The Cantora: A Historical Novel About Brazil in the Early 1500s

The Cantora (The Native Singer of Colonial Brazil) is both a young adult and adult novel with some parallels to The Book Thief,  a 2005 historical novel by Australian author Markus Zusak.

The Cantora provides compelling and historical perspectives of Brazil, North Africa and Europe in the early 1500s.

The narrative portrays life with the native tribes of Brazil and on sugar plantations, then voyages to the Caribbean, and later across the Atlantic to Africa and Europe.

Every setting is different. Food, dress, social conduct, religion, culture, and of course the people. All this is intermingled with the unique and little-known history of the time.

… It all began with a rumor: an Indian girl who sang with the voice of an angel. A tiny girl, perhaps only nine years old. No one believed it at first, but the rumor persisted. Finally one day a runner arrived bringing news…

“And so the journey of the woman and the girl – Sister Mãe da Doçura and Yema, the Caeté Indian child acclaimed as The Cantora – begins to unfold as perilous circumstance compels them to become agents of fate, changing the destinies of all who cross their path…”

The setting for The Cantora is coastal Brazil during the early 1500s, in the colonial town of Luís, a shipping port for the brutal and lucrative dyewood trade. Many Indians and Africans are enslaved at the port, and the Indians, afflicted with European diseases, are perishing by the hundreds.

A village priest discovers an Indian child with a magical voice, and he allows her to sing the Latin Mass. The regional bishop assigns the girl to Sister Doçura with the intention of making the child singer a ward of the Church. The child is also treasured by her tribe as a mystical Tuguy Kuna (Blood Woman).

The bishop summons The Vatican’s Consilium de Virtutibus (The Council of Miracles) to certify Yema as a The First True Miracle of The New World, but when an Indian rebellion breaks out, the Council accuses the nun and child of heresy and condemns them to death as Doçura and Yema are forced to flee for their lives…

Ax Excerpt from Chapter 1

Standing alone on her balcony above the abbey’s courtyard, a nun stares at the workers finishing the construction below. Bathed in the yellow light of the late afternoon sun, two structures extend their grim silhouettes across the rough cobblestones, a gallows where she will die in the morning, and a burning stake for her ward, the little girl known as The Cantora.

One of the workers notices the nun and calls to his fellows. At the same time he makes a circling motion around his neck and jerks an imaginary rope upwards, lolling his head to one side. The others laugh. She looks away from this familiar taunt as her thoughts turn to the child.

What must it be for Cantora imprisoned two stories below in a cell where no light enters? The little girl has never known such cruelty in her short nine years on this earth. And now before morning prayers we are to die. She considers further, knowing that life without this child is truly no life at all. If I die to save her, so it will be.

The nun goes to her desk, retrieves her journal, and places it on the wide wall of the balcony. The fading sun now partly hidden behind the jungle canopy at the west edge of the settlement briefly illuminates her features revealing a pleasant oval face with a fringe of black hair ringing the wimple at her forehead and temples.

Her light blue habit – that of the Portuguese Coimbran Order – compliments the sister’s fair skin and penetrating brown eyes. She is a woman who often shows a generous and welcoming smile, but someone equally capable of a contentious, censoring frown.

As she routinely does before Vespers, the sister pulls a stool forward, opens the journal and begins to record the day’s events, her Hebrew script flowing evenly across the page.

I write of this, perhaps my last evening on earth if I fail to save the child. Then tomorrow I will inhabit Heaven with Cantora, we two condemned by the very Church I serve and she so wished to serve. Surely she will serenade at the throne of God, and I will swell with pride.

Are these Catholics fools? Secretly, I’ve always suspected thus. There is no one here, not even Bishop Damião or any of the wretched tribunal who can read my Hebrew. They may send my journal to Lisbon, but I do not care. Tomorrow I will no longer need it.

She gazes to the east, across the courtyard wall to the bay and the docks usually littered with people waiting in turn like insects to deposit their shards of wood bound for Europe. But today, for the first time in her memory, the harbor is deserted.

There is smoke too, smoke rising from biers in the death yard and the remains of native huts burned in the uprising. The nun wonders, what is the significance of two more deaths after so much killing? She sighs and turns to a journal entry recorded the evening following her first visit to the docks, an entry nearly two years old, written shortly after her arrival in the New World.

