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      The Slave King: Zumbi of Palmares

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      The Slave King

      The epic of Palmares - a state founded in the 17th century by runaway slaves, in Northeastern Brazil - has taken a life of its own. On November 20 [1995], Brazil will be celebrating the 300th anniversary of Palmares's leader, Zumbi. The commemorations will also certainly be used to reflect upon the past and to draw lessons in order to create a more just society.

      Robert Nelson Anderson III *

      November 20, 1995, marks the three hundredth anniversary of the death of Zumbi, the last leader of the quilombo of Palmares. Palmares was a state founded by maroons, or runaway slaves, which flourished in Northeastern Brazil throughout most of the seventeenth century. This date looms large in the popular imagination, since Zumbi embodies for many Brazilians, especially those of African descent, the strongest resistance to the slave-based colonial regime, and, consequently, the struggle for economic and political justice.

      The last leader of Palmares has become more than a secular hero - Zumbi is viewed as an ancestor, an antecedent in what the outsider might see as a fictive lineage. As such, his spirit is inherently divine and immortal, and is thus worthy of respect from those who consider themselves his descendants. This belief is such that the tercentenary commemoration talks about celebrating three hundred years of Zumbi's immortality.

      Since the establishment in Brazil of November 20 as National Black Consciousness Day - originally called Zumbi Day - in 1978, popular discourse has increasingly treated Zumbi not only as the premiere Afro-Brazilian hero but also as having constituted on Brazilian soil an alternative to racism and colonialism. The importance of this anniversary is widely recognized.

      Witness that Salvador, the "capital" of Afro-Brazil and currently host to the world's largest pre-Lenten festival in terms of numbers of tourists, chose Zumbi as the theme for Carnaval in 1995. For November events are planned around the country, including pilgrimages to the site of Palmares in the state of Alagoas, with the possible presence of the President of the Republic, and the Movimento Negro Unificado's march on BrasÃ*lia. These events will certainly underscore Zumbi of Palmares's mythic status.

      Most of what we know about Palmares comes from accounts of the Dutch and Portuguese campaigns against the quilombo between 1640 and 1695. One combination or another of these official documents and eye-witness accounts by would-be invaders is the basis for subsequent Brazilian historiography and ethnography, each in turn informed by the ideology and intellectual biases of its time. Not surprisingly, most sources have tended to see Palmares as a threat to Portuguese colonial (and, by extension, Brazilian) sovereignty and the quilombo's defeat as basically a patriotic victory.

      Yet, even white commentators have lionized the Afro-Brazilian state on occasion. The nineteenth century Portuguese republican Joaquim Pedro de Oliveira Martins called Palmares "a black Troy, and its story is an Iliad." Recent generations of Brazilian leftists have seen in Palmares an alternative social order, as in this statement from Décio Freitas: "These rustic black republics reveal the dream of a social order founded on fraternal equality and for this reason are incorporated into the revolutionary tradition of the Brazilian people."


      From the earliest time in which Africans were brought forcibly to the new world they resisted bondage by flight, or marronage. It seems that from the earliest arrival of Africans in the captaincies of Alagoas and Pernambuco in Portuguese America slaves had fled to the interior. By 1606 a trickle of runaway slaves had made their way to a mountainous, palm-covered region of Pernambuco and there established a mocambo, or maroon settlement, of some reputation.

      The area came to be known as Palmares due to the preponderance of wild palms there. The Palmares region, straddling the Serra da Barriga, received a greater number of fugitive slaves in the 1630s thanks in part to the Dutch invasion of Northeastern Brazil. During the Dutch dominion and after the Portuguese reconquest of Pernambuco, completed in 1654, there were occasional incursions into Palmares, without great success. Of special interest are the expeditions of Bartholomeus Lintz (1640), Roelox Baro (1643), and Johan Blaer and Jürgens Reijmbach (1645).

      At the time of the Lintz expedition, there were two large mocambos and any number of smaller ones. By the time of the Blaer-Reijmbach expedition there was at least one large mocambo; another large mocambo had been abandoned three years earlier. The diary of the expedition describes the large "Palmares": It was surrounded by a double palisade with a spike-lined trough inside. This settlement was half a mile long, its street six feet wide. There was a swamp on the north side and large felled trees on the south. We might guess that the clearing was for cultivation or for defensive reasons. There were 220 buildings in the middle of which stood a church, four smithies, and a council house. The population was around 1,500. The ruler of that place, according to the diary, was severely just, punishing sorcerers, as well as those who would flee the mocambo. The king had a house and farms outside the settlement. The narrative also includes description of cultivation and foodstuffs, uses made of the palm, and crafts such as work in straw, gourds, and ceramic.

