Quilombo dos Palmares

In Negro language ‘quilombo’ meant community, capital, union; in Brazil it also meant place of refuge. The quilombos were divided into villages called ´mocambos´. Their population were known as quilombolas, calhambolas, mucambeiros.

Around 1590 news appeared at Capitania de Pernambuco. A group of 40 slaves had mutinied on a farm in Porto Calvo, Alagoas. It was a blood bath. They killed everyone in authority, razed the big house, burnt plantations and escaped without a trace.

Later, the mutineers hide-out was found. They were in the Serra da Barriga. They were hiding in the woods and were heavily armed. This audacious group of escapees started the Quilombo dos Palmares, the most impressive community of escaped slaves in this country.

Palmares was a complete nation. A black state where many African Banto dialects were spoken. It was a community that maintained economic self sufficiency for more than a century. A multi-racial society that accepted Indians and whites persecuted by the colonial state. A country within Brazil which sheltered 30,000 inhabitants, a sixth of the national population at that time. There was no hunger. Palmares, which was known by its habitants as Angola-Janga (little Angola), was the land of plenty. They planted, fished and hunted. Many inhabitants were able artisans but there were accomplished metal workers too. Their produce was sold in nearby villages.

Quilombo dos Palmares was a little Africa where the Negroes searched to rescue their own roots. They abandoned the name they were given when they were slaves and adopted African names. Leading this community was Ganga Zumba.

In its 100 years of existence, Palmares always lived under the shadow of violence, always facing the threat of invasion. When the Dutch invaded Brazil, around 1640, these attacks on Palmares were lessened because the Portuguese were too busy trying to protect their territory. During this Dutch invasion the quilombo developed enormously.

After expelling the Dutch in 1654, a real campaign against Palmares developed. Seventeen expeditions organised by local villages as well as by the government of Pernambuco entered the woods to bring down the Palmarinhos.

There was enough reason for the colonial government wanting to destruct Palmares. The bureaucrats and other local dignitaries (senhores de engenho) didn’t like the bad example of these free Negroes flaunting their illegal freedom, robbing local businesses, kidnapping women, killing whites and having more money…

Selling slaves was good business and in Palmares there was a fortune to be made.

In 1677 one Fernão Carrilho, expert tracker of Negroes, entered into action. Marching against Palmares with his comrades he managed to bring down a couple of chiefs of the mocambos and kill a few quilombolas.

In this attack, Ganga Zumba was wounded but, even so, he managed to escape. He later accepted a treaty of peace proposed by the government of the state in which liberty was only guaranteed for people born in the Quilombo. Demoralised for having accepted the proposal, Ganga Zumba became a target for quilombolas who were now following a new leader, Zumbi.

The farm owners couldn’t accept the loss of slaves and the colonial government couldn’t stand any more defeats. So they hired the ‘bandeirante’ , Domingos Jorge Velho from Sao Paulo, who was noted for his bravery and for being a famous assassin.

In 1697 the bishop of Pernambuco described Domingos Jorge Velho as: ´This man is one of the most savage that I’ve ever met. Ever since he can remember up to the present time, he has spent his time in the forest hunting Indians and Indians. He does this for his own pleasure and for his own interests.´

The first time that Domingos Jorge Velho entered the Serra da Barriga in 1692, came as quite a shock for him. Macaco, the capital of Quilombo had been transformed into a fortress city. It took the ‘bandeirante’ two years to return but this time, with 9.000 men and 6 cannons. The siege lasted 42 days and during the night on the 5th of February the invaders managed to break down the quilombolas resistance.

More than 400 warriors were killed. Half were pushed over a cliff. Thousands escaped into the woods although nearly all were captured, many were to have their throats slit.

Palmares was entirely destroyed. Zumbi managed to escape but died a year later in an ambush.

In the cities, the end of the quilombo dos Palmares was reason for festivity. The governor of the capitania de Pernambuco ordered a celebratory mass, he filled Olinda and Recife with lanterns and threw money to the people from the windows of his palace.

… but there was no party to be held in the senzalas. The dream of freedom would come only 200 years later.