Ours is a land of chaos and death, of rapacious commerce and a Church equally so. God must look away from this hateful Brazil coast, for if He knew this sad and lonely land, surely what happens here could not. Perhaps He is never among us, or in His disgust has made this place Inferno Novo.

The nun turns a page and reads her account of that first visit.

Noon passed an hour back. I view a cluttered dock crowded with African and Indian slaves and free Portuguese, each burdened with dyewood bundles bound for weighing and then to the ships. At the end of the tally line a ship’s officer sits at a makeshift desk under a canopy recording the weights. He has two sets of ledgers, one for the slave owners, the other for free Portuguese. The officer doles out a few copper reis to each Portuguese. The slave overseers will receive their pay at day’s end.

A brief rain has drenched them all. Each wretched soul in the line is stained from the dyewood, bodies running red, or orange, or black, the garish colors mixing at their feet and through the slatted dock into the waters below. The wash of waves stains the shore itself.

Eyeing the Indians, the spoilers wait at the fringe. Many of the natives are near death from the coughing sickness. A woman staggers a step and goes down. She has a baby wrapped at her breast, the infant now screaming under the mother’s weight.

These Indians are a handsome people, and may have enjoyed good health until we Portuguese arrived. Now they stoically endure sickness and pain to the moment of death, standing without complaint, a corpse shuddering from fever and cough, the last sign of a life at its end until they fall.

Two spoilers rush forward, one holding the still woman with his foot, the other stripping the dyewood bundle from her. No one moves to help. In a moment someone rolls her over the dock’s edge, the baby’s cries silenced in the water. Even from this distance, I can see several bodies in the stained swirl, each writhing under the assault of the countless vicious fish that inhabit this stinking bay.

There is more, but she cannot read further. She remembers the bishop warned her to not go near the harbor and docks, but she had to see for herself. The sister closes the journal. “What’s the use?” she says to the evening air. “What’s the use?”

In a moment she returns to the current day’s entry and signs her name, not her Catholic name, but her family name, Leah Anna Saulo, her Jewish name, the name she possessed years ago in Lisbon. She again sighs and lays the bound volume aside.

The memory of the visit to the docks forces it way back into her thoughts. A ship’s captain approached her that day, requesting a blessing for his voyage. “Sister, we sail for Spain at first light. Will you bless our journey?”

It was a strange request, asking a nun for a blessing. She suspected this Spaniard had other motives, but she answered kindly. “I will bless your sailing sir, if you carry no slaves. I do not bless slavers.”

The man took a step backwards and made an unctuous bow. “Of course not, dear sister. Both Crown and Church prohibit the taking of Indian slaves. I carry only dyewood for the clothiers of Spain and the Vatican.”

The captain and his backers stood to make a fortune if the voyage proved successful. With a shipload of dyewood sold in the markets of Europe, particularly the red color, the same paste-rouge the Indians applied so casually to their faces and bodies – when refined, more precious than gold – this captain could buy a fleet of ships.

“Cardinal red,” as the Europeans now called it, was extremely rare and expensive until the discovery of dyewood trees in the New World. Prior to this find, only the highest church clergy and wealthy nobles could afford the red pigment previously imported from the far east.

The first Portuguese explorers called the trees yielding the red dye brasa, the word for ember, and soon the coast, with its abundance of brasa trees, became known as Brazil. The Indians called the pigment Mbóia tuguy, blood of the Devil.

“You will be a rich man once you arrive in Spain with your thoughtful gifts for the Holy Father,” the nun said.

“God willing, dear sister, if we live to make the crossing. And avoid the English and Dutch corsairs that plague our seas. Please believe me, I carry no slaves.”

Either the man was a dolt, she thought, or too clever to register her jibe about the Holy Father. And what hypocrisy! Everywhere she looked there were slaves. “Point out your ship, dear captain.”

There were four ships in the harbor, and he gestured to the farthest, a three-masted schooner anchored several hundred yards off shore. “So please give us your blessing. She is the Santo Tomás.”

The name brought her up short. “Did you arrive here from São Tomé?” she asked. All vessels arriving from Tomé Island carried African slaves. “Perhaps your ship’s name is just a coincidence.”

“Of course, dear sister. As you say, the name is simply a coincidence, an unhappy coincidence.”

