• Reuben Saunders

Palmares, Land of the Free

Updated: Apr 5, 2021

As much of Europe butts heads with its third wave of Covid, and the UK still awaits better times outside the grip of this pandemic, it feels that for now, we are so close and yet so far from an ending to this story, as tragic as it is frustrating. We still scramble for stories of positivity amidst darkness and suffering, skipping sad songs on Spotify and looking for positive news articles, like diamonds in the rough, so to speak.

For today’s story, we fly to colonial Brazil in the 17th century, a sparsely populated, young place finding its feet. Here, cultural hegemony reigned supreme and transculturation was planting its roots, from which one of the world’s most culturally diverse countries would grow.

But before that process kicked up enough steam to define the nation, it was defined by struggles between different people put together against their will by the sweeping fist of Iberian conquest: Portuguese rulers and settlers, indigenous American-Indians and, of course, African slaves.

Like the rest of Europe’s colonial powers, Portugal was no different – to steamroll the colonial economy of Brazil into something even remotely powerful by the day’s standards, they felt it necessary to buy and employ millions of slaves. Ripped from their homes in parts of Africa such as modern-day Angola, DR/Brazzaville Congo and Mozambique, slaves brought to Brazil constituted around 40% of all the slaves transported across the Atlantic. These slaves were forced to work sugar plantations across the Brazilian coast in place of an indigenous population that both diminished in number by infection of new disease strains from Europe, and by violent oppression.

Our story of positivity, this time, then, truly comes from a time and place of darkness. Far-flung perhaps indeed from today’s times – far be it from me to compare living through a pandemic to “living” as a slave – but a story of profound influence and implication that can be applied to any situation in need of fight, bravery, and goodness in the face of harsh adversity – whether that’s as simple as having to live through Covid-imposed lockdown here in the UK, or suffering under an oppressive regime, living in times of war, anything. As intelligentsia groups in Tsarist Russia stipulated, “There is only one way to freedom, the fight that becomes tougher and tougher”. We must make change happen, not wait for it.

Slavery is a plague that, thankfully today, is not the publicly accepted norm that it once was. Modern-day slavery remains to be a disgusting scorn on societies throughout the world, but gone are the days when it was something that happened the world over on a scale large enough that former-slave populations were major enough in places that they constituted almost the entire populations of newly developing countries (think much of the modern-day Caribbean, for example). Particularly from a western European perspective, perhaps, it’s a sobering, sickening thought that we once ruled vast fleets of slave transports and monopolised an entire ocean with the power and wealth it created.

Brazil was a crucial part of that slave empire, the Portuguese an integral component of it. Africans became, alongside indigenous Americans, the population majority of the growing nation, and, naturally, with time, African culture flavoured much of what we view Brazilian culture as today. A well-known part of that is capoeira. To many of us from the outside, it’s just a pretty dance routine. We might’ve heard stories about Pelé’s mythical rise to footballing glory, in which he practised capoeira alongside football to create the colourful, beautiful game we’ll forever associate with the yellow and green of his fantastic team. But how many of us know where it came from, and how it came to be such an integral part of Brazilian culture?

First, we must visit the pre-colonial land of present-day Angola, originating from what was then the Kingdom of Kongo. There, they practised a ritualistic dance called N’golo, a performance involving much of what we associate with capoeira today: Several forms of rhythmic kicking, evasion and deception. It played a role of religious significance, and supposedly enabled the person practising it to channel the spirit of their ancestors. Naturally, it could be applied to a form of martial combat, called N’singa. N’golo and N’singa then travelled across the Atlantic as European slave traders took them to America. And in Brazil, N’golo/N’singa, became capoeira.

This tale takes place in the modern-day state of Alagoas, on the north-eastern coast of Brazil, an area that was initially the economic hub of the nation in its earliest colonial era. Situated here, near cities we now know as Recife, Maceió and Salvador, surrounded by sugar plantations and growing Portuguese settlements, was Palmares, a quilombo.Quilombos were remarkable, unlikely places. Places in which groups of escaped slaves (and slaves they had freed) lived self-sustainably in communities together that sprung up like towns and cities, independent from the fist of colonial rule. Palmares is quite possibly the most famous of them all. There, people lived together in the tens of thousands, warding off waves and waves of Portuguese soldiers.

It’s been said, from Portuguese accounts, that it would often take an entire dragoon to capture and defeat a single quilombo warrior, and that indeed, it was more difficult “to defeat a quilombo than the Dutch invaders”, who were known for their hardiness in battle, something that Portuguese-Brazilians experienced first-hand when fighting against them in various swathes of invasion attempts and skirmishes across the north-eastern coast – which, actually, for a short time in the 17th century, bowed to Dutch colonial rule.

Palmares, with its main settlement, Cerca do Macaco, up in the mountain range of Serra da Barriga, was home to fortified communities and, amongst its population that very likely exceeded 10,000 people, was a monarchy rule thought to have descended from the Kingdom of Kongo, and an army which deployed weaponry and guerrilla warfare. This was a powerful, impressive civilisation, and it lasted, for almost the entirety of the 17th century.

