The Lie That Told The Truth: The Legend of Chico Rey & Freeing Brazilian Truth
The driving force behind the Transatlantic Slave trade was the forging and strengthening of a global system based on economic exploitation. In the case of Africa, it was the systematic exploitation of its natural and human resources.
In the most widespread accounts of slavery, we hear of a rancid, blanket despair: rapid disintegration of customs, beliefs, and family structures; broken spirits; weary bodies. Very few accounts, however, herald the enduring power of the African human spirit let alone the financial deft and vision of many of our heroes, whose stories remain untold. The story of Chico Rey of Brazil serves as a quintessential example of the power of cooperative economics, patience, and hope. In some circles, however, the story of Chico Rey is considered a legend — an unverified story handed down from generation to generation to inspire and inform.
Chico Rey was an African king prior to being enslaved and transported to Brazil at the beginning of the 18th century. During the Middle Passage, he lost his wife and most of his children. One son survived the horror of the voyage. Once they arrived in Brazil, he and his son were bought by the same slavemaster and placed to work at a gold mine in Villa Rica, the capital of the province of Minas Gerais, located in the interior of Brazil. During his forced years of servitude, he was baptized and also forced to adopt the name, Francisco. As a sign of continued loyalty, admiration, and respect, his former subjects and countrymen affectionately referred to him as “Chico Rey.” “Chico” is a nickname for “Francisco” in Brazil and “rey” means “king” in Portuguese.
This kingly character was driven by a vision and work ethic that focused on the liberation of his son, his people, and himself. To this end, he worked not only in the gold mines during the week, but he also worked for himself on Sundays and holidays for years in order to purchase his son’s freedom. After his son was liberated, they both worked tirelessly to manumit Chico Rey. Once he and his son were free, together they worked and pooled their resources to secure the freedom of the king’s subjects. Each subject would then, in turn, join the efforts to free the next. Little by little, they reunited Chico’s court, bought a gold mine, and liberated other slaves in nearby areas.
As a testimony to the greatness and staying power of his people, Chico Rey later founded the brotherhood, Our Lady of Rosary, the patron icon of Blacks, and constructed a church in her honor with the same name. Once a year, Chico Rey, his queen, and members of his court would hold a service and procession in honor of the patron. Those that participated in this ceremony wore their most beautiful, expensive, and elaborately decorated attire. Women decorated their hair with bits of gold, which they would eventually wash under the image of Our Lady of Rosary with ‘holy water’ in the church. This gold was ultimately used for the liberation of other slaves.
Even though Villa Rica has been renamed, Ouro Preto, the annual feast of Our Lady of Rosary continues to be a mainstay in the cultural and historical fabric of the Afro-Brazilian experience. The history of Chico Rey inspires us to keep trying a little harder, plan a little more carefully, and prioritize with a little more confidence, and endeavor with a little more cooperation to overcome the legacy of a financial reality rooted in disenfranchisement and inequity.
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