“Anastacia“ Anastacia, holy Anastasia,
You who were borne by Yemenja, our mother,
Give us the strength to struggle each day
So we may never become slaves,
So that, like you, we may be rebellious creatures
May it be so. Amen” (Popular prayer to St Anastacia)
The figure of St. Escrava Anastacia -“Anastasia the Enslaved”- is a mysterious one. Portrayed as an African slave woman, her piercing blue eyes, collar and cruel, muzzle like facemask define her image. Facts about Anastacia’s life are scant. According to what we know of her, she was an enslaved woman of African descent, cruelly muzzled by her masters.
But today, she is an iconic figure in Rio in Brazil- a popular, if unofficial saint of the Catholic church, as well as the Umbanda, an African-Brazilian religion, and the Brazilian Spiritist traditions. Her cult resonates not just amongst the Afro-Brazilian population and the poor but also with people from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Was St. Anastacia a real person? And why has she won the hearts and minds of the people of Rio?
A Blue Eyed Slave of African Descent
All the evidence of Anastacia’s life is essentially oral and she cannot be verified as a real, historical person. But, like all oral history, there is some basis in fact. There are essentially two tales of St Anastasia’s life. One places her birth in Africa, the other in Brazil itself.
In version one of Anastacia’s story, she was born in Africa, a Royal Princess who was enslaved and shipped to Brazil. According to Carlos de Lima, a Brazilian historian, the enslaved Princess became a housekeeper on a sugar came plantation.
In the second version, Anastacia was the child of a black, female slave from the west coast of Africa. Her mother was raped by her owner- and Anastacia was the result -the first black child to be born with blue eyes. The plantation owner had the baby sent away, to hide the evidence of his ‘infidelity’ from his wife.
This Anastacia can be linked to Delminda, a daughter of the royal family of Galanga of the Bantu tribe in southern Nigeria. Delminda was one of a cargo of 112 slaves shipped to Brazil in 1740. She was sold in the harbor on arrival to an Antonio Rodrigues Velho, who then raped her and sold her on to Joaquina Pompeu. On the 5th March, Delminda reputedly gave birth to a blue-eyed baby girl -one of the first female black slaves to have this feature.
The Girl in the Iron Mask
Like the stories of her origins, reasons Anastacia’s masking also varies. In the Delminda story, Anastacia grew up to be extremely beautiful and Joaquin Antonio, her owner’s son became obsessed with her. The free women of the plantation were jealous of her beauty so they persuaded Joaquin to put her in an iron mask that covered the lower half of her face. This Joaquin was happy to do as Anastacia was fighting his advances. Once masked, he raped the object of his passion and only allowed her to take the mask off once a day in order to eat.
In the de Lima story, Anastasia the princess was masked for teaching her fellow slaves to worship their native African gods under a thin guise of Christianity. The muzzle like mask prevented Anastasia from speaking and so corrupting her fellow slaves.
What both stories agree on is, despite her cruel ill-treatment, Anastacia was an inspiration to the other slaves. She bore her misfortune with fortitude, healing the sick and inspiring hopes for freedom. She did not fight against the slave mask -which must have been extremely uncomfortable at best, torturous at worst but instead treated everyone with calmness, kindness, and love. She forgave her cruel masters, even going so far as to heal her mistress’s son.
Either way, the stories say Anastacia met a tragic end, dying of tetanus caused either by the mask or the collar she was forced to wear. Her owner posthumously freed her and she was buried in a slave cemetery in Rio. Her remains were said to be housed in the Church of Rosario, which was burnt down in 1967.
While examining the ruins of the burnt church in 1968, investigators found an engraved portrait of a blue-eyed black woman, collared and in a mask at the back of the church. The artist was the French watercolorist Etienne Victor Arago and the picture was produced sometime in the early nineteenth century. Immediately, the picture was associated with the legend of Anastasia.
Sainthood and Legend
Slavery was not abolished in Brazil until 1888. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, reports arose of black Brazilians reverencing the image of a woman in the sort of punishment mask Anastacia was subjected to. The poor of Rio and the descendants of its slaves continued to draw strength from her fortitude. But the cult of this mysterious woman- if there truly was one- was not widely known.
But the discovery of the painting of Anastasia in the Church of Rosario gave the legend a new impetuous. An exhibition was mounted at the Museum of the Negro, which was set up in an annex of the church, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. The portrait, which had now been identified as Anastasia was given center stage.
This was the moment the Cult of St Anastasia was truly born. The Umbanda Religion, which blends native Brazilian, Roman Catholic and spiritist beliefs embraced Anastacia as one of the “old black slaves”, people who died enslaved but who as spirits encapsulated kindness and compassion.
Anastacia’s stories blossomed and began to be gathered and written down and her influence spread By the 1980s, she was even being venerated by the white middle classes. By 1984, the oil company Petrobras funded a campaign to have her officially canonized by the Catholic Church.
But, despite the fact the portrait was discovered in the back of one of their churches, the Catholic Church denied St Anastacia ever existed. In 1987, they declared she was unverifiable and so never existed. There would be no sainthood. Anastacia’s image was removed from churches.
But her cult did not die out. Independent shrines, such as that of Vas Lobo in Rio began to spring up. Small images of the saint, lit by candles were venerated by worshippers who left medallions and prayer cards as offerings to their favored saint.
St Anastacia’s cult shows no sign of slowing and today she has a following of 28 million. For the poor, white and black in Rio, as well as nurses and prisoners, she is a symbol of hope and compassion.
But did she ever exist?
Fact or Fiction?
Element’s of Anastacia’s life do indeed ring true. Slave women were indeed abused by their owners and the birth of a blue-eyed slave girl, while unusual would not have been impossible.
It seems that the masking of slaves was common in Portuguese Brazil. In his “Brazil. Entitled Life in Brazil; or, A Journal of a Visit to the Land of the Cocoa and the Palm,” Anglo-American scientist Thomas Ewbank described how Brazilian slaves were often hidden behind iron masks which were especially used as punishments for those who were troublesome. But the slave portrayed by Arago was not a woman, but a man according to the artist himself.
Perhaps the best way of seeing St Anastacia is not as an outright fiction but as a hybrid of numerous lost, nameless individuals who suffered in the ways of this unofficial saint – and yet maintained their humanity.
Simone Schwarz-Bart in her “Hommage à la femme noir” recounts how Anastacia was born in Angola. Once enslaved, she was sexually abused by her master and became pregnant. She was then sent to a plantation where she had several more children by different fathers. Abused by overseers and reduced to becoming a field slave, she was initiated into the Candomble or ‘dance in honor of the gods’ an Afro-Brazilian tradition. She then tried to escape and was recaptured, beaten and fitted with an iron mask to keep her from speaking before her death from her depredations.
This story, probably fictional, best epitomizes not only Saint Anastasia but those she represents: the bonded, the abused, the rebels who will not be silent and will not give up hope no matter what they face- and yet, in the face of suffering, never relinquish their dignity, compassion, and humanity. No wonder Escrava Anastacia is still popular in the Rio of today.