A Celebration of Courage: Who was Felipa de Souza?

In 1591 the Inquisition began its notorious "confession sessions" in the northeast of Brazil, basing their operations in Salvador, then the capital of the Portuguese colony. The aim of these sessions was to search for and arrest those accused of sins and crimes against the faith and sexual morals. Amongst the first to confess was Paula de Sequeiro who, on August 20, accused a widow named Felipa de Souza -- from whom she had been receiving love letters for two years -- of having shared many moments of physical pleasure.

As the "nefarious and abominable crime of sodomy" was punishable by death, and knowing that the Inquisitors were sympathetic to those who volunteered confessions, many panic-stricken women came forward and admitted to intimate relations with Felipa.

Felipa had previously been expelled from a convent in Portugal for the crime of sodomy. She must have caused a good deal of apprehension in the small Salvador, as she was the only one of the accused women to face the Inquisition's court. During the trial, she admitted to having had intimate relations with the woman mentioned, brazenly stating that "all those communications provided her much love and carnal affection."

Found guilty, Felipa's sentence was less severe than that doled out to other women accused of the same crime in Europe at the time. On January 4, 1592, she was condemned to exile. Holding a lit candle, barefooted and wearing a simple tunic, she was viciously whipped while walking the streets of Salvador so she could serve as an example to all the inhabitants. As spiritual penance, she was forced to fast on bread and water for 15 Fridays and 9 Saturdays. She was then expelled from the state of Bahia, taking with her "her vices and ill reputation." Besides the shame and public humiliation of her punishment and exile, Felipa de Souza had to pay for the trial costs: 992 reis, at the equivalent of a sailor's monthly salary, or three months of a manual laborer's pay.

Based on an extract from O Lesbianismo no Brasil, by Luiz Mott (Mercado Aberto, 1987).