In 1888, with the proclamation of the Lei Áurea [Golden Law], Brazil became one of the last countries to legally abolish slavery. Even so, segregation and violence continued, rooted in the structural racism that has characterized Brazilian society until today. In the Brazilian Navy – which in the first decade of the 20th century had begun a process of technological modernization with the purchase of two battleships – white officers commanded crews made up almost entirely of black and mixed-race sailors often enlisted by force, and they had the right to use corporal punishment. After some frustrated attempts to improve working conditions through negotiations, the crew members revolted in November 1910, demanding an end to this practice. In the insurrection, they assumed control of the new battleships and two smaller vessels and pointed the big guns toward Rio de Janeiro. In a letter addressed to the president of the Republic and signed by a leader of the revolt – João Cândido, nicknamed Almirante Negro [Black Admiral] – the sailors stated that they could no longer “stand the slavery in the Brazilian Navy.”
The revolt was successful: the government had to capitulate, to grant amnesty to the mutinied sailors, and to prohibit corporal punishment aboard ships. In a short time, however, practically all the leaders of the revolt were arrested, punished or dead. In the dungeon of the penitentiary on Cobras Island, on Christmas Eve 1910, João Cândido watched sixteen of his seventeen cellmates die by suffocation from the fumes of the quicklime used to disinfect the cell. In the nearly two years that he was imprisoned, Cândido spent much of his time embroidering, producing many works, including the two embroideries that are presented here. In one of them, the word “amôr” [love] spreads outside the banner held aloft by two birds above a pierced heart; in the other, the hands of two arms clothed in different uniforms – one an admiral’s and the other a sailor’s – are clasping each other or raising an anchor together, between the words ordem [order] and liberdade [freedom].
The lyricism of the compositions contrasts with the image projected on this man, the son of enslaved people, and a revolutionary hero. In the solitude of the dungeon, haunted by the death of his shipmates and betrayed by his government, Cândido showed that he was a much more complex man than the narratives about his biography would suggest. Despite being seen as a sort of historical footnote, these embroideries possess an inestimable value, insofar as they condense the need and possibility of expressing our truths and desires even at moments when it seems that there is no escape. They evidence, beyond any doubt, that singing in the dark is possible and is, perhaps, the most courageous demonstration of strength. They vouch for the conviction that for as long as there is life there will be struggle and poetry – as these both, in combination, are inalienable parts of existence.