      As was so often the case in the long history of wars against Palmares, the soldiers found the settlement virtually abandoned when they arrived; the Palmarinos would receive advance word of expeditions from their spies in the colonial towns and sugar plantations or engenhos.


      The external history of Palmares from the expulsion of the Dutch in 1654 to the destruction of Palmares in 1694 is one of frequent Portuguese incursions - sometimes more than one a year - and Palmarino reprisals and raids. In the period 1654 to 1678 there were at least 20 expeditions against Palmares. In the internecine peace, Palmarinos traded with their Portuguese neighbors, exchanging foodstuffs and crafts for arms, munitions, and salt. The trade with Palmares was such that many colonials opposed war with the Palmarinos, and in the 1670s there was widespread opinion that establishing peace with Palmares was the best way to achieve stability in the colony.

      Nevertheless, many local planters feared the predatory raids by Palmarinos, real or potential. They also wished to eliminate the lure of escape that Palmares constantly represented to the plantation slaves. In spite of much vacillation, colonial leaders opted again for the destruction of the quilombo, and sent militia captain Fernão Carrilho against them. Carrilho's campaign of 1676-77 was not only one of the more devastating, but it also gave us the most substantial descriptions of Palmares.

      The "Relação das guerras feitas aos Palmares," from the term of Governor Dom Pedro de Almeida, reported that campaign, mentioning several mocambos that constituted Palmares: Zambi, Acotirene or Arotirene, Tabocas, Dambrabanga, Subupira, the royal compound of Macaco, Osenga, Amaro, and Andalaquituche. The Portuguese, as was their wont, named at least some of these towns for the title-holders living there: Zambi (probably Zumbi), Andalaquituche, brother of "Zambi," and Aqualtune, the mother of the king. Amaro appears to have been the given name of the resident chief of that mocambo. Subupira was the mocambo of Gana-Zona, brother of the king. Some

      of the names of the mocambos may have Bantu or indigenous American roots, but it is difficult to determine with certainty.

      This chronicle reports that at this time the king of Palmares was called Ganga-Zumba, which allegedly meant "Great Lord." He had a palace, guards, ministers, and other officials. His subjects greeted him by kneeling and "clapping" their hands (probably a hand-snapping gesture also used in West Africa). His royal town was Macaco (Portuguese for 'Monkey'), so named because a monkey was killed at the site. Macaco was fortified by a palisade with embrasures, and around the outside was sewn with iron caltrops and pitfalls.

      This mocambo contained more than 1,500 houses. The other towns were ruled by chiefs who lived in them. The mocambo of Subupira, for example, was governed by the king's brother. It too was fortified and circled with spiked pitfalls, and it comprised more than 800 houses. Subupira was where the Palmarinos trained for war.. The architecture of Macaco and Subupira suggests that Palmares was on a constant war-footing.


      The religion of the polity was at least superficially Christian, syncretized with African belief and practice. Macaco had a chapel to which the Palmarinos resorted when in need, containing statues before which they brought petitions. They had chosen a priest, who was ladino in the sense that he was at least nominally Catholic, spoke Portuguese, perhaps knew prayers, and was otherwise "acculturated."

      The chronicle notes, however, that the Palmarinos' practice of Catholicism was not without its irregularities; for example, they tolerated polygamy. Ganga Zumba was said to have three wives, one mulatto and two black women. By the first he had many children, by the others none. The particulars of belief and practice of African origin that must have been present are not stated. Their presence must be inferred from the sense of distortion or imperfection of Catholic practice sensed and relayed by the chronicler.

      The appearance of syncretism is reinforced by a parallel phenomenon in dress: The Palmarinos dressed more or less like the colonials, within their capacity to do so. The description of the royal Palmarino envoy to Governor Dom Pedro de Almeida mentions that the visitors wore both animal skins and cloth, had various hair styles, including braids, and bore both bows and arrows and firearms. Engravings and photographs from as late as the nineteenth century reveal a mix of African and European dress among Brazilian slaves.

