The Wet Nurse

~ 1853 ~

Nature, it seemed, was sending a signal. At daybreak, the plantation beehives awoke in a frenzy. Swarms invaded the mansion, provoking an uproar. Slave women dashed outside with their mistresses, still in their sleepwear, fanning them with scraps of cloth to shoo away the bees. The wet nurse ran out carrying her young charge―a little boy who, at seven years old, was no longer so little―wrapped in a sheet.

An overseer unlocked the slave quarters, and everyone there ran out to help. Burning cloth torches, they filled the mansion with smoke to scare off the bees. One of the swarms invaded the overseers’ private quarters and the stables, inciting the horses to stampede. The overseers tried to calm the horses while, at the same time, directing the group of slaves near the house. The plantation manager, the most feared of all the overseers, was attacked by bees as he tried to subdue his horse. He fell off, thrashing about in a futile attempt to get rid of the swarm. His horse, now free, kicked him in the face and took off in a flash, leaving him motionless in a pool of blood.

One of the young slaves who saw what happened exclaimed, in a glimmer of hope, “Freedom! Freedom!”

His companions, most of whom were recently purchased in the loathsome slave markets of Rio de Janeiro and who still yearned to be free, quickly understood the signal. Leaving the bees aside, they descended upon the other overseers, wrestling control over them and chaining them to a post near the mansion. Then they rushed to the stables to fetch the remaining horses and took off galloping, two or three astride each animal. 

One of them, alone on a horse, drew to a halt near the wet nurse and called out, “Ma’am, come on! Leave the boy there and come with me!”

“No, go on. I can’t leave the boy here alone, he needs me.”

“Stop being a fool, Ma’am! When the master returns, he won’t take pity on anybody who stayed behind!”

“Go on, I’m staying here.”

And so it was that the wet nurse and an old man who could barely see any more were the only slaves left on the plantation. All the others had fled, including women and children. On the road, they found the rest of the horses, now calmed down, and took off with them all. This allowed them to gain a margin of safety before the slave catchers could mount an expedition. The owner of the plantation was away on a trip and would not return until nightfall.

As the heat of the day rose, the frenzied bees came together into a single swarm and soon left. The overseers managed to get loose from the ropes, but there was nothing more they could do, since all the horses were gone, leaving them stranded. They concentrated on putting out the fires set by the torches abandoned in the stables and storehouse. They found this task arduous, since they were few in number and not used to hard work like the slaves were. The ladies of the plantation could do little more than watch and whine about what happened.

That night, the plantation owner arrived while the overseers were extinguishing the last of the fires.

“Curses! Curses! Oh, that gang of n----rs, they’ll pay for this!” He ordered the overseers to chain the wet nurse and the old man to a post, along with the three slaves who had traveled with him.

“Whip their hides to shreds! Let them be an example for the rest of them! Then take my horse and go to the city to fetch the slave catcher. I want him here tonight!”

A small voice said, “Father, don’t hurt them, they didn’t do anything! Don’t mistreat my nursemaid!”

“Shut up, boy! She’s going to get the punishment she deserves! And don’t ever again call her your nurse-whatever, she’s nothing but a disgusting n----r, a fat cow!”

“No, Father, she takes care of me, leave her a-...” but he couldn’t finish his words. A blow to his face knocked him into a corner, his mouth bleeding.

“Take this brat out of here!” his father shouted to his wife. “Tomorrow he’ll be sent to the city! The boarding school will teach him how to be a man. I don’t want any sissies around here!”

The mistress of the plantation, cowed and silent, hurried the boy to his bedroom.

“Don’t leave this room! Your father is upset, don’t irritate him any further, or else things will get even worse.”

“Please, Mother, don’t let him hurt my dear nursemaid!”

“Quiet!” she snapped, emphasizing the command with a slap to the boy’s face. “Don’t talk to me about that slave woman!”

She left the boy all by himself, sobbing inconsolably. Outside, at the post, the whips sliced up the skin of the slaves’ bodies. The old man was the first to lose all strength and sink to the ground. Then the wet nurse collapsed. In his room, the boy groaned with every lash he heard. 

When at last the overseers left the slaves lying prostrate, the night was filled with silence. The boy fell asleep crying. Late at night, the lights in the lanterns were finally put out.

At dawn, the wet nurse woke up from her stupor as a hand caressed her face.
“Nursie... wake up, Nursie!”

“Little master, what are you doing here? Go back to the house! If your father finds you here, he’ll be angry.”

“No, let me stay here with you. Are you badly hurt?”

The woman, her arms chained to the post, let the boy snuggle against her breasts.

“Little master, my body is sore all over, but my soul is at peace. Soon it will cross the great sea and return to the land where I was born. It will fly over the fields like a bird to join other freed souls, when they will smile and play together like children. Then my soul will join God... not the god of white people, or the gods of black people, but the God of souls and spirits, who have no color and who are all equal. I will be like the wind caressing the flowers, like a ray of sun warming the skin of my people...”

“Don’t leave me, Nursie! Stay with me...”

“If I could... but... you can... keep me in your heart... as a memory... it doesn’t hurt... it weighs nothing...”


The boy embraced the woman gently, making sure not to cause further pain to her wounds. She groaned softly from time to time. He fell asleep with his head resting on the breasts that for so long had nurtured him as a baby. The early light of dawn was beginning to peek out when the old man woke the boy up.

“Little master, wake up. Go back to the house before anyone gets up.”

“I want to stay here with my nursie.”

“Little one, it’s getting late, you have to go. Your nurse is already gone. Her soul is now free and far away.”

The boy, seeing that his wet nurse was indeed dead, threw his arms around her and began sobbing with despair. When his crying finally subsided, he decided, in a daze, to do what the old man said and went back to his room. 

