Beginning in the middle of the seventeenth century, there were reports of the formation of communities of escaped slaves in Brazil. These communities of fugitives were known as quilombos or mocambos. In the majority of the Bantu languages of Central and West Central Africa, the word quilombo means “encampment.” In West Central Africa during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the word kilombo also referred to the initiation rituals of the military societies of the Imbangala people (also known as the Jagas). The Imbangala were Kimbundu-speaking people of northeastern Angola. Their expansion into the interior of Angola, the land of the Umbundu, began in the sixteenth century, and, in accordance with their political, social, and military strategy, they followed the practice of incorporating the inhabitants of the conquered regions into their group through the use of rituals.
There were other historical processes surrounding the quilombos. Whereas there has not been much systematic academic research in this area, it has been suggested that the existence of a slave culture and the re-creation of many significant elements of the kilombo ritual among the captives of Brazil served to aid the slaves in establishing quilombos. They reorganized themselves into communities of Africans from diverse regions, including Brazilian-born crioulos. It is possible to establish connections between the significance of kilombo in Central Africa and the establishment of quilombos in Brazil. These connections were important for their symbolic significance and for the redevelopment of certain African cultural and ritual aspects within the Brazilian slave experience.
The first reports of Palmares—one of the most important communities of fugitive Africans in the Americas—surfaced during the last decades of the sixteenth century. Located in Alagoas, in the old captaincy (or province) of Pernambuco, the quilombo of Palmares was established in the heart of the Portuguese colonial empire. The mountains of the area were considered an ideal location for captives to take refuge, and thousands of Africans and their descendants constructed numerous communities in this area. In fact, Palmares wasn’t just one quilombo; the community was a collection of numerous, perhaps dozens, of quilombos, joined together for purposes of defense and survival. Surrounded by largely inaccessible mountains and forests, the inhabitants of Palmares could count on considerable natural protection. Because of its flora and fauna, this location also guaranteed good hunting and fishing opportunities, as well as an abundance of fruits, roots, and plants. In this way, the people of the quilombo, well hidden in the forest’s interior, could guarantee their survival. This ecological environment was thus fundamental for the residents of Palmares. They had the ability to understand and manage the geography, topography, plants, and animals of these forests. In a hostile area—one not always similar to their African regions of origin—they were capable of establishing dominion over nature, transforming it from an adversary into an ally.
Even as Palmares was being born, the first inhabitants of Palmares were being reborn, for they were creating a new world—an African world reinvented in Brazil by fugitive blacks. The residents of the quilombo—Brazilian-born slaves and Africans of diverse ethnic identities—forged a world in which they could live in freedom. They re-created their cultures and organized themselves militarily in order to fight invaders, and they established economic practices in order to guarantee survival for themselves. It was the development of this original social system that concerned and frightened the landowners and Portuguese authorities.
The Economics of Palmares
Palmares’s economic production was not solely for the subsistence of its large population. The surpluses the Palmarinos created presented opportunities for commerce with tavern owners and the residents of nearby areas. They traded manioc (cassava) flour, palm wine, butter, and other products in exchange for firearms, gunpowder, textiles, salt, and tools. This commerce between the quilombos of Palmares, the inhabitants of small settlements, and tavern owners of the captaincy worried the authorities. These groups had formed a clandestine mercantile network that was not just useful economically; it also created a sense of solidarity among the people of Palmares. However, many of the inhabitants of these areas were accused of giving protection to the Palmarinos. It was said that many of the expeditions against the quilombos failed due to the information passed along by their trading partners. There are even reports that many traders, peddlers, and tavern owners frequented the quilombos in Palmares, looking to establish direct commercial relations with the inhabitants.
Apart from this, constant attacks greatly frightened the populations closest to Palmares. The people of the quilombo did not do this just to obtain the products they needed, but also to intimidate and punish those who promoted punitive expeditions against them (principally the large landholders). The Palmarinos also collected tribute—in provisions, money, and arms—from the inhabitants of villages and towns. Those who would not collaborate could see their property sacked, their cane fields and plantations burnt, and their slaves kidnapped. This was the response the Palmarinos gave to those who would enslave other blacks and contribute to their destruction.
The Culture of the Quilombos
Initially, the quilombos were formed by Africans of diverse ethnicities and different languages. The culture of Palmares, then, was formed out of a combination of these various cultures. Africans from the Bantu ethnic-linguistic group, originally from the west-central areas of Africa (Congo and Angola) predominated. Despite this, the African culture of the Palmarinos was remade into something new. The religious practices forged in these quilombos had as many traces of magic and rituals of various parts of Africa as of indigenous religions and the popular Catholicism learned in the slave quarters. Indeed, some of these Africans had already come into contact with Christianity in Africa itself, dating from the beginning of the European occupation in the middle of the fifteenth century. Punitive expeditions sent by the authorities found chapels and sanctuaries in Palmares. Included within these places of worship were images of Catholic saints. This religious syncretism of the Palmarinos demonstrated the ways in which people developed their own culture in the quilombos. It was not just that their African past was re-created; the quilombo residents—not just Africans, but also Afro-Brazilians and those born free in the forests—reinvented a new Africa in Brazil. They worshiped both African gods and Catholic saints, and they created new symbols of religious significance. In a general sense—just as in Africa—they perceived their gods as harnessers of the forces of nature. Thus, plants, fire, and water could have the same spiritual power as Christian images and symbols.
