Rosa Egipcíaca, also known as Rosa Maria Egipcíaca of Vera Cruz and Rosa Courana, was an extraordinary individual whose life journey traversed the harsh realities of enslavement, prostitution, spiritual awakening, and ultimately, literary achievement. Born in 1719 in the Costa da Mina region, near modern-day Lagos, Nigeria, Rosa’s life was profoundly shaped by the Atlantic slave trade, which brought her to Rio de Janeiro at the tender age of six. Her remarkable story highlights the resilience of the human spirit and its capacity for transformation.
Rosa Egipcíaca’s early years were fraught with suffering and hardship. Enslaved as a child, she was baptized in the Igreja da Candelária upon her arrival in Rio de Janeiro and given the name Rosa, which would become her identity in the new world. Her journey through enslavement was marred by the abuse she endured, particularly at the hands of her first enslaver, José de Souza de Azevedo, who subjected her to sexual exploitation.
However, her life took a dramatic turn when she was sold to Dona Ana Garcês de Morais, who owned a mining camp in the Minas Gerais region. Rosa, as the sole enslaved woman among seventy-seven men, was forced into a life of prostitution as an “escrava de ganho.” (Earning slave)
At the age of 29, Rosa Egipcíaca’s life took a transformative course. She began experiencing supernatural visions following a period of severe illness, which she believed to be caused by demonic forces. Her symptoms, as interpreted by historian Robert Krueger, were linked to venereal disease. Seeking spiritual guidance, she was exorcized by the renowned Catholic priest Francisco Gonçalves Lopes, known as the “scourge of demons.”
Rosa’s relationship with Lopes led to scandal and accusations of an affair, resulting in their prosecution by the Inquisition. Despite the challenges she faced, Rosa’s resilience remained unwavering.
In 1748, after her release from prison, Rosa Maria Egipcíaca da Vera Cruz emerged with a new identity, inspired by Saint Mary of Egypt. She began preaching to crowds about her divine visions and endured further persecution, including being accused of witchcraft and subjected to flogging, which left her paralyzed on her right side for life.
It was in Rio de Janeiro that Rosa’s life took a new direction. Embraced by the Franciscan clergy, she became known as the “Flower of Rio.” Under the guidance of Brother Agostinho de São José, she embarked on a spiritual journey that included fasting, self-flagellation, and wearing a cilice.
During her time in Rio de Janeiro, Rosa Egipcíaca achieved a remarkable milestone—she learned to read and write. In doing so, she became the first recorded person of African origin in Brazil to acquire this knowledge. Her inspiration for learning came from a vision of St. Anne.
Her literary masterpiece, “A Sagrada Teologia do Amor de Deus Luz Brilhante das Almas Peregrinas” (The Sacred Theology of Love of God Brilliant Light of Pilgrim Souls), stands as a testament to her spiritual journey and creative expression. While only six pages of the original 290-page book have survived, it remains the oldest known work written by a black woman in Brazil.
In 1762, a pivotal moment in Rosa’s life occurred when she and Lopes were arrested and imprisoned for their involvement in the cult of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. They spent one year imprisoned in Rio before appearing at the Tribunal of the Saintly Office in Lisbon in August 1763. During their interrogations, Lopes accused Egipcíaca of deceiving him, while she steadfastly declared that all her visions were true. She underwent questioning on five occasions, with her last recorded interrogation in June 1765 by Jeronimo Rogado Carvalho e Silva.
Subsequently, Rosa found herself working as a kitchen servant for the Inquisition, a role that marked a significant shift in her life.
On October 12, 1771, Rosa Egipcíaca passed away in the kitchen of the household of the Inquisition. Her death was reported to be due to natural causes, marking the conclusion of a remarkable and tumultuous life journey.
Today, Ros’s legacy stands as a symbol of strength and determination in the face of adversity, and her literary works continue to inspire generations, bringing to light the often-overlooked history of Afro-Brazilian women writers.