The Alufa Rufino

Image_Adir Sodré


Commentary on the biography of Malê Rufino José Maria

There are definitive books. This is one of them. Definitive for the excellence of research in national and international archives, the perfection of the three-way narrative and a central thesis: in the past, black men were not just victims. Made of flesh and bone, they moved skillfully in the universe of slavery, building, independently, trajectories shaped by the living conditions then existing.

Its common thread is the thick, almost total biography of male Rufino José Maria, enslaved in one of the most powerful states in the Gulf of Benin region: Oyó. It was the 1820s. Taken prisoner by an ethnic group different from his, Rufino ended up in Bahia. It began an adventure that the authors weave together with the precision and patience that only passionate people and great specialists are capable of.

Rufino was 17 years old and Muslim. He started working in a pardo's apothecary, where he learned how to make medicine. He went to Porto Alegre, cook for a powerful man, where he attended, along with freed slaves and slaves, a “mina club”, where they learned to read, count and pray. The most important thing is that the Koran was disseminated there. Around the same time as the Malian uprisings in the Recôncavo, he bought his freedom and went to the biggest African babel in the Americas: the port of Rio de Janeiro. There he frequented the Mina minority among the Bantu majority. There, too, he enlisted as a worker in the transatlantic slave trade: he started out as a cook. He had money, good living and security.

Rufino was not a saint, nor would he rare bird aboard the slave ships he embarked on. There, Africans were employed in large numbers. In addition to working as sailors, they knew the regions that supplied slaves, served as interpreters and could better convince, calm, organize and control captives whose languages ​​they knew how to speak. Those were years when the importation of slaves grew by 150%. On the schooner Paula, Rufino explored the Angolan coast: Luanda, Novo Redondo, Ambriz, Cabinda...

In São José, he was imprisoned in Pernambuco, on whose beaches, traffic dumped what he called “settlers” or “black diamonds”. At Ermelinda, he had already risen through the ranks of trafficking: he cooked for more than 400 people and was a “carrier”, that is, he shipped loads to be sold in Africa: brandy, boxes of sweets and cigars. Small transatlantic trader, he was seized by one of the ships of the Royal Navy who hunted the so-called “floating coffins” or “marine lazarets”. In twenty years, Rufino went from being a domestic slave to a polyglot and cosmopolitan merchant.

The book is notable not only for the account of Rufino's life, but for the setting it invites us to look at: physical Africa, its peoples, kingdoms and colonial territories. Detailed description of cities like São Paulo de Luanda or Freetown. The interior of the vessels, with a fine display of how they functioned: the pantry, the crew from different origins, the diseases that were rampant, the rigorous wages paid without discrimination of color, the goods they transported, as they were considered true street markets offering rolls tobacco, boxes of sugar, barrels of cachaça, bags of rice or manioc flour. Who were the bosses. The organization of companies and the fight between traffickers. The role of philanthropists like the Englishman Granville Sharp who embraced the cause of abolition or Equipment Act of 1839, in the fight against trafficking.

The adventure continues from sea to land, as, back in Brazil, Rufino will dedicate himself to teaching the Koran to “African sectarians of Mohammed”. The famous alufá, healer, diviner, priest and schoolmaster, taught Mohammedan uses and customs at home, revealing the presence of religious groups of different Islamic orientation in a cosmopolitan Recife, in 1835.

In an enthralling narrative, the book goes through the formative years of the young slave, the circumstances of his rise as a trader and finally, his engagement or commitment to the religion of his ancestors. But in order to connect Rufino to his world, the book invites us to consider slavery in a more acute way: until the XNUMXth century in Europe and until the XNUMXth century in the rest of the world, slavery, with its thousand variants, was the most common form of organization of work, the foundation of the whole economy. She was the norm, not the exception. And of this gear, like any man of his time, Rufino was part. Different matrices of information and documents intersect, overlap, clarify and complete the work that is a mosaic. In its shadow an entire era revives, with its tensions, violence and chronic instability.

The face that, however, emerges from this composition is that of a man who had insight into the situations that surrounded him and who made history. And the question arises that he doesn't want to silence: with so many trips to Africa and free black people, why didn't he return to his homeland? For there loomed the permanent danger of re-enslavement. Already in Brazil, he had freedom, goods, family, disciples and clients. Wandering led Rufino to root.

