Maria Firmina dos Reis

Maria Firmina dos Reis (March 11, 1822 – November 11, 1917) was a Brazilian writer.

Little is known about her early life. Recent research suggests that the day of her birth was March 11, 1822, and not October 11, 1825, as was believed until then. Born in São Luís, Maranhão, Firmina dos Reis was the daughter of an enslaved woman, Leonor Felippa dos Reis, and João Pedro Esteves – some argue that he was a black man; other, that he was a white man who had business connections with Leonor’s former master. Firmina dos Reis’ parents did not get married, and, when the girl was five years old, she and her mother moved to Viamão in Vila de São José de Guimarães, to live with an aunt.

Firmina dos Reis was never formally educated and was self-taught. In 1847, she secured a post as a primary school teacher in Guimarães, where she worked until her retirement from teaching, in 1881.

While still in her twenties, she began to contribute poems and short-stories to several local newspapers and periodicals in São Luis. She kept a personal diary from 1853 to 1903, and was an ardent abolitionist. Her work was published in the periodicals Federalista; Diário do Maranhão; A Revista Maranhense; O País; O Jardim dos Maranhenses; Semanário Maranhense; Eco da Juventude; A Verdadeira Marmota; A Imprensa, among others.

Her first novel, Úrsula, is said to have been published in 1859 under the pen name Uma Maranhense (‘a woman from Maranhão’). It is considered one of the first novels written by a woman in Brazil, as well as the first Afro-Brazilian novel and the first abolitionist work from Brazil. Recent research suggests that, while 1859 is the year printed on the title page of the book, the novel was actually reviewed as early as in 1857; and it started to circulate in 1860.

In 1861, Firmina dos Reis was included in the poetry anthology Parnaso Maranhense. From 1861 to 1862, her novella Gupeva was serialized in the periodical O Jardim das Maranhenses. In 1871, she published the poetry collection Cantos à beira-mar (‘Songs by the Sea’) and, in 1887, the short story A escrava (The Slave Woman’). After the abolition of slavery in Brazil, in 1888, Firmina dos Reis composed the song Hino da libertação dos escravos (‘Hymn to the Liberation of Slaves’).

Firmina dos Reis never married, but is said to have adopted ten children. In 1880, shortly before she retired from teaching, she founded a school for poor children in Maçaricó. It was the first mixed school in Maranhão and, due to strong opposition from the local community, it closed down two years later.

She died blind and reduced to poverty, on 11 November 1917, at the age of 95. Her work remained forgotten until the early 1970’s, when scholars recovered the novel Úrsula in a facsimile edition.


  • Úrsula (c.1859)
  • Gupeva (1861-1862)
  • Some of her poems were included in the anthology Parnaso maranhense: collecção de poesias, ed. Flávio Reimar and Antonio Marques Rodrigues (1861)
  • Cantos à beira-mar (1871, poetry)
  • A Escrava (1887, short story)
    • English: “‘The Slave Woman’: An Introduction.”, by Cristina Ferreira Pinto-Bailey. Afro-Hispanic Review, vol. 32, no. 1, 2013, pp. 205–218. JSTOR,

About her

  • Literary Passion, Ideological Commitment: Toward a Legacy of Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian Women Writers, by Dawn Duke (2008)
  • Maria Firmina – Fragmentos de uma vida, by José Nascimento Morais Filho (1975)
  • “Uma Pioneira: Maria Firmina dos Reis”, by Zahidé Lupinacci Muzart, Muitas Vozes, v.2, n.2, 2013, p. 247-260.
  • Life Among the Living Dead: the Gothic Horrors of Latin American Literature, by Carolyn Kendrick-Alcantara (2007)
  • “Maria Firmina dos Reis, Vida e obra: Uma contribuição para a escrita da história das mulheres e dos afrodescendetes no Brasil”, by Janaína Santos Correia, Revista feminismos, vol.1, n.3, 2013.
  • La novela antiesclavista en Cuba y Brasil, siglo XIX, by Sara V. Rosell (1997)
  • Aproximaciones a la narrativa femenina del diecinueve en Latinoamérica, by Joan Torres-Pou (2002)
  • O romance Úrsula de Maria Firmina dos Reis: Estética e ideologia no Romantismo brasileiro, by Juliano Carrupt do Nascimento, Faculdade de Letras da UFRJ (2009)
  • História das mulheres no Brasil , ed. Mary del Priore and Carla Bassanezi Pinsky (2012).
  • Escritoras brasileiras do século XIX: Antologia, v. 01, ed. Zahidé Lupinacci Muzart (1999)
  • Encantações: escritoras e imaginação literária no Brasil, século XIX, by Norma de Abreu Telles (2012)
  • Maria Firmina dos Reis: uma missão de amor, by Dilercy Aragão Adler (2017)
  • “’Exma. Sra. d. Maria Firmina dos Reis, distinta literária maranhense’: a notoriedade de uma professora afrodescendente no século XXI”, by Mariléia dos Santos Cruz, Érica de Lima de Matos, Ediane Holanda Silva, CEMOrOc-Feusp / Univ. Autònoma de Barcelona, set/dez 2018, p.151-166.
  • As mulheres em Úrsula : uma análise histórica de gênero do romance de Maria Firmina dos Reis, by Melissa Rosa T Mendes (2013)
  • A escrita de Maria Firmina dos Reis na literatura afrodescendente brasileira : revisitando o cânone, by Algemira de Macêdo Mendes (2016)
  • Maria Firmina dos Reis : faces de uma precursora, by Constância Lima Duarte; Luana Tolentino; Maria Lúcia Barbosa; Maria do Socorro Vieira Coelho (2018)
  • Maria Firmina dos Reis : a trajetória intelectual de uma escritora afrodescendente no Brasil oitocentista, by Rafael Balseiro Zin (2019)

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