Until 1678, its leader was Ganga Zumba, a warrior theorised to have been the son of Aqualtune, the last princess of Kongo. However, the most famous was Zumbi, his nephew and successor. Zumbi challenged Zumba when the latter accepted, in prospect, a treaty with the Portuguese that would see the residents of his quilombo bow the knee to the crown. It would have seen peace arrive, in the short-term, but Zumbi, evidently wary of the deal, refused to accept it when it meant that slavery would continue throughout the rest of Brazil. Indeed, they’d lost many lives in the battles with the colonial troops throughout most of the century, and Ganga Zumba was likely and understandably tired, and thus saw this as a way out. But to submit to Iberian sovereignty, to Zumbi, was a betrayal of everything they had worked and fought for, and not least their people.

And, with that, Ganga Zumba was dead by poison. None seem grounded enough to be reliable, but theories persist that either he committed suicide, tired of fighting this endless war with the Portuguese-Brazilian ruling class, was killed by Zumbi or one from within his rebellion against him, or even by insurgents from the aforementioned ruling class itself, seeking to undermine him and the quilombo at their weakest point. However it happened, it paved the way for a biography of a hero profound in consequence. Zumba may have been an integral, powerful leader of Palmares in its earlier years, but his nephew plunged further into the annals of history and touched the hearts of Afro-Brazilians past and present.

Having been born there in 1655, Zumbi had actually been born free, outside the shackles of slavery, only to experience them first-hand when he was captured as a child, to be forcefully Christianised by the “bishop” who owned him, distorting God’s good word, and melded into the image of European culture and customs – and then to escape, to re-join Palmares at the age of fifteen.

His doing so, alongside his later refusal to bow the knee to Iberian control, was symbolic of his nobility and bravery, and, better yet, his prodigious skills on the battlefield propelled his name to fame and infamy across the entirety of Brazil. The fact that he refused to accept cultural hegemony, the invisible power that forced indigenous and African-Americans to accept the “superiority” and “natural order” of Iberian rule and white supremacy, in the way that he did, sent shockwaves across the nation. Never otherwise did a quilombo have such a wide-reaching influence on those around them – and never before did a black person in America. Such was the glory attached to his name, Zumbi was considered immortal: Half-man, half-God.

During his time in charge of Palmares, Zumbi characterised the spirit of quilombos with his courage in battle, and his refusal to deny his roots. He spearheaded an army that had thought tirelessly already for over half a century into more and more heroic victories against the Portuguese. It was only in 1694, after almost two decades of fighting, that Zumbi and Palmares finally succumbed to defeat. The roaming, wily bandeirantesdid what the Portuguese ruling class could not.

They killed Zumbi. And Palmares was at their mercy.

When I tell you they publicly executed him and displayed his head, empaled on a spike, you could be forgiven for thinking that any nugget of positivity from this tale was now destroyed.

At the time, in the immediate future, it was. That which was believed to be immortal, was not. A beacon of hope and one that was so powerful that it lasted almost an entire century, was crushed. And not even by the same armies that had been trying to do so for decades, but by a force of cowboy-like explorers that did what they pleased for whatever gain they desired.

It was a brutal ending to a story that seemed so incredible. I thought so when I first read it.Still, there was one key failure of the bandeirantes that killed Zumbi. By placing his head on a spike to publicly silence rumours of his immortality, they in doing so proved them right. No man is half-God, nor is any man perfect, and nor are any truly immortal, in the sense that many believed Zumbi to be. But there was a far greater power at work. And statues of Zumbi’s head across Brazil today, three centuries on, tell us that he is immortal in a way far more powerful than they perceived.

Zumbi stands today as the great Afro-Brazilian hero; the fire that keeps the memory of Quilombo dos Palmares alight, and a symbol of hope and pride, that even the most horrifying realities we find ourselves in can be changed if we believe it can be so.

These memories live on, too, through capoeira. Rei Pelé practised it to better his game, and thus propel Brazil into world-fame through sport, and today, the dance of war still reigns supreme. Palmares, or by another name, Angola Janga (Little Angola), and its memory, represents the legacy of Angolan and wider African culture in Brazil, and, while no documented hard-proof confirms it, capoeira was very feasibly deployed as a fighting technique there. Portuguese soldiers told that quilombo warriors defended themselves with a “strangely moving fighting technique”. If this was indeed capoeira, or to credit its origins, N’singa: Those soldiers didn’t stand a chance.

While Palmares eventually crumbled, as did many quilombos across Brazil, many remained. They were key components in the black and indigenous populations’ efforts to survive the plight of slavery and the misery that colonisation imposed. Not just survive, but thrive. Palmares may have met ultimate failure at its time, and it told a story that ended in brutality born from a world of darkness and corruption. But it was also a story that was touched by love's kind smile. And its legacy since suggests a success far greater than its citizens could have ever imagined.

Far be this story, indeed, from many of the situations, we today find ourselves in. But whenever you think that things cannot change, and things cannot get better, remember Zumbi. Remember Palmares. Remember that they lived in times of darkness and of strife. But they escaped. They fought.

We can, too.

Our realities are not set in stone.

photo creds: Du'ong Nhan on Pexels


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