The slave trade to the Americas, which consumed the lives of at least 12 million African men and women, represented one of the most important commercial and cultural ventures in the formation of the modern world and a fundamental element in the creation of a socioeconomic world system. It is estimated that 40 percent of the Africans imported to the Americas ended up in Brazil. Despite the intensive use of the indigenous (Amerindian) labor force, Africans and their descendants made up the economic backbone of Brazil for the first four centuries of its history, beginning with Portuguese occupation in the 16(th) century. African slavery penetrated each and every aspect of life in Brazil. Besides setting in motion plantations, farms, ranches, mines, cities, factories, kitchens, and dining rooms, slaves left their imprint on other aspects of the material and spiritual culture of the country -- its agriculture, cuisine, religion, language, music, arts, and architecture.
Wherever slavery flourished, so did resistance. Even under the threat of the whip, slaves tried to carve spaces of autonomy through negotiation and open or disguised rebellion, whether individual or collective. Though the list of forms of resistance is long, one was ubiquitous -- flight and the formation of runaway slave communities, known in Brazil as quilombos or mocambos. Slave flight, to be sure, did not always lead to the formation of quilombos. Fugitives often escaped individually or in small groups and disguised themselves as free or freed blacks or mestizos, especially in larger urban settlements located in or near mining and plantation regions. Our focus here, however, is on the flight from slavery that resulted in the creation of quilombos.
For a significant minority of Maroon groups in the Americas -- particularly in Jamaica and Suriname, where Maroon communities forced treaties with colonial governments, became relatively autonomous politics, and persist into the present -- scholars have succeeded in conducting research from the inside, employing, among other things, the living memory of the descendants of the original founders. In Brazil such memories are pale (though not absolutely erased from groups known to be descendants of runaway slaves), and historians have had to depend almost exclusively on documents written by outsiders -- usually those charged with destroying escapees. By reading these sources critically, however -- reading between the lines, taking into account the intent of their authors, persistently following small clues, and even trying to read their silences -- it is possible to learn a good deal about Brazilian quilombos during slavery.
As early as the mid-17(th) century, colonial chroniclers in Brazil were writing about runaway slaves, and especially about Palmares, the most famous of all quilombos. Palmares was a federation of Maroon communities whose population was estimated by contemporary sources, variously, to be 11,000, 16,000, 20,000, and even 30,000 people. Its several constituent settlements were located on the Serra da Barriga, a mountain chain in the backlands of what was then the captaincy (region) of Pernambuco, in the northeast of Brazil, an area that now belongs to the state of Alagoas. In 1645, the diary of Captain Johann Blaer, who led an expedition sent out by the Dutch (who then controlled Pernambuco), described the town of Old Palmares, which he found abandoned: "[The quilombo] is half a mile long and has two gates; the street is one braça [2.2 meters] wide, having two fountains in the center; a courtyard where the king's house stood [is] now a large square, where the king used to conduct [military] exercises with his people." Three days march further on, the Dutch captain described a well-protected New Palmares, with its 220 houses surrounded by pointed stakes and its gates sealed by heavy fallen trees. In the center of the settlement was a building he described as a church, plus four smithies, and a large house for community "council meetings." Blaer's diary also opens a small window on the nature of society and power within the quilombo, though we must interpret what he writes with caution. Before his arrival, he writes, this particular settlement of Palmares had "all sorts of artisans and its king ruled with severe justice, not allowing witches among his people and, when some negroes ran away, he would send creoles after them who, when caught, were killed, and thus there reigned fear amongst them." Later narratives claim that a kind of temporary slavery was imposed upon slaves who had been liberated from sugar plantations by quilombo raiders. The population of Palmares grew from both natural reproduction and the incorporation of such newcomers. In the late 1770s, several large and well-protected villages -- including Zumbi, Acotirene, Tabocas, Dambraganga, Subupira, Tabocas, Macaco, Osenga and Andalaquituche -- were identified by a punitive expedition. Besides these, according to contemporary sources, there were "other smaller ones which had fewer people." Palmares displayed a complex social and political structure, resisted for almost a century the various punitive expeditions sent out against it, and was finally destroyed only in 1694-1695.
