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Witchcraft in 17th Century Bahia [Historical Fiction]

Written by Emily Hersey (B.A. Student).
Nominated by Professor S. Lipsett-Rivera.

1067978A Letter to the King
from Amancio Nicolao dos Santos, Bahia, 1698*

April, 1698

Your Royal Highness, King Pedro II, I write to you as your humble servant. I, Amancio Nicolao dos Santos[1], a Royal Crown Official in your Bahia Captaincy, write to you to warn you and seek your aid. I fear that the Governor General has ignored the growing presence of sorcery in the Great Captaincy of Bahia and so I write to you for fear that one day we will all perish if his Royal Highness is not able to help us in eliminating this sorcery that still exists even with the laws of King João I[2]. I wish to explain to his Excellency about the types of sorcery I have successfully investigated and read about from Inquisitions across your Excellency’s great territory and the ways in which we are currently trying to prevent the disrespect to you but also the holy God himself that this sorcery brings. Your Highness, without the full union of Church and State to counter these sorcerers and their work of the Devil, that Bahia and the rest of the Captaincies will suffer greatly.

Firstly, my sovereign, I have discovered that sorcery and witchcraft are two distinct groups within our beautiful new land. The first group is that of maleficia which includes the encantos and the sortilégios. I worry that my description will leave his highness resonating with the idea that this could be harmless to the life of our profitable new land, maleficia is in itself an individual use of sorcery that the wretches who engage in use sparingly. Unfortunately, this is also the type of sorcery that can cause disease and make crimes look like accidents. The other group is that of bruxaria which must be stopped at all costs as it allies the bruxa together to allow terror to reign over the good português people of the Crown’s land. It is the bruxa that is responsible for turbulent weather and other acts of the Devil[3]. Not only are there these distinctions that can occasionally be seen, but there are also different ways that many of these dissidents choose to perform these atrocities. There are proven cases of the natives teaching the art of divination and fortune telling to good Christians and slaves and these people use this against the Crown willingly or under the power of the Devil himself. Sometimes this evil hides in the form of proving crimes, the Devil’s way of attempting to push out the administration of our great Sovereign[4]. There are many groups who have used all variations of this sorcery. The Africans are known to use this bruxa for healing as curandeiros, they have even taught some of the good people native to the Portuguese Crowns to use herbs and heathenish rituals to supposedly heal their own peoples[5]. The ill and wounded here do not understand that it is ultimate loyalty to the Crown and God that will heal, and that these practices will only lead the soul to perish in agony.

Within this witchcraft, your Highness, it has caused desecration to the Holy Church and it aches in my heart at how they have done so. There have been attempts to secure the affections of another by whispering the words of consecration, hoc est enim corpus meum, into the mouth of the wanted lover as they lay sleeping[6]. This is desecration not only of the Church but of the bodies and souls of those who succumb to this bruxaria whether it be willingly or unwillingly. This is only one example of how this issue is a feiticeiro of sorts that should be stopped immediately. Many women and men claim to speak to demons and if accused of a crime, it is often the demons’ fault[7]. I feel that His Excellency should be well aware that if the Devil himself is trying to invade the Crown’s land, that this is indeed a land worth protecting, which is why I bring these issues to your attention.

What is worse Your Excellency, is that many of these who commit bruxa are baptized Catholics that our own have converted from their previously unholy ways. In fact, they believe in superstitions and commit these heinous crimes despite the fact that The Holy Catholic Faith and this state provides them with privileges and indulgences seen by no others. These infidels still commit witchcraft and attempt to call on the Devil to bring him to this world. I fear that they attempt to create pacts with the Devil because they have lost true faith. It is the slaves who are often the most vindictive against The Holy Faith, even killing the children of the Masters who are faithful to God, Crown and Church[8].

Your Excellency it pains me to go on to the next issue with these awful infidels. They not only attempt to desecrate the Holy Faith’s words and the bodies of those faithful to it, but many will desecrate the symbols of our Holy Faith. It is the Jews and the New Christians who are irreverent towards the holy crucifix. Some such as a Filipe Tomas de Miranda even stated “I put on Christ much shit, and on the host much shit, and on the Virgin Mary much shit” after simply being asked how he was enjoying the new land and the new and much superior religion[9]. I realize that we, from birth, are in a constant battle against the evils of the Devil. But your Excellency, I feel that it is overwhelming us with fear and apprehension. What if God cannot protect us?

Many of these nonbelievers believe that God is the cause of all of our troubles. However, Your Highness, we know that it is the lack of true and faithful beliefs that the hardships are endured here by good Portuguese people and by the Africans and their children of many colours. Many feel that the mass amounts of deaths caused by disease are the work of God, as well as many of the seemingly insurmountable issues here. Not all of the people here understand that the productivity is the land is paramount to our success, meaning that God will never be pleased until this is achieved[10]. Unfortunately, your Highness, I feel that many may be giving up, I see that some are succumbing to the Devil who may be seducing them with the ideals of a simpler and richer life.