      The descriptions of Palmares suggest that it had the political structure of a paramount chiefdom or kingdom along Central African lines. The "Relação" reveals confederation and tributary relations among the Palmarino towns, reinforced by what also appear to be lineage or family relations. Historian R. K. Kent's has asserted that "the political system [of Palmares] did not derive from a particular Central African model, but from several." Sources sometimes describe Palmares as a "republic" with an "elected" king.

      However information is scant on exactly how the state was governed. Perhaps the "election" of the king derives from descriptions of chiefly and bureaucratic checks on the power of the king and the lack of hereditary succession, as in some West African states. It is also possible that the principal chief was elected by the chiefs of the constituent villages or even by popular acclaim, as among the Imbangala of seventeenth-century Angola.


      It was historian Stuart Schwartz who noted the connection between the quilombo of Brazil and the institution by the same name in seventeenth-century Angola (KiMbundu kilombo). In Angola the kilombo was originally a male initiation camp and, by extension, a male military society. During the seventeenth century the territory the Portuguese called Angola was disrupted by factors that included the pressure of the Portuguese slave trade and occupation of the coast, by the collapse of states such as the Kingdom of the Kongo to the north, and by invasions principally from the northeast.

      The people of central Angola responded by coalescing under the name 'Imbangala.' The nascent Imbangala states, in contrast to prior states in the area, which crystallized around a royal lineage of divine kings, constituted diverse peoples in a lineageless community. Since these communities existed in a time and place of military conflict and political upheaval, they found in the institution of the kilombo a unifying structure suitable for a people under constant military alert.

      It is clear that the wars in Angola were feeding the slave trade to the Northeast of Brazil, a market expanding to recoup the losses during the Dutch occupation. It is reasonable to assume that many, if not most, of the Palmarinos were descended from slaves from Angola, and many may have been recent arrivals from among the Imbangala. Indeed, the residents of Palmares called it Angola Janga, supposedly meaning 'Little Angola.'

      Yet, whatever the Central African presence in Palmares, it was clearly a multiethnic and mostly Creole community by the second half of the seventeenth century. The population of Palmares in the 1670s appears to have been largely native-born. The balance of the population would have been runaway slaves, slaves and free persons captured in raids, colonials who had suffered political reversals as a consequence of the Portuguese reconquest of Pernambuco, and poor free immigrants of all racial backgrounds. Preliminary results of the Palmares Excavation Project, led by

      Pedro Paulo A. Funari and Charles E. Orser Jr., also confirm a strong indigenous American presence, presumably among the women.

      Ganga-Zumba was probably the title rather than the proper name of the king or paramount chief of Palmares in the 1670s. However, it probably does not mean "Great Lord," as is often rendered in the Portuguese sources. Nganga a nzumbi was a religious title among the Imbangala whose responsibilities included relieving sufferings caused by an unhappy spirit of a lineage ancestor (nzumbi). In a fundamentally lineageless society like the Imbangala - or the colonial maroon - this official would have great importance, as it would fall to him to appease ancestral spirits cut lose

      from descendants who would otherwise propitiate them. Despite the title and apparent official function of Bantu origin, the Ganga-Zumba known to history was possibly a native Palmarino of the Ardra Nation, identifiable with the Ewe-speaking Allada state on the Slave Coast.


      It would appear then that in mature Palmares, Central African titles and cultural practices prevailed among a heterogeneous Creole population. This seeming incongruity is explained by the very continuity of the kilombo/quilombo discussed by Schwartz. The flexibility of the institution of the kilombo as a mechanism for integrating a lineageless community engaged in warfare and self-defense, as was Palmares, explains why some adaptation of the Imbangala institution would thrive Brazil, even if only a minority of Palmares's inhabitants were actually Imbangala.

      Whatever the ethnic composition of Palmares at any given time, one can make the case that certain African cultural forms and practices lent themselves to adaptation to the problematic of the New World. In this instance, the Central African solutions of the quilombo served the Brazilian maroons, uniting malungos, or comrades, from diverse ethnic backgrounds, not on the basis of lineage, for the purposes of commodity production, raiding, and self-defense. The persistence and adaptation of African cultural elements such as the quilombo to the Afro-Brazilian Creole context, in fact, demonstrate the continuity of African and Diasporic cultures in the process of New World transculturation.