She gave him a withering stare. “Captain, you are lying. I know your ship. My name is Sister Mãe da Doçura, and I arrived here just last month from São Tomé. On that sorry island I was the chronicler and principal scribe for Bishop Henrique Cão.”

The man looked stricken. The nun shook her head. “Your drama is overblown. Your vessel is a dedicated slaver and you will not get my blessing.” He began to protest. She raised a hand to silence him, but he pressed on.

“Tell me Sister Doçura, when you look at the spectacle on the docks, the sick and dying Indians, these pitiful souls perishing from disease which we brought, why is there no priest there to offer salvation, or at the very least absolution?”

What a stupid and mean-spirited question, she thought, and likely the man was pandering to her. No matter, she again chose to respond in a kindly manner. “This question I now ask myself. You see, I arrived here on a Sabbath morning, captain, with the docks mostly empty. Even the bodies had been removed. Not like it is now. This is my first view of the true situation. But you know the answer as well as I.”

She extended her arm and drew a boundary in front of them. “Because of the moneyed influence from the slavers, we clergy are prohibited from ministering to those who toil on the docks. And sadly it is the Church’s position that slaves, both Indian and black, are property and thus not worthy of His Grace.”

“The Indians are vicious heathen cannibals,” the man responded. “If they die like vermin, it is God’s will.”

Doçura looked around, making sure there was no one to overhear. Then she said, “May I remind you of our Savior’s words in John 6, Verse 54 which admonishes us to the Sacrament, ‘Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and – ‘ ”

The captain shrunk back in horror. “Surely Sister you do not equate our Blessed Sacrament to cannibalism? The Sacrament is  – ”

Although she had sufficiently shocked him, she raised her voice and continued, “and then following in Verses 55 and 56, ‘He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me and I in him.'”

The man simply stared at her, his mouth open.

“Let me point out, sir, that many of the natives are cannibals, but not all. Certainly none that live here in our little settlement of Luís. My life on São Tomé taught me the valued lesson of tolerance, tolerance of other people. Is it not Christ’s purpose that we bring salvation to these Indians? Is it not improper that our mission is denied to those enslaved? Where in the volume of God’s Law are we directed to enslave?”

Suddenly she’d grown weary of this pretentious Spaniard and the hateful docks. “Please do not think me rude sir, but I must go.” She gathered the skirt of her habit, turned and walked quickly away, her thoughts painfully confused. Ever since arriving in this New World, Doçura found herself plagued by heretical thoughts – thoughts so alarming that she pushed them to the very back of her mind, forcing them into retreat each time they began to gnaw their way forward.

The afternoon fades to evening. The nun returns to her desk and the first pages of her journal, pages left blank from the onset. When she began the volume, she knew there would be something important to record on these pages. On this evening, her last on earth, they come to her.

She unfastens her collar, reaches inside and unhooks a gold chain from around her neck. She places the necklace next to the journal. The sight of the precious strand brings her to tears – this sacred chain that once was hers, the chain that held the amber kamea passed down from her grandmother, the chain she gave to her brother the night they were kidnapped, the very chain which was returned to her on São Tomé after her brother’s death, this chain that connects everything from her past. She wipes the tears on her sleeve and considers the journal’s first page. With hands trembling, she begins to write.

I am a nun of questionable origins, having lived my life until the age of sixteen as a Jew and a member of the family Saulo in Lisbon. Eight years ago on the first day of Tishri, our Holy New Year, my brother and I were kidnapped along with two dozen children from our synagogue.

The Crown soldiers who stormed our lovely place of worship took most of the children down to the harbor for shipment, conscripted to work the sugar plantations on São Tomé Island. A few girls, including me, were given kidnapped infants and sent to the convent at Coimbra. There the nuns trained everyone in the Catholic faith and taught us to care for the children.

Almost five years later I had the chance to accompany a shipment of children to Tomé. Hoping to see my brother, Marcel, I embraced the opportunity, although I’d had no word of him for years. Happily, sadly, I found him dying in the hospital at Elmina, a two days’ journey from São Tomé.

Later on that dreadful island, Bishop Cão (the Church’s first black prince) who greatly admired my brother for his opposition to slavery, assigned me the task of translating Marcel’s journal from Hebrew to Portuguese. The bishop told me he believed my brother to be a Just Man, a Saddiq.

