Maira Salazar

Maria Firmina dos Reis

Hello, welcome and welcome to the very first episode of E as Mulheres? The podcast that seeks to answer this question that comes up every time we open a history book, be it history or world history.

Together we will explore the lives of women who have changed the course of history, highlighting women you may not have even heard of.


So let’s start with our story today, talking about the life and work of Maria Firmina dos Reis. To start telling her story, first we need to go back in time and understand the place and the time in which she lived.

We are going to travel to Maranhão, at the beginning of the 19th century. The northern and northeastern provinces of Brazil were going through a period of economic decline. That region, which was once the economic center of the country, was losing its prominent place to the southeast, where coffee plantations were in clear ascendancy.

A very crazy thing to think and try to understand: in Maranhão, half the population was enslaved. Imagine that! For a period of about 50 years, starting in 1811, the captive population in Maranhão was larger than the population of free men.

One of the articles I used in this research, which I highly recommend is entitled “Uma Pioneira: Maria Firmina dos Reis”, by Zahidé Lupinacci Muzart. To get a sense of the role of slavery as an ever-present social background, she selected ads published in the daily newspaper of Maranhão in 1873. There were disgusting ads for children, women and men. 

Keep in mind that those ads were appearing in the newspaper in 1873. The abolition of the slave trade happened, in theory, in 1850. In 1871, the law of the “free womb”, or Rio Branco law, was enacted, saying that the children of enslaved women were free.

Zahidé Lupinacci Muzart also gave great emphasis to the flight of the captives, showing that, contrary to what some defended, the people who lived as slaves were not passive, they did not accept slavery. Men, women, children, they ran away.

On the other hand, what was the situation of women in that society? In these ads, we see the woman’s position there as a wet nurse, taking care of the children or, in other cases, as “company”.

Representative drawing of Maria Firmina for Flup 2018. Illustration by João Gabriel dos Santos Araújo, MG.

Early life 

So let’s start talking about Maria Firmina dos Reis. Although she is not a famous name anymor, she was quite popular at the time, especially in her home province. But in time, she was forgotten, completely erased, until fortunately, she was rediscovered. 

Maria Firmina was called the first Brazilian novelist, but that is not quite right. Ana Luisa de Azevedo Castro was already publishing, in 1958, her novel, (D. Narcisa de Villar) in chapters, in the newspaper A Marmota.

But what we can say is that Maria Firmina was the first Brazilian novelist to introduce the anti-slavery theme in her text.

Her mother was Leonor Felipa, a freed black woman, who had been a slave to the trader and landowner Comendador Caetano José Teixeira. Her father, João Pedro Esteves, was a partner of Caetano José, and therefore, white and wealthy. When Maria Firmina was baptized, 3 years after she was born, her father’s name does not appear, so we know that she was considered a bastard child, born out of wedlock. We also know that she had a sister.

Maria Firmina was born on March 11, 1822. For a long time there was confusion about when she was born, but research by Dilercy Adler clarified this. She was born in São Luís and, just to have more context, that was in the same year of the Independence of Brazil.

In 1827, when she was five, she moved to the village of São José dos Guimarães, where she lived with her grandmother. Some sources say that she had been orphaned, but in others that she grew up with her mother too. Then she also lived with a maternal aunt, “better off economically”, and crucial to her education.

Maria Firmina talks about this phase in her life, years after, in a text entitled “Summary of my life”: “With a weak and shy complexion, I could not help being a fragile, timid creature, and as a consequence melancholy: a kind of nun-like education, came to finish off these natural dispositions. Closed in the maternal home, I only knew the sky, the stars and the flowers, which my grandmother neatly cultivated; maybe that’s why I loved the flowers so much; they were my first love. My sister … my tender sister, and a dear cousin, were my only childhood friends.”

But that’s all we know about her life at this stage. Unfortunately, we have no further details.

