When French ideas invaded Recife

Below is my translation of part of an article (PT) from a Brazilian history magazine about the 19th century intrusion of “French ideas” into Brazilian thinking. The focus is on women’s roles.


The first half of the 19th century, in the Northeast, was the era of the Pernambucan Insurrection (1817), the Confederation of Equator (1824) and the Praieira Insurrection (1848). On the streets one could hear talk of the Enlightenment, the so-called “French ideas”, like ‘Republic’ and ‘Constitution’. Extolled was the idea of liberty which, like today, has many meanings.

But, what about the women? And the bedrooms? Is it possible that those ideas remained only in the political realm?

While there was no sexual revolution parellel to the so-called “liberal revolutions”, a lot of things would change in the intimate customs of Brazilian cities. The free population of the central neighborhoods of Recife practically doubled between Independence and 1850, principally due to the arrival of people from the immediate inland areas, like failing sugar plantations, gradually engulfed by the city. Many of these new inhabitants were free and liberated women. In the census of 1828 and 1855, they were the absolute majority in the central neighborhoods of Recife. The dynamic of urban life attracted the feminine population, as the city was seen as a place of liberty and progress. There were more opportunities for work and more life experiences to be had than in the Zona da Mata being submitted to the harsh unwritten rules of rural patriarchy.

A symptom of a possibly larger wildness was the number of births out of wedlock registered in the churches of Recife. In the central neighborhoods of the city (Recife, Santo Antônio, São José and Boa Vista), 46% of the children baptized in 1838 were illegitamate. In the sugar parishes of Jaboatão, Ipojuca, Cabo and Goiana, they made up just 25%. To maintain these children, it was inevitable to find work. Many houses were true industries, offering various services in the newspapers which would normally be reserved for women, such as teaching, making sweets and sewing clothes. The women of Recife dressed the French way. The richer ones had their dresses made in Paris, while the rest copied what they saw in French style magazines. In the 1840s, French women would offer themselves in the newspapers for French lessons, as well as lessons in the piano, dance and sewing in accordance with costumes from their country. But there were also Brazilian women who knew how to sew and searched out employment in a “French” store.


Before the Brazilian brothels were invaded by Polish and French women at the turn of the 20th century, some Azorean women arrived in Recife in crowded ships. Only those who could pay the price of the voyage could disembark. Hundreds of people traveled across the Atlantic in these circumstances in the 1840s and 1850s. This abusive practice was called “the trafficking of white slavery” by the Lusitanian consul . There were real auctions held upon arrival where the prettiest women would get the highest prices while still on the deck. Later, they were taken to the brothels. Most of the time, it wasn’t their choice, but that of the person who bid on their services and paid for their voyage.


One response to “When French ideas invaded Recife

  1. Pingback: Food in the French Recife | Eyes On Recife·

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