Your Excellency, throughout all of these hardships, I feel it is important to inform you that we are trying our very best in your name and in the name of the Holy Faith to stop these infidels. In the past years of the Portuguese reign of Brazil, we have stopped many, and other colonies have also succeeded in stopping many bruxa. Due to the past success, I feel that His Highness will approve not only of our willingness to initiate punishment but also the vigour in which we punish all of those who commit these heretic acts against King, Country and Church.

In the past, we have allowed testemunhas de ouvida to be used in trials as evidence against witchcraft as it has proven useful but some feel it is not enough and allows for neighbour squabbles to be brought into a more serious light. When the accused received their prova de justiça and their sentença we had to be vague to ensure that the eyewitnesses would not be affected, as witchcraft could harm them. These good Catholics should not be punished for trying to protect the Faith[11]! Not only this, but we have been successful in extracting confessions from those who try to deny their use of bruxa and their pacts with the Devil himself. But we have successfully punished many of these people, Antonia Maria was banished for her relapse into the world of sorcery. Jose Fernandes was banished for five years to Angola. And Jose Francisco Pereira was sentenced to five years in the galleys. All of these people were successfully brought to confession by the powerful Portuguese inquisitors and other members of the administration here[12].

Your Highness, through my research I have discovered that the true problem of sorcery in these lands are the unrestrained women. The whores in this land have all been affected by the Devil who unleashes these fetishes from within them and makes society as a whole suffer. There is little we can do but charge these women to stop, but alas, the hold the Devil has on them makes them fear no one. Instead, they attempt to fill their voracious sexual appetites and spread their disease to the innocent men who fall into their arms unwillingly[13]. It is this sexual sin that is at the bottom of the behaviour of these women. If we allow women to be unsupervised, they will succumb to the Devil and then their sins of sex will follow[14].  However, the bruxa hide carefully, because some of them are not the whores of the streets, but some pretend to be normal women, even so, men are still guilty of these atrocities as well. Your Highness, I will tell you the stories of two people who have been charged for their sins against the Holy Faith successfully to allow His Majesty to better understand the extent of witchcraft, and how sly it can be.

The first is a woman who betrayed the Holy Faith by the name of Maria Barbosa, a parda. When first accused of witchcraft, she was banished to Angola, however she did not stop her ways there. Even after being flogged publicly she refused to stop her ways. She was banished to numerous places until she arrived here, in Bahia. She never attended mass and was a mistress to many men. She also brought other innocent Christian women into lives as mistresses of many men and in doing so, sullied her community. Even after being arrested and put in jail, Maria Barbosa continued using spells to captivate the other prisoners, fortunately, the Inquisitors of Portugal succeeded in ensuring she could not return to Bahia in 1614 because she was incapable of living as a good Christian woman[15]. The second is a man, Manuel João, a barber who first arrived in Belem. Luckily, thirty good Christians reported him to the ouvidor for invoking the devil using sorcery. He was arrested at the age of seventeen in 1668 after a priest discovered a piece of paper with two devils on it that were linked to Manuel João. During his trial, he admitted to numerous events of the Devil coming to him, in the form of a manatee, a beetle, and finally, as St. Michael. While the trial continued, in prison in Belem, Manuel was known to try to frighten the guards by dancing and unleashing weather of the Devils to make live in Belem more difficult for all. He would also chant incantations and perform divination ceremonies, he often danced to songs of the Devil, causing fear in all those around. Eventually, the church and state combined together to punish this evil man by exiling him after publicly beating him, and I believe that by continuing this strength, we will be able to eradicate witchcraft by allowing Your Highness and the Holy Office to work together again, as in this case[16]. It is unsettling, Your Highness, to know that even while under arrest, these infidels are not afraid of showing their lack of belief in the Holy Faith. They could cause serious harm to the Crown if nothing is done to stop them.

Your Excellency, I write this letter to you out of fear for the good Christian peoples of this new land of Portugal’s. I fear that I overstep my bounds, but I feel that the governor general that Your Excellency has selected has not been able to devote as much time as is needed towards finishing these tyrants who seek to ruin the Crown and bring the Devil into this world. In years gone by, the Inquisition successfully tried and convicted many who involved themselves in sorcery, but after careful investigation I feel that there are most likely many sorcerers who go unnoticed and without further action, will seek to destroy the Crown and the Holy Faith by allowing the Devil and his disciples to invade the souls of many.

Your humblest of servants, Royal Crown Official and resident of Bahia Captaincy, Brazil,
Amancio Nicolao dos Santos


Bruxa – Witch
Bruxaria – Witchcraft.
Curandeiros – Name given to those who used sorcery and herbs to cure people of various illnesses and health issues.
Encantos – Enchantments
Feiticeiro – Fetishism
Hoc est enim corpus meum – Part of the Catholic Mass, “The is truly my body”
Maleficia – Witchcraft in this case with charms and incantations.
Ouvidor – The auditor who would hear the evidence.
Parda – Descendant of a black and a white.
Prova de Justiça – Reading of the charges.
Sentença – Sentencing
Sortilégios – Sorcery
Testemunhas de Ouvida – Testimony of the witnesses, with regards to hearsay evidence in this case.