Palmares became the prototype of the quilombo in Brazilian historical and anthropological literature. In the 1930s and 40s, a culturalist approach to quilombo studies flourished, according to which the social organization of runaway slave groups represented resistance against European acculturation in the plantation quarters. Some scholars labeled Palmares "a true African state in the heart of colonial Brazil," a relatively successful restorationist project. Often unintentionally, such interpretations inspired a popular version of quilombos as isolated, alternative communities which sought to reproduce Africa in the Americas, and in which all members were free and equal, just as they had been in their homeland (a considerably romanticized Africa). Despite the efforts of some authors to document cultural exchange and syncretism in Palmares and other quilombos, a basic feature of such interpretations was the search for hard-to-detect "Africanisms" or "African survivals."
Beginning in the late 1950s, quilombos became the subject of Marxist interpretations, the main target again being Palmares. The suggestion that Palmares represented a socialist experience may have been the most extreme Marxist reading of the famous quilombo. The idea was to interpret Maroon activity as a kind of class struggle that proclaimed the absolute denial of slavery and the creation of an alternative society in the forests and mountains of the interior. This isolationist model was not really so different from the culturalist interpretation, except that it saw failure where the latter saw success -- failure because the fugitives were unable to develop an effective political strategy that would destroy the slave system itself. The runaway slaves, it argued, did not develop a revolutionary vision, because they lacked class consciousness, being unable -- according to this Marxist interpretation -- to decode the "laws" of historical process.
By emphasizing cultural restoration, the culturalist perspective avoided questions such as cultural creolization and the formation of an Afro-Brazilian culture and society. But the members of quilombos in fact continued to create new ways of living and of interpreting the world, a process of creolization that had already begun in the masters' house and slave quarters, in the gold mines and the cane fields. In this process they certainly mobilized general principles and worldviews that they had brought from Africa -- for they were no tabula rasa upon which masters, Catholic priests, and government authorities could freely inscribe their designs. At the same time, it would be fatuous to believe that the Maroons did not take from the plantations or mines or cities and incorporate into the quilombos a number of aspects of the local, predominantly European and indigenous, material and spiritual culture. Cultural exchange between Africans and creole slaves, as well as between Africans of different ethnic groups, was also of utmost importance and needs to be more carefully studied, although the sources are often silent on such matters. The historical process of cultural formation occurred everywhere in the vast territory of Brazil, but in a variety of local rhythms and displaying different combinations. African slaves Africanized Brazil just as they were creolized in Brazil.
The conventional Marxist interpretation was too quick to deny that slaves, and fugitive slaves in particular, could have developed specific political behavior and a vision of social change. But without considering this possibility it is impossible to understand class struggle under slavery without being anachronistic. Having avoided that possibility and embraced an often thinly-disguised evolutionism, the Marxist interpretation replaces an investigation of the meanings that slaves themselves gave to their actions with a lamentation that they had not reached the "Meaning of History" or the "Laws of Historical Process" so well understood by the historian.
One general shortcoming of traditional quilombo studies in Brazil is that they take Palmares as their sole model. Such studies have failed to recognize how unique Palmares was in Brazil's history -- exceptionally large, long-lived, politically complex, and relatively distant from plantation settlements. Nothing like Palmares was ever allowed again by colonial authorities, who took effective measures to that end. One such measure was to create a body of slavehunters called capit...es-do-mato or "bush captains" who were found, sometimes under different names, everywhere in the colony.
During the last two decades, quilombo studies have been renewed and refreshed at much the same pace as has the historiography of slavery more generally. It is now clear that even Palmares does not fit into a model of total isolation from slave society. As mentioned above, its members often raided coastal plantations, kidnapped slaves (especially women), and stole cattle. They also traded with traveling merchants, recruited new members from indigenous groups, and incorporated Europeans who had problems with the law -- those persecuted by the Inquisition, for example. And most of the quilombos in 18(th) and 19(th) century Brazil were even more thoroughly integrated into the general society than was Palmares.
