In Spain, brotherhood set up by slaves marches at Easter

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In Spain, brotherhood set up by slaves marches at Easter
Samuel, a member of "Los Negritos Brotherhood" in Seville. Photo: CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP

For centuries, African slaves and emancipated men marched in Seville's Easter parades, carrying statues of Christ and the Virgin on their shoulders as part of a unique brotherhood that remains active today.


Founded more than 600 years ago, the Black Brotherhood is the oldest
religious brotherhood still active in this southern city, which is widely seen
as the centre of Holy Week celebrations in Spain.

Officially known as the "Most Holy Christ of the Foundation and Our Lady of
Angels", the brotherhood has for centuries been known as "La Hermandad de los Negritos", a name its members chose themselves.

It is one of 70 brotherhoods and voluntary associations involved in staging
multiple Easter week processions when Christians remember the death and
resurrection of Jesus.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Semana Santa in Seville

What's unique about this brotherhood is that it emerged in the late 14th
century, made up of Africans - both slaves and freedmen - who were barred
from similar organisations, says Isidoro Moreno, a retired anthropologist from
Seville University.

The example was later "exported" to the Americas where "dozens of black
brotherhoods (were set up) in the 16th century," says Moreno, author of a book
called "The ancient brotherhood of the black people of Seville".

It was only at the end of the 19th century that the Brotherhood began admitting white people.

Black and African saints

Inside the Chapel of Our Lady of Angels, which was built in 1550 on a plot of land owned by the Brotherhood, there are icons of black saints such as Benedict the Moor from Sicily and Martín de Porres of Peru.

It was from here that the brothers and Nazarene 'penitents' with their long
robes and distinctive pointed hoods set out on Maundy Thursday for their
annual procession to Seville Cathedral.

The pointed 'capirote' hoods originated in the 15th century when they were
put over the heads of those condemned by the Inquisition.

They were later adopted by southern Spain's Catholic brotherhoods for use
at Easter as a symbol of penitence, with white symbolising purity.

Shouldering heavy floats depicting scenes from the Passion but also adorned
with the faces of Ethiopian saints Elesban and Ephigenia, the Brotherhood's
'costaleros; slowly made their way through the streets.

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Among them is Raul de Lemos, a 19-year-old student and one of the few black
members of the Brotherhood.

Being in the Brotherhood "is a good thing, a way of remembering the past,"
the bearded teen told AFP during rehearsals ahead of Holy Week.



The Brotherhood emerged out of a refuge set up in the 1390s by Seville's
archbishop Gonzalo de Mena for African slaves who were abandoned by their
owners through advanced age or illness.

Slaves were allowed to join, "with their owners' permission", along with
others who managed to buy their freedom or won it after their owners' died,
Moreno said.

Following Europe's discovery of the Americas, there was rising demand for
cheap labour which saw a growing number of Africans shipped into the Iberian

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So great was the influx that Seville became one of Spain's biggest slavery centres, with Africans accounting for 12 percent of the city's population in
the 16th and 17th centuries.

With most of the Brotherhood's members from the poorest sectors of society,
they were subject to "much stricter" supervision by the Catholic Church with
white ruling classes fearful of an uprising, Moreno says.


Saved by a papal edit

In 1604, a Maundy Thursday standoff saw its members come to blows with a
brotherhood of nobles, leaving several people injured, Moreno says.

Several members were whipped, and the Brotherhood was forbidden to
participate in the rest of the Holy Week processions.

The Brotherhood might have disappeared altogether without being saved by a
papal edict in 1625, ratifying its existence and protecting it.

By the mid-18th century, it formally adopted "the Black Brotherhood" as its
name, as it had long been known colloquially, Moreno says.

In the 19th century, when Seville's black population dwindled, the Brotherhood began admitting white people, little-by-little becoming a local institution for residents.

"What the Brotherhood is most proud of... is that we are the successors of
those black people who fought so hard" to preserve the organisation over time,
said Alfredo Montilla, one of its leaders.



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