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Church Histories

Paróquia Nossa Senhora dos Milagres de São João do Cariri

The history of the state of Paraíba (situated to the north of Pernambuco and to the south of Rio Grande do Norte and Ceará) has received less attention than that of its neighbors; yet, the development of this state's capital and the distribution and cultivation of its lands in the interior gives insight into diverse aspects of Brazilian and Atlantic World history, including land distribution, miscegenation, slavery, slave trade, regional development, and religious and cultural practices.

When the Portuguese Crown formed the Capitania of Paraíba in 1574, French settlers still lived in the region, leading to battles between European settlers allied with warring indigenous nations. With the defeat of the French and the Potiguar Indians in 1584, the Portuguese established the city of Nossa Senhora das Neves, which became the political center of Paraíba and would later be referred to as Felipéia de Nossa Senhora das Neves, Frederica, Paraíba, and, now, João Pessoa. After a brief occupation of some coastal areas of Paraíba by the Dutch from 1634 to 1654, Paraíba saw a time of expansion into the sertão in the late seventeenth century. This expansion was initially carried out anonymously – that is, we do not know the names or dates of the first settlers to the region, though we do know that they clustered along river routes to raise livestock and routinely battled the Cariri and Tarairiu Indians, later defeated in bloody massacres by bandeirantes (a type of scouting explorer).São João do Caririr

The town of São João do Cariri, for example, received its first official land grant in December 1669 for a place referred to, simply, as "Sítio São João," but this land was probably settled prior to this date. Settlers built the town center near where the Rio da Travessia (now the Rio Taperoá) and the Riacho Jatobá meet. The town was run by the Coronel José da Costa Ramos (formerly Costa Romeu) who had a large corral. Until the building of the parish church in 1750, the town was called Travessia dos Quatro Caminhos, or Crossing of Four Roads. The town's settlers dedicated themselves to the raising of livestock (cows, horses, sheep, goats) and the cultivation of cotton, cereals, and mandioca. The area also had an important internal market of cassava flour, aguardente, and compressed sugar carried and distributed by convoys of donkeys and traveling salesmen that united the distinct towns throughout the hinterlands. When the parish of Nossa Senhora dos Milagres da Ribeira do Cariri (later Nossa Senhora dos Milagres do São João do Cariri) was founded by the Jesuits in 1750 and its church constructed in 1754, it became the largest parish in Paraíba (though Campina Grande superceded it in 17 Paroquia de Nossa Senhora dos Milagres do São João do Cariri 69).

Though we know from church records that São João do Cariri had a significant population of African and African-descended enslaved workers, there is surprisingly little in the historical literature of the region about this population. That historians have only recently begun to emphasize the importance of reconstructing and analyzing the history of this population is not surprising, given their subaltern status. The enslaved Africans of the sertão were doubly oppressed: first by the institution of slavery and the slave trade, and then by the cruelty of the recurrent droughts in the region which left their population especially exposed, abandoned, affected. These recurrent droughts killed livestock and slaves and created a cycle of poverty in the region from which, some would say, it has never fully recovered. The history of the slave population is intrinsically tied to the development of the economy of the backlands, which, in turn, supplied the coastal areas with much of its protein; the dearth of literature on the slave population of São João do Cariri, in this sense, also represents a void in the overall history of colonial Brazil.

Photograph by David C. LaFevor. Text above is an excerpt from Jane Landers, Pablo Gómez, José Polo Acuña, and Courtney J. Campbell. "Researching the History of Slavery in Colombia and Brazil through Ecclesiastical and Notarial Archives.” In From Dust to Digital: Ten Years of the Endangered Archives Programme, edited by Maja Kominko, ed., 259 -92. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2015.


Almeida, José Américo de. A Paraíba e seus problemas, 3rd ed. João Pessoa: Estado da Paraíba, Secretaria da Educação e Cultura, Diretoria Geral da Cultura, 1980 [1923].

Leal, José. Vale da Travessia, 2nd ed. João Pessoa: Editora e Gráfica Santa Fé Ltda, 1993.

Mello, José Octávio de Arruda. História da Paraíba, 11th ed. João Pessoa: A União, 2008.

Rietveld, Padre João Jorge. O verde Juazeiro: história da paróquia de São José de Juazeirinho. João Pessoa: Imprell, 2009.