Recent studies of Brazilian quilombos have pointed to the difficulties of trying to establish a single model for the phenomenon, other than defining it simply as a group of settled fugitive slaves. Such a group, according to Portuguese and later Brazilian law, could be as small as four or five members, and could even include non-slave members. They sometimes settled in remote areas, but also (probably in most cases) were located near large urban centers or near plantation, ranching, and mining zones, from which they could extract part of their subsistence. Runaways frequently dedicated themselves to subsistence agriculture but also sold their excess production in nearby local markets, or actually sold their labor to local planters, farmers, and miners. Cities like Rio de Janeiro, Recife, Salvador, Porto Alegre, and Vila Rica (present-day Ouro Preto) were surrounded by small and large bands of fugitive slaves, whose mud houses, campsites, and subsistence grounds were periodically raided and destroyed by the police, only to reappear later on.
In the beginning of the 19(th) century, the forests and hills on the outskirts of Salvador, Bahia, hid numerous small quilombos that served as temporary respite for the large urban slave population, which from time to time became involved in slave con- spiracies and insurrections. In the south of the country, Maroons settled in the Sarapuí and Iguaçu river valleys, where they sold their labor to local cane and subsistence farmers or collected wood to sell in the court city of Rio de Janeiro, capital of the Empire of Brazil.
During the 18(th) century gold rush, the mining region of Minas Gerais was the setting for the formation of dozens of quilombos of between 100 and 300 inhabitants each. One historian has counted 162 such communities. Besides working for small-time miners, fugitives also became independent prospectors and developed a clientele of small merchants and shopkeepers eager to buy their gold or exchange it for foodstuffs, firearms, ammunition, and other products. This was happening in various parts of the captaincy, including the capital, Vila Rica.
But quilombos were also founded in more remote regions of Brazil. Located next to Minas Gerais, Goiás and Mato Grosso were largely settled in the wake of the mining boom in the 18(th) century and followed a similar pattern. Some of the new mining areas in these regions were in fact first opened up by escaped slaves who thus became -- especially in the case of Mato Grosso -- instruments of westward Portuguese colonial expansion.
It was precisely the movement of quilombos into the interior of Brazil that led to encounters -- sometimes peaceful, other times hostile -- between fugitive slaves and indigenous groups. When the quilombo of Carlota was attacked in Mato Grosso in 1795, the colonial authorities found both Indians and mixed descendants of blacks and Indians living together. In Goiás, during the 18(th) century, Xavante Indians and Maroons were initially involved in conflicts, but they later established communities in which they lived together. Palmares had been destroyed by a large army of Indians under the command of white and caboclo (white/Indian mixed-bloods) captains-of-war, who fought against other Indians and caboclos they found among the black majority within the palisade that protected the quilombo.
While the Brazilian backlands were witnessing increasingly frequent encounters between Indians and Maroons, the coastal regions experienced a steady stream of such encounters. Indian battalions fought and dismantled several quilombos in 18(th) and early 19(th) century Bahia, such as the Buraco do Tatu (Armadillo's Hole) in 1764 and the Oitizeiro quilombo in 1806, both on the coast and both near plantation areas -- the first less than a day's march from Salvador, the other near Ilheus. Also in Bahia, Hausa Maroons in 1814 planned a revolt in the vicinity of Salvador that was to include Indian allies to whom the conspirators had promised to return lands "stolen from them by the whites."
Plantations were the classic crucible for Brazil's quilombos, with slave rebellions frequent and Maroons organizing or becoming directly involved in further plantation uprisings. Although the precise details remain obscure, Palmares itself was originally created in the late 16(th) century by rebellious slaves from a large sugar plantation near Porto Calvo, on the coast of Pernambuco. Similar stories cover the long history of slavery in Brazil from beginning to end. Fugitives usually killed or maltreated masters, overseers, and members of their families; burned fields; and stole arms, ammunition, and foodstuffs before escaping to the woods, swamps, or mountains. In 1789, after killing the overseer, a group of slaves from the Santana plantation in Bahia took a spinning wheel and instruments needed to operate the sugar mill to a quilombo they had established on lands belonging to the plantation.