      Zumbi was the war commander of Palmares under Ganga-Zumba. Working from documents not fully cited, Freitas writes that Zumbi was born in 1655. That same year Brás da Rocha Cardoso led the first Portuguese attack on Palmares after the expulsion of the Dutch. During that otherwise ineffective and unremarkable attack, a baby boy, native to Palmares, was captured and later given to a priest, Antônio Melo, in the coastal town of Porto Calvo. The boy, baptized Francisco by the priest, was raised as the priest's protégé and instructed in Portuguese, Latin, and other subjects. At the age of 15, in 1670, the youth ran away to Palmares, although he later continued to pay

      the priest secret visits.


      Francisco reemerges in Governor Dom Pedro de Almeida's chronicle as "Zambi," the "general das armas" of Palmares. During the campaign led by Sergeant-Major Manuel Lopes Galvão in 1675-76, "Zambi" suffered a leg wound that left him with a limp. He is described as a "black man of singular valor, great spirit, and rare constancy. He is the overseer of the rest, because his industry, judgment, and strength to our people serve as an obstacle, to his an example." A document received by the Conselho Ultramarino, partially cited in Freitas, attributes Palmares's resistance to "military practice made warlike in the discipline of their captain and general, Zumbi, who made them very handy in the use of all arms, of which they have many and in great quantity - firearms, as well as swords, lances, and arrows."

      It is uncertain whether "Zumbi" or "Zambi" was a proper name, title, epithet, or praise name. Nzambi is the usual KiMbundu name for the Supreme Being. The word nzumbi means 'ancestral spirit,' as noted in connection with the religious title nganga a nzumbi above. In Central African culture an nzumbi demands special propitiatory attention, lest it disturb its descendants. For this reason, the KiMbundu nzumbi has often been mistranslated as 'evil spirit.' It is this sense that is usually meant in Brazil by zumbi.

      Colloquially in Brazil zumbi also refers to someone with nocturnal inclinations. We could also compare the etymology of the word to the cognate Haitian zombi and all of the meanings and connotations that 'zombie' has acquired in English. It is a matter of speculation how Zumbi came to receive his name, but little doubt his compatriots viewed the name within the paradigm of the cult of ancestors. Perhaps, if Freitas's biography is accurate, Francisco/Zumbi had figuratively returned from the dead when he returned to Palmares. To the sugar plantation owners and colonial officials, however, Zumbi was surely the "evil spirit" of folklore, descending at night to wreak havoc on their patrimony.

      Ganga-Zumba was wounded in an attack on the mocambo of Amaro in November 1677, and a number of his sons, nephews, and grandchildren were captured. The destruction wrought by Carrilho must have had an effect. In 1678, Ganga-Zumba, tired of war, accepted terms of peace from the governor of Pernambuco which affirmed his sovereignty over his people on the condition that he return any fugitive slaves and move his people from Palmares to the Cucaú Valley. Sometime thereafter, Ganga-Zumba and his followers relocated to the Cucaú Valley, closer to the watchful eye of the colonial government.


      However, Ganga-Zumba's treaty did not gain peace. An opposition faction preferred resistance to removal. A ban from Sergeant-Major Manuel Lopes dated 1680 called on "Captain Zumbi" and other rebels to cease their uprising, to adhere to the terms of the treaty, and to join his uncle, Gana-Zona. The document also affirms that in 1680 Zumbi or his partisans had poisoned their king "Ganazumba." Kent viewed this last act as a "palace revolt."

      Clearly Ganga-Zumba's concessions had provoked a rift in Palmares, but the death may also be viewed as the widespread African practice of sanctioned regicide, the ultimate check on royal weakness or abuse. Zumbi, until then a chief and military commander, occupied the capital and was proclaimed supreme chief. He immediately set about prosecuting the defensive war against the Portuguese, ruling Palmares with dictatorial authority. Zumbi thus ruled Palmares from the time of Ganga-Zumba's move to Cucaú to the destruction of Palmares in 1694.

      The broken peace eventually precipitated the enlistment of the aid of the "Bush Captain" Domingos Jorge Velho, a field commander charged with fighting Indians and capturing runaway slaves. This bandeirante, or wilderness tamer, from São Paulo and his irregulars joined forces raised in the Northeast for an assault on Palmares in 1692. In late 1693, after the defeat the year before, a new combined expeditionary force gathered in Porto Calvo. When they reached the heavy fortification of the royal compound of Macaco, they lay siege for 22 days.