Stamp in homage to Maria Firmina’s 190th birthday

Writing Career

The next thing we know is that, in 1847, at the age of 25, she became a primary school teacher, in Vila de Guimarães. She served as a Portuguese Teacher for years and years. A curiosity is that she had to prove that she was over 25 to participate in the contest. First, she had a negative opinion on her request to enrol in the exam, on the grounds that she had no proof that she was over 25 years of age. But she finally managed to prove it and was accepted.

There is a story that was written in the biography written about Maria Firmina that I didn’t see anywhere else. The story goes that when she passed the contest, she refused to walk on a platform parading through the city of São Luís on the back of slaves. So, I don’t know if it’s true, but what they say is that she said that slaves were not animals to take people on top of them.

In January 1853, we see the first entry in the “Album”, the sporadic diary that she kept for fifty years. Sporadic because that’s all we have: the “Album” was kept by one of Maria Firmina’s addictive children, but it was stolen, according to Nascimento Morais Filho, who collected reports from acquaintances, alumni and adopted children of the author. Mr. Leude Guimarães, that son, said that when he went to São Luis, after her death, with the manuscripts with novels and poetry and an album full of things about his life and family. But thieves entered the hotel room where he was staying, broke into the chest, and took everything in it. Only the remnants of that album, which he found on the floor, were left!

And speaking of adopted children, Nascimento Morais Filho says that Maria Firmina adopted several children and also left many spiritual children, among her countless students.

Several small texts appear there, many of them talking about pain, separation, and regrets. Some notes are more poetic, telling about your mood. And others in which she details events. For example, on January 11, 1860, she moved out, in 1862, she adopted an orphan, who unfortunately died a year later. It is sad that we don’t have more details about these events. But we can see that she didn’t have an easy life. This makes her story even more incredible. She had so many difficulties along the way, and still created such an impacting work, knowing, for sure, that she was not conforming to what was expected of her at the time.

So, let’s move on. It was in this context that she began to write her first novel. It is worth remembering that in the 60s, anti-slavery discourses began to appear in Maranhão – and not only in Maranhão, but in all of Brazil. The Eusébio de Queiroz law, enacted in 1850, prohibited the slave trade and brought this whole discussion back to the fore.

It was in this context that, on August 11, 1860, in São Luís, advertisements appeared in the newspapers of Maranhão announcing the launch of a novel, right on the front pages. The novel, announced as a Brazilian original, was called Ursula.

In the prologue, Maria Firmina says:

“It is not the vanity of acquiring a name that blinds me, nor the self-love of the author. I know that this novel is of little use, because it was written by a Brazilian woman and woman, of shy education and without the treatment and conversation of the illustrated men, who advise, discuss and correct, with a poor instruction, only knowing the language of their parents , and little read; its intellectual capital is almost nil.”

The book tells the story of Ursula, a young white woman that takes care of her paralytic mother. The characters at the center of the story are white. The issue of slavery will only appear in the secondary characters, Túlio, Susana and Antero. But slavery is the social scenario of the plot. She reports slavery from the perspective of these characters. 

Maria Firmina gives the captives a voice, through which they report their memories of Africa, bringing that unknown Africa to the whites and literate people of Maranhão. They talk about the crossing, and of course, where they tell about all the violence they were subjected to. She goes a step further and questions the idea that it is possible to be “free” in a slave country, even with manumission. This is all done.

But she does all of this in a way that does not scandalize white readers – she chooses to show the enslaved black people as good, sensitive, intelligent, equal people … people who, despite all the suffering, had not been stultified by slavery. She adopts a model that had already been used by French authors, who they call “bon nègre”, the “black with white soul”. On the other hand, she adopts that position that black people were resigned to slavery, and accepted that position. As Zahidé Lupinacci Muzart says, Ursula’s speech is anti-slavery but not abolitionist – she did not preach for the immediate end of slavery.

Úrsula was well-received in the society of Maranhão – and this is interesting when we realize that Úrsula precedes others of abolitionist or anti-slavery writers, men and whites. And remember, Maranhão was a strongly slave-holding province.

Maria Firmina continued to work as a teacher, but we know that she had some health problems from time to time, because we have records that she asked for some leave from work.