Fugitives sometimes planned and executed uprisings in collaboration with plantation and urban slaves. In 1826, Yoruba Maroons on the outskirts of Salvador planned -- with the help of countrymen who lived in bondage in the city -- a revolt that was to unfold on Christmas Eve. Warned about the conspiracy, bush captains were sent after the Maroons, who resisted and repelled them until finally being overcome by a police detachment. Alliances between Maroons and slaves were sometimes more successful, or at least caused more trouble to the slave system. In 1876, for example, in the village of Viana, located in the northern province of Maranh...o, fugitives came down from a quilombo (named S...o Benedito after a highly popular Catholic black saint) and occupied several nearby farms, demanding the end of slavery. The system, of course, did not collapse until 1888, but these rebels enjoyed the taste of victory for a few days.
The formation of quilombos did not always mean a complete withdrawal from captivity. Many rebel slaves organized themselves in quilombos to negotiate from a position of force to obtain better terms of labor and living under slavery. Maroons from the Santana plantation in Bahia even produced a detailed "peace treaty," as they called it, consisting of several demands relating to the work routine. But they also asked that more land be assigned for their subsistence gardens, that the planter provide them with a boat to carry their excess production to market, that they be given a voice in the appointment of overseers, and that they be allowed to sing and dance any time they chose. Their master did not sign the treaty.
Toward the end of slavery, fugitive slaves often did manage to convince masters to negotiate the terms of their bondage. In addition to access to subsistence gardens and other customary rights, in Rio de Janeiro they demanded that family members not be separated by sale and that undesired overseers be laid off. Late quilombos were usually formed by slaves of the same plantation who occupied land within its perimeter. Settlements of this type were numerous but usually short-lived, lasting a few weeks or less; several, however, succeeded in resisting for months and even years.
The formation of a peasant economy accompanied the formation of many quilombos, some of which have survived to become black peasant communities lasting into the present. Such is the case with several villages in the lower Amazon valley which originated from quilombos formed toward the end of slavery. There, inhabitants managed for generations to pass on the secrets of the rivers and jungle, from which they had been collecting fish, wood, wild fruits, medicinal leaves, and so on. Unfortunately, these descendants of quilombo rebels of the Amazon represent one of the few examples in Brazil of rural black communities that still retain some memory -- though rather vague in most regards -- of the time of slavery.
Between Palmares and the quilombos organized on the eve of abolition, slaves produced an exciting history of freedom in Brazil. Quilombo rebels occupied mountains and forests, settled around villages and plantations, explored mines, and worked the soil. They formed groups large and small, attacked plantations, and protected themselves against attacks by bush captains. Some sought a complete break with slavery, others tried to bargain for better terms of bondage. Recent studies of quilombos have shown that the history of quilombos is full of traps and surprises, of forward and backward steps, of conflict and compromise -- a history devoid of a linear meaning; one that makes Brazil's experience with slavery (nearly 400 years of its history) much more complex than we once thought.
References & further reading
Alves Filho, I. (1988). Memorial dos Palmares. Rio de Janeiro: Xenon Editora.
Anderson, R.N. (1996). The Quilombo of Palmares: A New Overview of a Maroon State in Seventeenth-Century Brazil. Journal of Latin American Studies 28, pp 545-566.
Gomes, F. dos Santos (1995). História de quilombolas: mocambos e comunidades de senzalas no Rio de Janeiro -- século XIX. Rio de Janeiro: Arquivo Nacional.
Moura, C. (1988). Rebeli...es da senzala. 4(th) ed. Porto Alegre: Mercado Aberto.
Price, R., Ed. (1996). Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas. 3(rd) ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Reis, J.J. & Gomes, F. dos Santos (1997). Liberdade por um fio: história dos quilombos no Brasil. S...o Paulo: Companhia das Letras.
Schwartz, S.B. (1992). Rethinking Palmares: Slave resistance in Colonial Brazil. In Schwartz, S.B., Slaves, Peasants and Rebels. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.