In that first year I became acquainted with my brother’s large family, including his intended wife, Ariella, and their children. (It seems my brother fathered or adopted a significant number of children.) Two years later, after Bishop Cão was forced from the island and I prepared to depart Tomé for Brazil, Ariella graciously gave me the gold chain. It remains the dearest gift I have ever received.

The sister stares at the remaining blank pages. If there is something else to write, she does not know. She goes to the balcony and sees that the work in the courtyard is finished, the place abandoned except for a guard in the shadows by the outside gate. A fragrant breeze touches her skin, one otherwise refreshing, though tonight it feels as cold as the January winds of Lisbon. There is a single torch atop the gallows illuminating the space and casting restless and bizarre shadows.

The Vespers bell rings. Sister Doçura crosses herself and kneels to pray. She cuts the prayer short and stands up, again making the sign of the cross. “God well knows my devotion,” she says aloud. “Prayers may come later. Now I must do something to save Cantora.” Earlier in the week she’d prepared a note for Father Julian, still not knowing if he was alive or dead. She gave it to the child acolyte, Agato – a young boy who admired the girl – when he brought her food that evening. Now, days later, the hour of Vespers is at hand, and still no one comes to see her.

At the little girl’s bedside, next to her own, she considers the child’s meager belongings, a bracelet and a necklace, both made of twisted animal sinews and strung with a single ivory clam shell ribbed with clay-red stripes. There is a shabby stick doll with arms of bundled grass, and a woven headdress dyed orange with a circle of blue feathers, the same headdress worn by the child on the day of their first meeting.

Sister Doçura settles the child’s necklace over her head and around her neck, tucking it next to where her gold chain had been. She thinks of Cantora imprisoned in a cell somewhere beneath the abbey, a cell dark as night itself. She puts a hand to her breast. In the year since she has known the child, the little girl has captured her heart.

Doçura turns to a blank page in her journal and, with her left hand pressing against her forehead, pens another note. Next she retrieves the dagger kept by her bed, placing it over the gold necklace on the table. She paces for a moment, then returns to her desk and uses the dagger point to pry open a link, effectively cutting the strand in two. The nun tears the note from the journal and folds half the necklace inside it. The other half she drops into a handkerchief which she pushes into the tight sleeve of her habit.

If Agato would only come. He is her last hope.

Ever since her abduction in Lisbon eight years before, hopes – those outcomes always illusive yet so wished for – remain more fragile than the slender veils of mist at morning’s first light. Now any outcome other than death for her and Cantora seem completely out of reach. Regardless, she has to try.

It all began with a rumor: an Indian girl who sang with the voice of an angel. A tiny girl, perhaps only nine years old. No one believed it at first, but the rumor persisted. Finally one day a runner arrived bringing news.

Fr. Julian from a Caeté Indian village to the north would travel to the settlement next week with the child and her family. Bishop Damião immediately sent the runner back with instructions that when they were a few hours travel from the abbey, they should camp and await his emissary. Damião, a priest who struggled furiously against the daily chaos that surrounded him, summoned Sister Doçura to his office.


For additional information, the following links are available:

Amazon Product Page:

The Cantora Website:

(Including an Email the Author link)

Smashwords Product Page:

(All digital Formats)

The Cantora Facebook Page:

The Cantora Goodreads Page:

São Tomé Product Page:

(The Prequel to The Cantora)

Rapto em Lisboa Product Page:

(Portuguese Edition of São Tomé)

In addition to the first novel São Tomé, Paul Cohn is published  overseas with the Portuguese edition Rapto em Lisboa by Medialivros/DIFEL in Lisbon. His short stories have appeared in the Huffington Post, The BoZone Monthly, The Big Sky Weekly, and Writers of the Gulch.

He authored The Toolbox, a children’s adventure radio series (Treehouse Corner), broadcast on KGLT Public Radio. His short story, São Tomé, won Honorable Mention in Moment Magazine’s Karma Short Story Contest. He has also been a guest instructor at many adult-education writing classes.

His career began in nuclear engineering where he managed projects for Rockwell and Battelle Memorial Institute, and ran his own consulting business, Energy Engineering Associates.

Mr. Cohn has a B.S. in chemical engineering, and an M.S. in nuclear engineering, and is the author of over 50 technical papers, journal articles, and book chapters.

Editor’s note: Interested publishers in Brazil and Portugal are welcome to contact the author via to discuss a Portuguese language edition.


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