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Mucamas

The mucamas or mocambas, usually young and pretty, didn’t have a specific function.

Mucamas

Article available in: PT-BR

Last update: 26/03/2020

By: Lúcia Gaspar - Librarian of the Fundação Joaquim Nabuco

Mucamas were black home slaves that helped in the housework or accompanied members of the family, specially the sinhás-donas (the housewives) and sinhá-moças (the young daughters of the family), at the time of slavery in Brazil.

The mucamas or mocambas, usually young and pretty, didn’t have a specific function. They could to housework, take care of children, keep company to the ladies of the household or accompany them when they went out, which was rarer.

The trusted mucamas also had the task of constantly watching out for their masters, specially the sinhás-moças.

In the rich households, their tasks were more specific. They would accompany ladies and young women, helped them dress and with their sewing and embroidering.

The domestic slaves, such as butlers, governesses, chambermaids and chamberlains, wet-nurses, dry-nurses (nannies) and mucamas were better treated, dressed and fed.

There were many slaves. The group of servants of a typical patriarchal two-story house were formed, in the beginning of the XIX century in Brazil, by cooks, butlers, wet-nurses, water loaders, messenger boys and mucamas. The latter slept in their master’s bedroom, helping them with personal care, such as killing lice. Sometimes, there were too many slaves. [...] (FREYRE, 1977, p. 67-68).

Many mucamas worked as nannies for their masters’ small children. They were called dry-nurses, and some of them were trained by their masters, that even taught them French and English, with the goal of selling them to European families that had moved to Brazil.

To some mucamas that gave birth, there was the function of wet-nurse. They were excluded from any heavy housework and were forced to share their milk with the ladies’ children, that couldn’t or didn’t want to breastfeed them. For some time, the wet-nurses dedicated exclusively to breastfeeding. It was preferable id the wet-nurse was young and good looking, because they were believed to have better milk. The wet-nurses dressed better than other slaves, which to some could indicate the richness of the family.

Dry and wet-nurses stayed in the collective memory of Brazilian tradition as mães-pretas (black mothers) and mães de leite (milk mothers). Often the same mucama that breastfed the sinhozinho and the sinhazinha (their masters’ children) also took care of them and the other children of the household.

Brazilian newspapers in the decades of 1830 to 1970 had classified ads for the sale of mucamas, dry-nurses and wet-nurses, that praised their aesthetical qualities, their character and the their versatility in the housework, such as being perfect at sawing, embroidering, starching clothes, doing laundry, cooking, dressing their ladies, perform nursing services, serve tea. In the case of dry-nurses and wet-nurses, “being affectionate with children” and having “very good milk”, respectively.

In his book Vida social no Brasil nos meados de século XIX, Gilberto Freyre brings the following information on the subject:

There were many classified ads at the newspapers of the time about “good looking mullatas”... “good for being a mucama”; “little mullatas” that besides cooking “very well, clean and quickly” and being able to starch clothes with perfection, could comb “ladies”; “mulattas with abilities”; “seafaring mulattos” and “young men proper for the job of page”, some so expensive that the salesmen agreed to sell them “in installments”; “little mulattas” not only “reserved and honest” but also so well educated to be a mucama that they could speak French; [...] (FREYRE, 1977, p. 46).

The relationships and the daily lives of domestic slave, specially mucamas and their male masters, in the patriarchal farm houses and two-story houses of the Northeast of Brazil are still approached in several other works of Gilberto Freyre, specially in Casa-grande & senzala:

The farm house brought several individuals from the slave house for more intimate and delicate service – raising nurses, mucamas, adoptive brothers for white boys. Individuals whose place in the family was not the one of a slave, but people from their house. They were a type of poor family members in European families. (QUINTAS, 2005, p. 248).

Stories of marriage, relationships or other less romantic, but equally seductive, were told by the mucamas to their young female masters in the sweet slowness of hot days; the girl was sitting down, like the moors, in a pipiri track, sewing or manufacturing laces; or then lying down in a hammock, with her hair down, the black woman killing her lice, stroking her hair or keeping flies away from her face with a fan. [...] (QUINTAS, 2005, p. 168).

The black woman or mulatta stop breastfeeding the masters’ young boy to lull him to sleep, prepare his food and his lukewarm bath, take care of his clothes, tell him stories, sometimes even replacing his own mother – it is natural that she was chosen from the best slaves in the salve house. Among the cleanest, prettiest, strongest. Among the less rude and the more astute – that is how they names them to separate  black women that were already Christianized and acclimatized with Brazilian culture from the ones recently arrived from Africa or the ones that held on  to their africanity. (QUINTAS, 2005, p. 164).

Still according to Freyre (1977), there were mucamas specialized in removing jiggers from children, which they did in a delicate manner, with quick and swift hands, extracting it with a pin. The “search” was done when washing the children’s feet, before they went to bed.

In Brazilian literature, there are mucamas that are novel characters, such as the mucama Lucinda, from Joaquim Manoel de Macedo, and mucama Felicidade, from Machado de Assis. Some are represented as heroes, advisors for their masters’ daughters, and others as lascivious and pernicious. Castro Alves also wrote a poem on the subject:

Maria
Castro Alves

Onde vais à tardezinha,
Mucama tão bonitinha,
Morena flor do sertão?
A grama um beijo te furta
Por baixo da saia curta,
Que a perna te esconde em vão...

Mimosa flor das escravas!
O bando das rolas bravas
Voou com medo de ti!...
Levas hoje algum segredo...
Pois te voltaste com medo
Ao grito do bem-te-vi!

Serão amores deveras?
Ah! Quem dessas primaveras
Pudesse a flor apanhar!
E contigo ao tom d’aragem,
Sonhar na rede selvagem...
À sombra do azul palmar!

Bem feliz quem na viola
Te ouvisse a moda espanhola
Da lua ao frouxo clarão...
Com a luz dos astros – por círios,
Por leito – um leito de lírios...
E por tenda – a solidão!

(non official translation)

(Where do you go in the evening,
Pretty mucama,
Brunette flower of the backlands?
The grass steals kisses from you,
From under your short skirt,
That hides your legs in vain...

Sweet flower of slaves!
That flock of angry turtle doves
Flew away, scared of you!...
Today you bring a secret with you,
Because you came back scared
When the tyrant flycatcher sang!

Are they lovers?
Oh! Who from these springs
Could catch the flower!
And with you, to the sound of the breeze,
Dream in the wild hammocks...
To the shadow of the blue palm!
Happy is the one who, by the viola,
Hears you sing the Spanish song
From the moon to the loose dawn...
With the light of the stars as candles,
For a bed – a bed of lilies...
And for a tent... loneliness!)

Recife, March 11, 2013.

sources consulted

FREYRE, Gilberto. Vida social no Brasil nos meados do século XIX. 2. ed. Rio de Janeiro: Artenova; Recife: Instituto Joaquim Nabuco de Pesquisas Sociais, 1977.

LITERATURA brasileira, 2005. Available at: <http://www6.pucrs.br/vestibular/paginas/2005-2/literatura20052.pdf>. Accesed: 11 mar. 2013.

QUINTAS, Fátima (Org.). As melhores frases de Casa-grande & senzala. Rio de Janeiro: Atlântica, 2005.

SOARES, Luiz Carlos. O “Povo de Cam” na capital do Brasil: a escravidão urbana no Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro: Faperj; 7 Letras, 2007.

how to quote this text

Source: GASPAR, Lúcia. Mucamas. Pesquisa Escolar Online,Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Recife. Available at: <https://pesquisaescolar.fundaj.gov.br/pt-br/>. Accessed: day month year. Example: 6 August 2009.