By the middle of the seventeenth century, the population of Palmares had already reached more than 20,000 people. (Some chroniclers of the era, no doubt exaggerating, spoke of 30,000 residents.) Among those residing in these mountains were blacks, people of mixed heritage, and even some Indians and whites who were hiding out from the colonial authorities. Palmares was divided into numerous smaller quilombos all along the Serra da Barriga. The most important ones were named for their chiefs and commanders. The primary quilombo, known by the name Macaco (Monkey), was the political and administrative center, functioning as the capital of Palmares. It was also the most populous, with thousands of houses, and the home of Ganga Zumba, one of the principal leaders of Palmares.
The sparseness of the population distribution within this immense forest allowed for some natural protection, making it possible to devise an intelligent military defense strategy. When one quilombo was attacked, the Palmarinos would take refuge in others. That way, it was impossible to attack all of them simultaneously. Aside from the primary quilombos, there were dozens of others scattered further away. Many of these simply served as military camps or trading outposts. Other quilombos like Palmares also existed in the captaincies of Paraiba and Rio Grande do Norte. Even though this dispersion of quilombos into an extensive geographic area had occurred, there was unity and communication among them. Their economic practices proved to be complementary—while one quilombo could produce almond butter, another made palm wine. Central power remained in the hands of Ganga Zumba, even though some others had a degree of military and economic autonomy. The socioeconomic structure of Palmares was strongly oriented toward its political-military organization, particularly when attacks against the quilombos were intensified in the second half of the seventeenth century.
Conflicts with Colonial Authorities
The Palmarinos resisted innumerable punitive expeditions sent by the Portuguese and Dutch (during their occupation of the Northeast in the middle of the seventeenth century), as well as expeditions sent by local ranchers, who always felt a deep antipathy toward them. The Palmarinos—led by Ganga Zumba and later Zumbi—had a complex economic, military, and political organization. Portuguese colonial authorities, who encountered numerous difficulties in their attempts to destroy so many quilombos, began proposing peace treaties, looking to recognize the autonomy of the quilombos under the Crown, freedom for the blacks born in Palmares, and a return of all other fugitives. While an agreement was initially accepted in 1678, it was later rejected by the quilombos and sabotaged by the ranchers and businessmen who were interested in the lands occupied by the quilombos. Nevertheless, Palmares was essentially destroyed in 1695 by a large force of bandeirantes (mercenary fighters), who brought in cannons to destroy the fortifications the people of the quilombos had constructed.
The colonial forces combed the mountains in search of Zumbi. More than just destroying Palmares, his capture was considered of fundamental importance for the colonial authorities. The well-protected leader of Palmares was eventually betrayed; he was found and assassinated on November 20, 1695. Despite Zumbi’s death, the authorities knew that the fight against the quilombos of Palmares was not over. There still remained thousands of people within the quilombos of the Alagoas mountains, and other quilombos in nearby captaincies still existed. Thus, the attacks against Palmares continued. In 1696 the quilombo of Quissama was attacked. The gradual occupation of the Pernambucan mountains was pushing the quilombo residents into other regions.
In the early years of the eighteenth century, Palmares continued to tax the efforts of the colonial authorities. In 1703 Camoanga, the new leader of Palmares, was killed during an attack, and repressive forces remained quartered in the region until at least 1725. Even though some quilombos still populated the region, they were much more widely dispersed at this time, because they had been pushed away from the interior. Many groups from the quilombos migrated to the captaincy of Paraiba, where they established new mocambos. Thus, though they were not totally destroyed, the unity of the quilombos in the manner of Palmares would never be realized again.
Beyond Palmares and its tradition of freedom, which spanned from the end of the sixteenth century to the first quarter of the eighteenth, other traditions surfaced in different contexts within colonial Brazil that caused the metropolitan and colonial authorities a great amount of fear. Many large quilombos arose in the Captaincies of Minas Gerais and Mato Grosso in the eighteenth century, and others surfaced in diverse colonial and frontier regions into the nineteenth century.
After the abolition of slavery in Brazil, Palmares and Zumbi were transformed into symbols of political militancy. The year 1995 marked the commemoration of the 300th anniversary of the death of Zumbi. November 20, the date of his death, is a holiday in many Brazilian cities, and it is regarded as an important date in the black community. The black movements of the 1970s turned the day into the National Day of Black Consciousness. There is also a monument in homage to Zumbi in the Serra da Barriga.
In addition, many academics, social movements, and state, municipal, and federal authorities have made efforts to recognize the quilombo communities that remain in Brazil. With the right to agrarian land title officially recognized in the Brazilian Constitution of 1988, hundreds of rural black communities scattered all over Brazil are fighting for land and citizenship. They are, in essence, attempting to reclaim diverse and complex historical processes in the formation of a black rural society, encompassing the period from slavery to post-emancipation.
See also Anti-Colonial Movements; Coartación; Runaway Slaves in Latin America and the Caribbean
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flÁvio gomes (2005)