Maria Felipa, the Black Woman Who Helped Brazil Gain Independence

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In the Northeastern Brazilian State of Bahia, July 2nd is considered the true independence holiday by the majority Black population. The Independence of Bahia, a year after the rest of the country, was the final political separation of Brazil from Portuguese colonial rule. Northeastern Brazilians (or Nordestinhos) were the first to be colonized by the Portuguese and ultimately the ones who brought about Brazil’s freedom. 

Among the notable figures in the Brazilian independence, male figures are obviously the most taught in schools, and the participation of women and Black people has historically been neglected.

This final victory against the Portuguese crown is made even more legendary as Bahians continue to honor the true figures of liberation who make this region of the diaspora so special.  

A rowdy white nun named Joana Angélica and the gender-bending Brazilian “Joan of Arc”, Maria Quitéria de Jesús, are formally celebrated by the state with monuments and street names. However, Afro Brazilians are resisting this narrative and giving greater visibility to their critical participation in the struggles for independence. 

Young Black woman dressed as Maria Quitéria de Jesús. From The Atlantic Archives.

I learned about Maria Felipa de Oliveira while searching for a primary school for my son. An independent Black school (ironically rare and one of a kind in this 80% Black city) was started in 2019 by educator and chemist, Dr. Bárbara Carine Soares PinheiroDr. Pinheiro named Escolinha Maria Felipa after the Black freedom fighter who led a civilian army of free and enslaved Black and Indigenous men and women to defeat the last occupying Portuguese forces. The school’s symbol is an adorable figurine of the heroine wearing a soldier’s hat and wielding a sword. 

Children at Maria Felipa. From the Atlantic Archives

Her date of birth unknown, Maria Felipa de Oliveira lived on the island town outside of Salvador, called Itaparica. She was born enslaved but eventually earned her freedom into adulthood. She lived among other enslaved and freed  men and women laborers.  The region where she lived is made up of the major city Salvador and the surrounding areas called the Recôncavo. This area was the long-time center of sugar production and, in the center of Salvador, the Portuguese still occupied strong commercial squares. Due to its strong economic influence, unlike other parts of Brazil, the independence of Bahia would be characterized by intense struggle. 

Historians characterize Maria Felipa as a tall, strong, dark-skinned woman who mainly worked as a fisherwoman and manual laborer. Felipa was known as a skilled capoeira fighter. She represents many anonymous Black women during this time. All the wives, mothers, daughters, who worked to free their husbands and children. 

Early in the resistance, Felipa led a multiethnic group of these women and men to survey the beach ports day and night, fortifying them with trenches to prevent the Portuguese army’s arrival. She organized shipments of food to the interior of Bahia where battalions of resistance fighters were training. 

But Felipa was unsatisfied with this background role in the struggle for independence. She wanted to be in the fight. 

She discovered information about a fleet of 42 ships preparing to attack the Brazilian forces in Salvador. She created a plan and gathered around 40 other freedom fighters. These women dressed up in alluring outfits and made their way to docks. They approached the Portuguese soldiers and commanders, seduced them, and took them to private areas beyond the view of the ships. 

When the soldiers were naked and vulnerable, Felipa and her fighters beat them with a local stinging nettle plant which, when in contact with the skin, causes terrible burning and blisters. While this was happening, a second group of fighters set the ships ablaze. Another large group fought additional soldiers using fishing knives and sharpened bones. 

Overall she led around 200 resistance fighters using guerrilla tactics (mostly Black and indigenous women). They continued to fight until the last Portuguese troops left the country on July 2nd, 1823.

Maria Felipa continued her life as a fisherwoman and capoeirista practioner, admired by the people of her island and all over Brazil. She died on January 4, 1873.

Escolinha Maria Felipa. From the Atlantic Archives.

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