Between Brazil and Africa, the funeral procession of slave ships left almost no marks. Its route is muffled by silence as if such great vessels came from waters other than those of our history. The horror emanating from its deck is mute. How mute were the unfortunates sent to the bottom of the sea, chains on their feet. Signals? A few wrinkles on the surface of the water, the stench swept away by the wind. This epic of pain hovers over a faded landscape. The slave trade is the great silence of history.

If approaching the complexity of so many subjects related to Africa is intimidating, here, on the contrary, the authors celebrate a happy marriage between historical reflection and biography that reads like a novel. The text has the genius of storytellers, apkalo Africans. Nothing new, by the way, for the three historians with consecrated and internationally recognized works.

The West is indignant today for having committed this supreme sin against humanity. But this evident culpability does not allow us to close our eyes to another, equally cruel truth: trafficking was not its prerogative. Several cultures or “civilizations” practiced it, including blacks and Arabs. Mauritania, for example, only abolished slavery in 1980. The West's contribution was, however, twofold: through technical means, it promoted and sophisticated trafficking. But, also, came from the West the condemnation, abjection and denunciation of the vile trade, mainly due to brave spirits, notably Protestants and English.

Rufino's trajectory makes us think that we shouldn't look for the Monster in the other, before discovering it in ourselves. For he hides there, where history is silent. Provoking her and listening to her talk is essential for us to leave behind notions of “victimization” that most silence the lives of Afro-descendants in Brazil and feed the so detestable “racism”. Rare are the works capable of animating and perceiving nuances in traditionally fixed categories such as “the slave”.

Because in this, the reader will find plenty of information necessary to understand such characters, not as homogeneous individuals, brought from something abstract and distant – Africa. But people of flesh and blood, belonging to specific cultural groups – and there were thousands of them on the continent – ​​with their tools of differentiation capable of giving them an identity, inserted in an economic system, and capable, like any of us, of the best and the worst. “O alufá Rufino” is a milestone in a historiography without borders.

*Mary Del Priore is a historian and author of To the south of the body: Feminine condition, motherhood and mentalities in Colonial Brazil(Unesp).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews, No. 11, March 2011.


João José Reis, Flávio dos Santos Gomes and Marcus JM de Carvalho. Alufa Rufino. Traffic, slavery and freedom in the Black Atlantic (c.1822 – c.1853). São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 482 pages,


See this link for all articles


  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Strengthen PROIFESclassroom 54mf 15/06/2024 By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO: The attempt to cancel PROIFES and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to the errors of ANDES management is a disservice to the construction of a new representation scenario
  • Letter to the presidentSquid 59mk,g 18/06/2024 By FRANCISCO ALVES, JOÃO DOS REIS SILVA JÚNIOR & VALDEMAR SGUISSARDI: “We completely agree with Your Excellency. when he states and reaffirms that 'Education is an investment, not an expense'”
  • Volodymyr Zelensky's trapstar wars 15/06/2024 By HUGO DIONÍSIO: Whether Zelensky gets his glass full – the US entry into the war – or his glass half full – Europe’s entry into the war – either solution is devastating for our lives
  • PEC-65: independence or patrimonialism in the Central Bank?Campos Neto Trojan Horse 17/06/2024 By PEDRO PAULO ZAHLUTH BASTOS: What Roberto Campos Neto proposes is the constitutional amendment of free lunch for the future elite of the Central Bank
  • Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marxred triangular culture 02/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: Commentary on the book by Michael Heinrich
  • Hélio Pellegrino, 100 years oldHelio Pellegrino 14/06/2024 By FERNANDA CANAVÊZ & FERNANDA PACHECO-FERREIRA: In the vast elaboration of the psychoanalyst and writer, there is still an aspect little explored: the class struggle in psychoanalysis
  • The melancholic end of Estadãoabandoned cars 17/06/2024 By JULIAN RODRIGUES: Bad news: the almost sesquicentennial daily newspaper in São Paulo (and the best Brazilian newspaper) is rapidly declining