*Disclaimer: Much of the evidence used crosses over numerous colonies in Latin America and the Caribbean. The majority of it is set before this letter is dated for historical accuracy, but it is important to remember that many terms were similar throughout specifically Mexico, Peru, Brazil and other smaller colonies. Not all experiences with witchcraft were the same but similarities of experience can be drawn from all.


[1] An invented personage of a Royal Crown official who works underneath the Governor General of Bahia at this time. The King of Portugal at the time of this letter is King Pedro II. Administrative statuses like this are discussed in J.M. Francis, Iberian & The Americas: Culture, Politics and History (Santa Barbara, California: ABC – CLIO Inc. 2006), 412-413.

[2] King João I implemented the laws forbidding sorcery and invoking of the devil in 1385 and 1403. R. Sansi, “Sorcery and Fetishism in the Modern Atlantic,” Sorcery in the Black Atlantic, ed. Luis Nicolau Pares & Roger Sansi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011). 19-40. Here, 21.

[3] Sorcery and witchcraft as defined by Julio Caro Bajora in L.M. e Souza, The Devil and the Land of the Holy Cross (USA: University of Texas Press, 2003), 90.

[4] Example of the case of Margarida Borges (1750) who solved a case of thievery with this method in, e Souza, The Devil and the… 94-95.

[5] Ibid., 99-101.

[6] Carole A. Myscofski, “The Magic of Brazil: Practice and Prohibition in the Early Colonial Period, 1590-1620.” History of Religions 40, 2 (2000): 153-176, here 160.

[7] Ibid., 163.

[8] The way that Paula del Eguiluz is described in her trial for creating a pact with the Devil and being responsible for the death of her Master’s children as held in S.V. Guengerich, “The Witchcraft Trials of Paula de Eguiluz, a Black Woman, in Cartagena de Indias, 1620-1636”, Afro-Latino Voices: Narratives from the Early Modern Ibero-Atlantic World, 1550-1812 ed. Kathryn J. Mcknight & Leo J. Garofalo (Illinois: Hackett Publishing Co. 2009). 179-194. Here, 183-185.

[9] e Souza, The Devil and the… 60-61.

[10] Description of the growing issues of faith that were abundant in the various colonies in Ibid., 59.

[11] The way that trials used to work based off of eye witness and hearsay accounts as evidence during the inquisition. Much of this was deemed permissible in court and sentencing and charges were always vague, as read about in Ibid., 190-195.

[12] All of these are actual people who were tried for witchcraft and were pushed through different measures into confessing these crimes throughout Portuguese colonial administration in Brazil. These are examples of extreme punishments. Ibid., 215-218.

[13] As written about by the Dominican inquisitors, Kramer and Sprenger in “Malleus Maleficarum”  which discusses how witchcraft is of a female nature. In L. A. Lewis, Hall of Mirrors: Power, Witchcraft and Caste in Colonial Mexico (Durham: Duke University, 2003), 111.

[14] Ibid., 112.

[15] Story of Maria Barbosa who was accused of witchcraft throughout the early 1600s and excommunicated numerous times. Eventually, the Inquisition of Lisbon prevented her from returning to Bahia because of the delicate community that she had caused an upheaval in. e Souza, The Devil and the… 219-222.

[16] Ibid., 222-228. The story of Manuel João who disappeared after signing the Termo de ida e penitencia in 1682, probably to exile. His case was an interesting one and based on very loose evidence, which was enough for his extreme punishment. His case is a good example of the Portuguese state working with the Church in a capacity to protect the colonies.


Francis, John M. Iberian & The Americas: Culture, Politics and History. Santa Barbara, California: ABC – CLIO Inc. 2006.

Garofalo, Leo J. “Introduction: Constructing Differences in Colonial Latin America.”   Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 7 (1) (2006): 4

Guengerich, Sara Vicuna. “The Witchcraft Trials of Paula de Eguiluz, a Black Woman, in Cartagena de Indias, 1620-1636”, Afro-Latino Voices: Narratives from the Early Modern Ibero-Atlantic World, 1550-1812 ed. Kathryn J. Mcknight & Leo J. Garofalo. Illinois: Hackett Publishing Co. 2009. 179-194.

Lewis, Laura A. Hall of Mirrors: Power, Witchcraft and Caste in Colonial Mexico. Durham: Duke University. 2003.

McCaa, Robert, et al. “Race and Class in Colonial Latin America: A Critique.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 21 (3) (1979): 421-433.

Myscofski, Carole A. “The Magic of Brazil: Practice and Prohibition in the Early Colonial Period, 1590-1620.” History of Religions 40 (2) (2000): 153-176.

Sansi, Roger. “Sorcery and Fetishism in the Modern Atlantic,” Sorcery in the Black Atlantic, ed. Luis

Nicolau Pares & Roger Sansi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2011. 19-40.

Souza, Laura de Mello e Souza. The Devil and the Land of the Holy Cross. USA: University of Texas Press. 2003.

Villa-Flores, Javier. “Talking Through the Chest: Divination and Ventriloquism among African Slave Women in Seventeenth-Century Mexico.” Colonial Latin American Review 14 (2) (2005): 299-321.

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