      The attackers were building a counter-fortification when the Palmarinos began abandoning their positions in order to attack from the rear or in order to flee through a break in the opposing fortification. In the ensuing battle on February 5-6, 1694, Jorge Velho took some 400 prisoners. Another 300 died in battle, while some 200 hurled themselves or were forced from the precipice at the rear of the compound. In all, some 500 Palmarinos were killed and over 500 total were taken prisoner in the campaign.

      Zumbi had escaped this fatal battle. He continued to skirmish with the Portuguese for over a year, until one of his aids revealed his location. There Zumbi and a small band of followers were ambushed and killed. His mutilated body was identified in Porto Calvo. Then his head was taken to Recife, the capital of Pernambuco, and displayed as proof against claims of his immortality. Jorge Velho fixed the date of Zumbi's death at November 20, 1695.


      These events recorded and republished in the historical record over the last four centuries provide the epic material of Zumbi of Palmares. Since the seventeenth century additions and variants have become part of the textual tradition. A case in point is the alternate version of Zumbi's death, that he hurled himself from the precipice during the final assault on Macaco to avoid capture, committed to history by Sebastião da Rocha Pitta.

      This romantic episode has been repeated by numerous historians and creative writers. The version has its basis in the allegations by eyewitnesses that a number of Zumbi's compatriots met a similar fate. While the secondary sources coincide in great measure of their detail, they also contain contradictions and ambiguities among them. Together the primary and secondary sources have woven the text that is the history of Palmares and have contributed to the creation of the epic myth of Zumbi's resistance.

      The historiography of Palmares, though, is necessarily elite historiography. We do not know of any surviving accounts of Palmares by Palmarinos. The record of popular oral history is scant although it certainly exists. In the absence of more information, however, it is impossible to say how much the existing works about Palmares owe to oral literature uninformed by erudite scholarship. This historiographic fact means that nowadays, activists, artists, and scholars desirous of avoiding Eurocentric accounts have had to rely on documents written by outsiders.

      This has not prevented them from appropriating that elite discourse, and doing so frequently. While subsequent generations have added interpretations and mythic accretions to this record, they have not necessarily contradicted the Afro-Brazilian character of the community that was Palmares. Indeed, the historical record offers ample evidence within a small corpus that at least suggests Creole Brazilian alternatives, ultimately of African origins, to the colonial reality.

      Doubtless we all stand to learn much still from the efforts of those in disciplines such as folklore, oral history, and archeology. One can only imagine that archives in Brazil, Portugal, and Angola have a wealth of information yet to yield. By now, however, the epic of Palmares has taken a life of its own. As Brazil prepares to celebrate three hundred years of Zumbi's immortality, it is good for all of us to reflect on what this epic has to teach us. On November 20, when Brazil turns its gaze to the Serra da Barriga in commemoration of Zumbi, it will also be looking forward to ways to create a just society, one that can be a true example to multiethnic societies elsewhere.

      * Professor Robert Anderson teaches Portuguese and Latin American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is associated with the Duke-UNC Program in Latin American studies, which has supported his research on Palmares and the Zumbi Tercentenary.



      Carneiro, Edison. O quilombo dos Palmares 1630-1695. 1st ed. São Paulo:

      Brasiliense, 1947. 2nd ed. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1958.

      Freitas, Décio. Palmares, a guerra dos escravos. 5th ed. Rio de Janeiro:

      Graal, 1982.

      Kent, R. K. "Palmares: An African State in Brazil." In Maroon Societies:

      Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas. Ed. Richard Price. 1st ed. Garden

      City, NY: Anchor-Doubleday, 1973. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP,

      1979. 170-90.

      Santos, Joel Rufino dos. Zumbi. São Paulo: Moderna, 1988.
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      IfasehunReincarnated's Avatar
      IfasehunReincarnated is offline Never Let Them Disrespect the Ancestors

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      Quilombo: excellent movie about Zumbi and Palmeres made in Brazil, with subtitles. Worth the watch.

      Last edited by IfasehunReincarnated; 09-08-2004 at 12:02 PM.
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