Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 3, Maria Barbosa

Day 3 on my Advent Calendar of Witches is devoted to Maria Barbosa, who survived more than anyone should have to bear. I hope it’s true that she cursed many men, and sunk their slave-trading ships too.

I wrote an ode to her in the form of an essay that recently appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review’s special issue on Persecution. I’ll except some highlights about Maria Barbosa below, or you can read the full essay here.

The rumor was that Maria Barbosa could use her magic to invoke a sea devil. When she was exiled to Angola after the first accusations of witchcraft were levied against her, she accurately predicted the future for the governor and was set free. The second time, as in the first, she was accused of having “destroyed many men.” The specifics of her alleged love spells are not itemized in the existent records of her trial, but maybe like Marcelina Maria, who was similarly accused, she cooked an egg, slept with it between her legs, then fed it to the man she wanted. Or maybe like Isabel Maria de Oliveira, whose confession survives though she did not, she put perfumed roots in her intended’s clothes and chewed alcaçuz roots to fill him with passion. Or like Florencia de Bomsucesso she took curvōes to the crossroads and threw them there while invoking the spirits to bring him to her door. Maybe, like these women’s, hers was a magic designed to affirm the dignity and beauty of their bodies and their lives against colonial authorities who insisted otherwise.

On the way from the Bahia region of colonial Brazil to Lisbon where Maria Barbosa would stand trial for witchcraft before the central authorities, the ship was overrun by pirates. The men were all killed; she was taken as captive. “Captive” means that most likely she was raped repeatedly before being dumped on a beach in Gibraltar.

I suppose you could make a woman like Maria Barbosa seem insignificant by dismissing love spells as something superficial and slight that girls play with at sleepovers, but reading these court records, I wonder if “love spell” isn’t sometimes what a person says when they can’t say “cancel” or “call out,” “direct political action” or “overthrow.” During the Inquisitorial Visitations of the late 1500s, the official charge was to locate and punish those practicing Judaism in the Brazilian colonies, but trial records indicate the judges were not opposed to supplementing that role with assistance in the policing of free African, Afro-Brazilian, and indigenous people and otherwise bolstering the social control mechanisms that safeguarded slavery and colonial rule. The inquisitors would happily write the bureaucratic reports necessary to justify the brutal torture and execution of an enslaved person thought to have bewitched a master. They would gladly make an example of any African or indigenous person demonstrating or rumored to hold power.

Picking herself up on the shore of Portugal, Maria Barbosa decided to walk across the country straight into her own trial. I know her choices were limited, and she had no good way to hide, but nevertheless, our mythic hero decided to walk into the courtroom instead of being dragged there against her will. And when she arrived, she requested of the tribunal a cloak to cover her ragged nakedness after such a terrible journey. She demanded it. Because, she told the men in a clear voice, she was not the woman they imagined her to be.

You can read the rest of this essay at Michigan Quarterly Review, along with many other excellent pieces that remind us the witch trials never really ended, the greedy and power-hungry just find new ways to scapegoat and vilify. Mercifully, still among us too, are defiant heroes, in the tradition of Maria Barbosa, showing us how the work of resistance gets done.

Published by Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger's latest books are THE WITCH OF EYE (Sarabande), an essay collection about witches and witch trials coming out in February 2021, and RUE (BOA, 2020), a collection of poems about plants historically used for birth control and pissed off feelings about patriarchal bullshit. The End of Pink (BOA 2016) won the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Her collection of lyric essays is Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (The Ohio State University Press, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, H. J. Andrews Research Forest, She teaches in the creative writing program at University of Minnesota. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, Paris Review, The Southern Review, and Waxwing.

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