Through a curious accident of history, Brazil is the only Portuguese-speaking country in all of South America. The ethnic mix is very different too, largely down to the legacy of slavery.
An estimated 6 million African slaves were “imported” into Brazil between the 1500s and the 1800s. One consequence of this was that the colonists were vastly outnumbered.
Brazil’s inhospitable geography (a vast, barren interior surrounded by impenetrable jungle), meant settlements hugged the coastline. When a slave escaped, the first thing they did was head inland.
The harsh Brazilian interior, known as the sertão, became home to scattered runaway communities known as quilombos. The word itself derives from the Kimbundu word kilombo – Angolan tribes who organized themselves into defensive communities to resist slavers – and the tradition crossed the Atlantic with those taken.
But the quilombos didn’t just consist of escaped slaves and their free-born children, they also sheltered Brazilian Indians, oppressed Portuguese, army deserters, fugitives, as well as Jews and Arabs escaping religious persecution by Catholic zealots.
They were most prevalent in Northwestern Brazil where the conditions on the sugar plantations were particularly vicious. In fact, the Portuguese Crown had to intervene on more than one occasion to insist the slave-owners provided a minimum of food. This wasn’t, it should be noted, motivated by a concern for the rights of slaves, but rather to prevent reduced productivity levels affecting lucrative exports.
The various quilombos were under constant attack both from regular army troops and specialized slave-catchers. Aside from the intrinsic value of the escape slaves and the havoc their occasional raiding parties wreaked on plantations and towns, the very existence of the quilombos gave hope and encouragement to those still in chains.
While the quilombos were able to trade with freed blacks and disaffected whites to gain weaponry, their firepower was rarely a match for the colonial troops and often had to resort to hand-to-hand combat. Here, they were superior and had developed a martial art which was to form the basis for capoeira.
Slaves would spend what little free time they had practicing capoeira so that they would be able to defend themselves after the opportunity came to escape. So as not to arouse the suspicions of their masters, it was disguised as a form of dance.
When escaped slaves made their way to the quilombos, they found settlements to be quite small, having little opportunity to develop given the constant threat of discovery by either colonial troops or the dreaded slave-catchers.
Palmares was the exception, but it was more than a simple quilombo. At it’s peak, towards the end of it’s near century-long existence, it was a vast collection of settlements the size of Portugal itself, a kingdom home to 30,000 people, the biggest fugitive community in the history of Brazil. The largest army ever seen in the Americas would be needed to destroy it.
In 1607, a forty-strong group of runaway Angolan slaves founded Palmares in a mountain range directly north of the sugar plantations of Pernambuco. Over the next twenty years it developed into a considerable settlement, bolstered by a continual stream of fugitives and the disaffected until it got drawn into the Dutch-Portuguese War.
The Dutch West India Company was founded to invade Northeastern Brazil, seize control of the sugar trade, then colonize the continent. After invading Pernambuco in 1630, and capturing Recife and Salvador, they sought an alliance with Palmares. But before it could be consummated, Spanish reinforcements arrived, tilting the balance of power, and the Dutch were forced to sue for peace and cede much of their gains.
After the Dutch were finally expelled in 1654, the Portuguese turned their attention to Palmares. Incursions increased in their size and intensity until 1677 when, after a particularly devastating attack, the leader of the renegades – Zumba – sought peace. The price of the negotiated pardons for him and his men was the abandonment of their settlements, and the forcible return of any inhabitants not born there.
One of his subordinates – Zumbi – refused to accept the terms, organized a rebellion, then had him poisoned and assumed command. For the next fifteen years, Portuguese waged near constant war, with Zumbi repulsing every single assault.
Portugal then gathered together a huge army of 9,000 soldiers, by far the largest ever seen in the Americas at that point. Led by the two top Portuguese generals, and bolstered with heavy artillery, they finally conquered Palmares.
Zumbi managed to survive, despite being wounded, and continued the rebellion for another two years before being betrayed then castrated, mutilated, and beheaded. As a deterrent against any future escapees, and to refute popular belief that Zumbi was immortal, his head was displayed in the central praça of Recife.
The anniversary of his death (November 20th) is now celebrated as a day of Afro-Brazilian consciousness and Zumbi is a national hero. In 1988, one hundred years after the abolition of slavery, the Constitution of Brazil granted collected ownership of their lands to the last remaining quilombos.