As the morning sun rose, his mother came to tell him that his wet nurse had died. He began to cry again, staying in his room the whole day.

The slave catcher came by in the afternoon with an update for the plantation owner.

“Sir, it’s too hard now to catch up with the fugitives. They were all riding horses and heading toward quilombos, the villages of other runaway slaves. It’s very hard to get into their settlements, they are well guarded.” 

“You good-for-nothing, get out of my sight! If you can’t even manage to catch up to a band of n----rs! You’re worthless to me! Go on, get!”

The very next day, the boy was taken away to the Imperial Court, where he was put in a boarding school. His father accompanied him to the city and bought some more slaves. The plantation could not function without slave labor.

* * *

~ 1868 ~

A young lawyer, who had recently received his degree, stood listening to a friend of his, the poet Castro Alves, on the steps of the São José Theater in São Paulo. The poet was among some colleagues, rehearsing a reading of his most recent poem, “The Slave Ship,” which, in a few days, he would recite in a formal presentation to a group of artists. As he listened, the young lawyer felt his soul wince as each verse, one after another, was read aloud. His eyes, brimming with tears, seemed to be hypnotized by the power and blunt honesty of the composition. He wished he could escape from there, from those painful, unrelenting verses, but he found it impossible.

“The deck of the ship was a Dantesque nightmare
On which bright lights cast a red glare
Bathing it all as in blood.
The jangle of chains, the whip’s shrieking bite,
As legions of men black as night,
Engage in a dance so macabre.
Women, jet-black, in whose arms there still rest
Gaunt infants who cling to the breast
Suckling their mother’s thin blood.
Naked young girls lurch about in their terror,
Among wretched wraiths that all stagger,
Yearning in vain for lost love!”

The lawyer’s thoughts took him back to his childhood. He remembered his wet nurse, the black woman who had nourished him with her ample breasts when he was little.  Despite her life of suffering as a slave, she was cheerful and affectionate with him, welcoming him into her arms to nurse, rocking him to sleep with songs in her African language. His biological mother, to the contrary, hardly ever saw him and treated him like a son only in the presence of visitors. She always blamed him for the pains she had suffered during labor. She was revolted by him, knowing he was nourished with the milk of a black woman.

His nursemaid had died because of the cruelty of his father, who, infuriated by the rebellion of his slaves, had ordered the few who remained to be chained to a post and whipped to death. The lawyer let his tears flow while the stinging verses continued:

“The old man gasps out as he slips on the floor,
He screams as the whip more and more
Comes flying and cracking upon him.
Bound in the links of a single long chain,
The famished mass stumbles again,
Dancing while weeping within.
All are deranged from their wrath or despair,
Or hardened from trials never spared,
Singing, they moan while they grin.”

“Yesterday, utterly free,
Able to live their own life,
Today, at the apex of evil,
They can’t even choose if they die.”

“Oh, Lord, god of wretches, what is it I see,
The truth or merely deceit?
Such horrors beneath your own skies!
Oh, mighty ocean, why won’t you erase
With the sponge of your waves this disgrace
Besmirching your cloak with such cries?
Let tempests, dark nights, and every last star
Roll in from the vastness afar
Send typhoons to sweep out the tides!”

The young lawyer, mesmerized, hardly heard the applause at the end of the reading. Castro came up to him.

“Are you all right, my friend?”

“Oh, Castro, how truly you speak! You captured those horrors with such bluntness! I’m fine, don’t worry: it’s just memories. And thank you: you have helped me make a decision. Good luck in your recitation, but I will not be there to hear it. I have a problem I must resolve.”

A few days later, the young lawyer arrived at his father’s plantation. His father had enlarged his holdings, arranged more business deals, and acquired many slaves. However, he eventually become ill and infirm. He had no other option but to turn everything over to his son whom he had sent to boarding school at the Court fifteen years earlier, soon after his former slaves had rebelled.

But a day after he returned, his son, now grown, dismissed the overseers and called a meeting with the slaves, announcing that they were all freed. His father, sick and weak, witnessed everything with indignation.

“Have you gone mad?! How are we going to survive? Did the Court make you lose your wits? Stop this madness now, stop it! Where are the overseers? Summon them here, order them to lock up the slaves!”

“No, Father! It’s no use any more. You killed my wet nurse after the rebellion, even though she was innocent. You killed an old man and three more of your slaves who had nothing to do with the uprising. How many others have you abused and mistreated? Your whole life, Father, you did nothing but make your slaves suffer. You refused to heed my pleas to spare my wet nurse, my nursemaid, who was a mother to me. Now, Father, you are helpless to stop me. I will do what is right. No more cowardice! Be quiet! You still have a little time left to live, take advantage of it and watch how I will bring about justice.”

The plantation owner could do nothing more. His son came to an agreement with the former slaves: those who wanted to leave were free to go, and those who wanted to stay could become sharecroppers on the plantation. The arrangement was successful and the plantation prospered. The old owner died within a few weeks, whether from disillusionment, indignation, or illness―no one knew.

Twenty years later, on May 13, 1888, the echo of such abolitionist words touched the heart of Princess Isabel, who at last issued the Golden Law, allowing the country to counteract, little by little, the shamefulness of the slave regime.

(The verses cited above are excerpted from
O Navio Negreiroby Antônio Frederico de Castro Alves, 1868.)

JOSÉ ANILTO was born on July 3rd, 1957 in Alagoinha, State of Pernambuco. He is a Military Police Captain in the State of São Paulo.

He publishes his stories at literary portal Recanto das Letras [Nook of Letters], as well as his personal site.

In 2012, he publishes his first book, Textos selecionados – Coletâneade contos e crônicas [Selected Texts – A Collection of Short Stories and Articles].

Translated by