Loose dirt gathered under Licinio Nunes de Miranda’s shoes and the unrelenting summer sun followed him as he searched Brazilian tombstones. He leapt from one plot to the next, teetering through unkempt monuments scattered on uneven ground.
With sweat-stained clothes in July 2020, after three years and about 7,000 checked tombstones, the Gainesville resident spotted the tomb of the Sea Dragon — a Brazilian abolitionist, whose grave had been lost for more than a century.
Miranda, a 36-year-old UF history graduate student, spent three years searching for the tomb of Francisco José do Nascimento, nicknamed the Sea Dragon because of his beginnings as a fisherman.
“Finally one day I was walking around and I saw it from a few feet away,” he said. “My heart stopped and I was just like, ‘That’s it. It’s him.’”
Born in 1839, Nascimento was an illegitimate child of African and indigenous descent. He began an abolition movement in Northwest Brazil seven years before Brazil would abolish slavery.
In 1881, Nascimento convinced dock workers, who load and unload ships and other vehicles, to strike, and refuse to move slaves onto the cargo ships that left the Northwest Brazilian coast. This was the first popular victory against slavery in Brazil, Miranda said.
But Nascimento’s tomb was forgotten after his death in 1914 even though he is one of Brazil’s 10 national heroes. Miranda said he might’ve been forgotten because Nascimento did not fit the mold of abolitionists at the time: white men of middle or upper class. On top of this, there were few people who wrote books about the Sea Dragon during his lifetime and so he wasn’t given the respect he was owed, he added.
“I mean, the guy, he is quite a character,” Miranda said. “And he was from a humble background.”
Miranda’s search began with research funded by UF’s Research Abroad for Doctoral students. First, he had to find out when and where the Sea Dragon died. By sifting through Brazilian newspapers and documents, he eventually discovered that when Nascimento died, he’d been in Fortaleza, the capital of Brazil province Ceará.
There was only one cemetery in the city at the time of Nascimento’s death, so Miranda said he felt the tomb must be there.
In the summer of 2018, he flew from his home in Gainesville to Fortaleza, Brazil to search the São João Batista cemetery burial records, where he found confirmation of Nascimento’s tomb.
“I knew when he had been buried, but it doesn't tell you where exactly he was buried,” Miranda said. “And even the administration of the cemetery didn't know.”
This was the easy part, Miranda said, as he would have to comb the 15,000 headstones in the cemetery until he found the resting place of the Sea Dragon.
Miranda went back to Brazil for the next two summers to trek across the cemetery in search of Nascimento’s tomb before finding it in July.
Like much of the cemetery, Nascimento’s tomb was in bad shape when Miranda happened upon it. A decorative cross had been broken and green moss crept up its base.
“The cemetery, even though it's a mixture of being beautiful and very sad, it's in terrible shape,” he said.
Isadora Mota, an assistant professor of history at Princeton said Nascimento’s story has renewed relevance at this moment in time.
“The discovery of Nascimento’s tomb comes at an important moment in Brazil, when a large reckoning with the country’s history of racism is taking place,” Mota said.
She added that recent debate about the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Afro-descendant communities, as well as recent questioning of Brazil’s dismissal of systemic racism add to the context of Miranda’s discovery.
“While statues are being taken down in a country that has clung for so long to an Eurocentric version of its history, it matters that a leading black abolitionist’s grave is being brought to light,” she said.
Miranda said Nascimento’s story is one that is not only important to Brazil, but the rest of the world.
“I mean you're talking about a guy who was a person of color, Latino, of mixed race. I mean, this guy could have lived in the United States. He would have done the same in the United States,” he said.
Since the summer, the tomb has gotten a new cross and been cleaned up.
“Now it looks wonderful,” Miranda said. “It looks pristine.”
Contact Jack Prator at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jack_prator.
Jack is a UF journalism sophomore covering the Gainesville City Commission. If he's not in a hammock at the plaza he is probably watching the Queen's Gambit for the fifth time.