By: Sylviane A. Diouf, Curator of Digital Collections, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Story has it that 270 years ago, Chico Rei, believed to have been a ruler in Congo, his family, and others were forced aboard a slave ship. The Middle Passage took his wife and children, but he and one son survived. They landed in Brazil and were sent to Vila Rica (Rich Town, founded in 1711) in the region of Minas Gerais, the center of the gold rush. For a few years, half of the extracted gold in the world came from its hills — the city is at 4,000 feet elevation — and rivers.
Like another 21,000 enslaved people (97 percent of them African-born) Chico Rei, it is said, labored in the mines. Working every Sunday for himself, he bought his son’s freedom, then his own, and later purchased the Encardadeira mine — where he used to work. With its benefits, he freed a large number of Africans who in turn bought the freedom of others.
They built a church dedicated to the Nubian princess St. Iphigenia. The church is located on the highest hill so that it could be seen from everywhere. Inside are representations of two other black saints: Benedict and Antônio de Noto. Fact or fiction — and there is a lot of the latter, as Chico Rei has gained mythical status and his very existence is in dispute— it is said that Africans went to mass with gold powder in their hair and washed it away in the baptismal fonts.
Chico Rei is credited by the brotherhood with being the founder of the Congado — a religious and cultural dance and procession that culminates in the coronation of the king and queen of Congo — in Minas Gerais. Congados continue to be held every year at the end of October, on January 1, and on May 13, which marks the abolition of slavery in 1888.
For more information about Chico Rei, click here.