Historical Figures

Maria Firmina dos Reis, a voice against slavery

Last updated:2022-07-25

Brazilian writer, Maria Firmina dos Reis (1825 – 1917) opposes slavery in her novel Úrsula, which focuses on describing the harsh living conditions of black slaves in Brazil.

Slavery in Brazil

Maria Firmina dos Reis was born on October 11, 1825, in São Luís, in Maranhão, in the northeast of the very young Empire of Brazil. After three centuries of Portuguese domination, Prince Peter (who became Emperor Peter I) declared the independence of Brazil in September 1822, an independence officially recognized by Portugal in August 1825.

Around 30% of Brazil was then populated – and 50% in some cities, such as Rio de Janeiro – by slaves brought by force from Africa as part of the triangular trade. After having exploited the Amerindian populations, decimated by diseases and the harsh conditions of slavery, the Portuguese colonists in fact brought in their labor from their African colonies (Angola, Mozambique, etc.) – under inhuman conditions. In Brazil, slaves were exploited in all economic activities:first in the sugar cane plantations and in the gold mines, then in the cultivation of coffee and in the cities, performing various trades (domestic , barbers, shoemakers, etc.). In the mines and plantations, the conditions of slavery were particularly harsh.

Teacher and woman of letters

Maria Firmina dos Reis was born free, but not under the best auspices:she was the fruit of interbreeding and a union outside marriage, then considered illegitimate. His mother, Leonor Felipa, is white; his father, João Esteves, black. Leonor raises her daughter alone, struck with the double opprobrium of being a "mulatto" and a "bastard". When she was five years old, her mother moved to Viamão – perhaps to escape judgment – ​​where Maria Firmina went to school. She shows herself to be brilliant, learns to read, write, speak French, and obtains a competition to become a teacher.

Maria Firmina will not marry – whether by choice, because her origins and her lack of possessions work against her or because her independence, her intelligence and her level of education intimidate suitors. For thirty-five years, she worked as a teacher and devoted herself to her career in primary education, until her retirement in 1881. She then founded a school for children from disadvantaged families.

Alongside her work as a teacher, Maria Firmina devoted herself to writing, a sphere traditionally dominated by men. Writing poetry and short stories, she manages to get published in several local newspapers. Her works, often sentimental, focus on the fate of slaves and women leaving the established frameworks of society, like, no doubt, her mother or herself. Her aunt, with whom she lives, owns slaves and Maria Firmina, a privileged black woman despite everything because she was born free, is concerned and indignant about the fate of slaves in general. Her abolitionist convictions are particularly marked in the only novel she leaves:Úrsula .


In 1859, Maria Firmina dos Reis published – under the pseudonym Uma Maranhense which gave her the freedom to express opinions that were not very consensual at the time – the novel Úrsula. In the form of a romance, the work explores the story of a young girl courted by two men:fallen in love with the bad, she becomes a victim of his cruelty. Through his characters, that of Úrsula , her mother, some black slaves, she depicts the fate of women who do not follow the rules of a patriarchal society, as well as the cruel living conditions of slavery. One of its characters, an elderly African slave named Susana, recounts her forced journey to Brazil:

“They put me and more than 300 companions in misfortune and captivity in the narrow and filthy hold of a ship. We spent thirty days in this tomb, suffering cruel torments and lacking everything necessary to live, before reaching the Brazilian shores. To be able to contain the human goods in the hold, we had been placed standing in tight rows and, for fear of revolt, we were chained like the wild animals of our forests which are taken to the powerful of Europe to entertain them. »

Maria Firmina is considered one of the first Brazilian writers; his novel,Úrsula , as one of the first abolitionist works in the country. In Brazil, slavery was abolished in 1888. After living in destitution, Maria Firmina dos Reis died on November 11, 1917, taken in by the son of a slave she had raised.