations of overwhelm­ ingly African descent; both towns are well known in the region for their large number of Afro-Bahian religious organizations, candombles} Sao Felix, according to the testimony of local candomble members, is especially famous for the effective rituals and spiritual powers of the local Candomble houses located in the wooded areas surrounding the town. The concentra­ tion of religious centers in both towns dates from the end of the nineteenth century when various economic and social factors created a propitious envi­ ronment for the establishment of candombles? Nineteenth-century Cachoeira and Sao Felix were centers of slave plan­

tation agriculture and the ethnic composition of their large slave populations reflected the long-standing links between Bahia and West Africa, especially the Mina Coast and the Bight of Benin. In 1888, abolition freed the remain­ ing enslaved Africans and the new freedpeople, as well as their descen­ dants, now had the autonomy and additional resources to expand their cultural institutions. Many found employment in the growing number of cigar and cigarette factories established by German and Portuguese invest­ ors in both cities and in the ancillary occupations created by the expanding tobacco industry. These workers formed the leadership of the new candombles, which provided social and psychological support networks for the poor community of color. Rituals varied in the new candombles: Some houses clearly practiced Nago or Yoruba rituals, while others were dis­ tinctly Gege or Fon/Ewe, and a small number blended the practices of both

groups with other elements. One house, the Casa da Ventura, had a special link with a Catholic lay confraternity originally founded by African freedwomen, Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte (Our Lady of the Good Death), and several of its prominent members played important roles in the local Afro-Bahian community. This chapter analyzes late nineteenth-century demographic changes in

both cities and the transformations in religious practices that marked the consolidation and expansion of Gege-Nago candombles. It uses a variety of sources and methodologies, combining oral history, ethnographic data, and archival sources. Interviews with the oldest surviving members of the Gege-Nago Candomble community in Cachoeira and Sao Felix provided data on those houses established at the end of the nineteenth century. As these candombles are based on Yoruba and Fon models, African ethno­ graphic data helped to interpret the material and clarify ritual and theologi­ cal links. Finally, the large number of conventional archival and published sources provided excellent data on population changes and a convenient way to date and check the recollections of informants. Together, the three sets of sources provide a coherent picture of the economic, social, and cultural transformations in one section of the Bahian Reconcavo at the end of the nineteenth century. This essay does not discuss the Angolan slave trade or the subsequent creation of Angolan candombles in Cachoeira; both were relatively minor phenomena in an ethnic and cultural universe domi­ nated at the time by the Fon/Ewe and the Yoruba.