In the following years, she wrote and published poems, chronicles, riddles and riddles in the newspapers, collaborating with several literary newspapers. She also worked on collecting and preserving stories from the oral tradition.

In 1861 she started publishing Gupeva in newspapers, in chapters. It was also there that a text appeared about her in the newspaper A Verdadeira Marmota: “It is rare to see the fair sex indulging in the work of the spirit, and letting the easy pleasures of the hall come up to the lusts of literary affairs.” *eye roll*

Guvepa was a short narrative with an indigenous theme, with clear inspiration in Caramuru (famous Brazilian epic). Years later, in 1871, she published the book of poems Cantos à Beira Mar.

In 1880, at the age of 55, Maria Firmina allegedly founded a primary school in Guimarães, mixed and free. It was the first in Maranhão like that. The school scandalized local circles, in Maçaricó, for being a mixed education, and ended up closing after two and a half years. I didn’t find information that corroborated that. But, according to one of her biographers, Nascimento Morais Filho, she founded this school. What leaves me a little in doubt is that at that time she had constant work license requests, indicating that she was ill.

In 1887, now 62, she published the short story A Escrava (“The Slave”), in the Maranhão magazine.In the story, a wealthy woman, at a social event, begins to speak to the surrounding circle. She takes a clearly and openly anti-abolitionist position, using not only the arguments of humanitarianism and Christian religion, as in Ursula, but also adding economic arguments, speaking of progress, civilization. Here, she already takes a different position from Ursula – abolitionist and not only anti-slavery. 

Also, at that moment, we were on the cusp of the abolition of slavery, which took place the following year. And this is something that makes me very happy: she lived to see abolition! Not only that, she also composed a hymn to the freedom of slaves, lyrics and music.

In March 1991, she retired and, again, we don’t have much information about her for a long time. What we had access to, according to the dates available on the Memorial website of Maria Firmina dos Reis, says that that year, she was ill, and received a courtesy visit from Governor Luiz Domingues, which shows that she really achieved a lot of prestige and reputation in Maranhão.

The End… and Revival

She passed away on November 11, 1917 in Guimarães, at the age of 95. We do not know the cause of death or other information. According to Nascimento Morais Filho, she died blind and poor. I didn’t find any more corroboration, but he talked to friends, alumni and children, right, so maybe he has a basis. Very sad.

And then … nothing. Maria Firmina has been forgotten for decades. We didn’t have photos or anything, of her. Her work was only rescued in 1962 when the Paraíba historian Horácio de Almeida found something published by Maria Firmina in a second-hand bookstore in Rio de Janeiro. In 1975, he prepared a facsimile edition of Ursula, bringing the book to the people. Interesting that Maria Firmina’s rediscovery took place in the 70s, at a time of the boom of the feminist and black consciousness movement in Brazil.

It was also in that year that Nascimento Morais Filho published the volume “Maria Firmina, Fragmentos de uma Vida”. It was thanks to the reports he collected that we discovered the skin color of Maria Firmina. We don’t have paintings or photos of her, and many of the images that circulate on the internet today are actually from the 19th century southern writer Maria Benedita Camara Bormna, known as Délia. There is even a painting in a government building in Guimarães, saying that it is Maria Firmina.

For those who are curious about the very beautiful image in this article, it is made based on the stories in her biography, made by Wal Paixão. 

In 2017, the centenary of Firmina’s death, her books were re-released: Úrsula, already in the seventh edition, with an appendix to the 1887 short story “The Slave”; Gupeva, in sixth edition; besides Cantos à beira-mar, the volume of poems organized by researcher Dilercy Aragão Adler.

Finally, in 2019, Google paid tribute to Maria Firmina, with a Google Doodle. we don’t know her face, so the artist wanted to show how strong and proud she was as a black woman in a country with slavery.

I would like to end with this phrase of Úrsula, said by Túlio: “The mind, no one can enslave!”

More information (in Portuguese):

  • Uma Pioneira: Maria Firmina dos Reis:
  • Ilustração do Wal Paixão:
  • Memorial de Maria Firmina dos Reis:
  • A Escrava:

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