The Strange Adventures Of Antonio Marques Da Sylva


Toby Green’s excellent book Inquisition:  The Reign of Fear contains an interesting story that highlights how uncertain and adventurous life could be in ages past.  The story concerns one Antonio Marques da Sylva, a Brazilian man who lived in seventeenth century Bahia.

In 1647 he was married to Maria Figeuira de Abreu.  He had children with her and lived in Bahia for three years.  He then decided to sail to Portugal for business in 1650.  What seemed like a simple decision actually set in motion a bizarre sequence of events.

While his ship was crossing the Atlantic, it was captured by English pirates.  Da Sylva was shipped off to England in chains and kept in confinement for almost a year before being permitted to continue to Portugal.  Arriving there, he spent a few years in Portugal engaged in various business enterprises.  He then sailed for Madeira to pick up a shipment of wine; and at this point was again captured by pirates.

The pirates dumped him off at the Azores; he was able to return to Portugal with difficulty, but was nearly penniless.

He somehow scraped together the money to return to Brazil in 1661.  Boarding a ship to Rio de Janeiro, he again undertook a trans-Atlantic voyage.  Arriving in Rio safely, he still had to make the 1,000 mile journey to Bahia.  So he found a small vessel to take him from Rio to Bahia.  This boat sank, stranding our unfortunate traveler at Espirito Santo.  He was by now almost completely destitute.

However, rumors did get around quickly in those days, and he soon became aware that his wife–whom he had left over eleven years earlier–had of course remarried.  He knew that if he showed his face in her village he was risking being killed (in those days, people did not take kindly to inconvenient reminders of the past).

Yet he decided to risk contacting his wife anyway.  Arriving in Bahia, he promptly fell ill and was confined to a hospital bed for several months, probably with malaria.  His wife eventually found out about him and welcomed him into her home.  The story that the two of them told the new husband was that he–Da Sylva–was her “brother-in-law.”

His wife told him that going back to the way things were was out of the question, but that she would help him secure the funds necessary to return to Portugal.


At one point, her second husband tried to send Da Sylva to live with one of the new husband’s aunts.  Da Sylva found this request odd, and became rightly suspicious that his ex-wife and her new husband were planning to have him killed.

He slipped away before his ex-wife and her husband could bring their murder plot to completion.

Da Sylva’s next move here was one of desperation, but brilliance.  He denounced his ex-wife to the Inquisition (which had a branch in Brazil) for bigamy.  She was arrested and prosecuted for bigamy; but we do not know the ultimate fate of either Da Sylva or his ex-wife Maria Figeuira de Abreu.  Bigamy was treated as a serious crime in those days, and is is possible that she was dispossessed of her property.

I would like to know the outcome of this story, but the records are apparently silent.

Life for all of us takes unexpected twists and turns.  What appear to be good fortunes, can turn into ill-fortunes, and vice-versa.  And the Inquisition, so often an agent of persecution, could at times serve as an instrument of rough justice.


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