The Legacy of Zumbi dos Palmares

Posted by Pete on 20th Nov 2020

325 years ago, an African King was killed in the forests of northern Brazil. He remains one of the great symbols of black liberation in the Atlantic World.

Portrait of Zumbi dos Palmares by Pedro Celso Cruz de Souza (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Resistance to transatlantic slavery took many forms.

There were campaigns for legal reform in the imperial metropolises, like the struggle to abolish the British slave trade by activists like Olaudah Equiano.

But there were also more direct strategies of resistance by slaves and their allies on the ground.

The Haitian Revolution which began in 1791, for example, fought by the "Black Jacobins", as CLR James’ called them. There, the enslaved people of Haiti took up arms against their masters and ultimately built an independent republic in the heart of the Caribbean.

Escape was another form of resistance to slavery.

This could be done by individuals and small groups, but it sometimes achieved collective results.

In places all across the Atlantic world, escaped slaves managed to form autonomous settlements where they could live in freedom.

Few of these were so remarkable as Palmares, on the northern outskirts of Portuguese-ruled Brazil.

From the 16th century onward, the Portuguese Empire transported hundreds of thousands of human beings kidnapped from Africa to work and die in mines and on plantations in Brazil.

But these enslaved people never submitted. Even once in South America, thousands of miles from home and subject to barbaric masters and overseers, they came together and resisted.

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An early and organised form of this resistance was the creation of 'Quilombos' – autonomous communities of escaped slaves.

The most enduring was the 'Quilombo dos Palmares', established in the forested hinterland of Pernambuco by 40 escapees from central Africa in 1605.

This oasis of liberty, surrounded by a desert of imperial barbarism, would exist free of Portuguese rule for almost a century.

At its height, Palmares had a population of 30,000 people, distributed across 11 towns. It was an African kingdom, modelled on the political traditions of the Kingdom of Kongo, thriving in the mountains of 17th century South America.

Born free in Palmares in 1655 was a man called Zumbi.

Descended from Kongolese royalty, Zumbi’s family had been kidnapped and transported to Brazil after a defeat in battle by Portuguese soldiers.

They had since become prominent in Palmares – Zumbi’s uncle, Ganga Zumba, was King.

After decades of effective defiance, the Governor of Pernambuco decided to offer Palmares a deal: freedom for all the escaped slaves there in exchange for recognising the Portuguese Crown.

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Ganga Zumba was of a mind to accept, but Zumbi dos Palmares did not trust the Portuguese, nor would he accept freedom for Palmares while his fellow Africans remained in chains across the rest of Brazil.

So, Zumbi overthrew Ganga Zumba in 1678 and became King of Palmares, in which role he pursued an intense and successful campaign of raids against the Portuguese colonial regime.

Rattled and in danger of seeing the slaves of northern Brazil liberated, Portugal launched a large-scale and brutal campaign against the Quilombo dos Palmares in 1694.

It took 42 days of merciless war, but the courageous, African people of Palmares could hold no longer.

On 6th February 1694, Cerca do Macaco, the capital, was taken and burned to the ground.

Zumbi managed to evade capture in the forested hills of the region for another year, but on 20th November 1695 – 325 years ago today – he was killed in battle by Portuguese soldiers.

They decapitated the fallen King and paraded his head so the slaves of the region would know their hero was dead.

The brutal killing of Zumbi dos Palmares was meant to demoralise the black population of Brazil, but three centuries later, Afro-Brazilians have turned it into a badge of honour.

Since the 1960s, the date of Zumbi’s death has been celebrated as Black Awareness – or 'Zumbi' – Day in Brazil. He has become one of the great symbols of black power and liberation in South America’s largest country.

Alongside the likes of Toussaint Louverture, Harriet Tubman, and the Jamaican rebels of Morant Bay, the remarkable story of Zumbi and of the Quilombo dos Palmares remains a monument to the black struggle against slavery and racial hierarchy on both sides of the Atlantic.

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