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Capoeira, Runaway Slaves & The Dutch-Portuguese War

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.

About David Gaughran

David lives in Dublin, where it rains every day and conversation is a sport. He writes historical adventures and has helped thousands of authors to self-publish through his workshops, books, and this here blog.


22 thoughts on “Capoeira, Runaway Slaves & The Dutch-Portuguese War

  1. I love capoeira and found this post really fascinating. Thanks for sharing!

    Posted by Shéa MacLeod | October 9, 2011, 2:03 pm
    • Yeah, it’s amazing. I never knew its history before I started researching it. Fascinating. It was actually banned in Brazil until the 1940s.

      Posted by davidgaughran | October 9, 2011, 2:26 pm
    • Oh and there is a tenuous zombie link too. “Zombie” comes from the Haitian Creole word “zonbi”, which originally comes from the Kimbundu word “nzumbe” which described corpses that were raised from the dead by witchcraft. The reason the Portuguese displayed Zumbi’s head publicly was because many African slaves believed he had supernatural powers and would be able to raise himself from the dead.

      As I said, tenuous. But Zumbi wasn’t his real name, that name was given to him when he assumed power. His predecessor was called “Zumba”. They were both believed to have supernatural powers. Someone with more linguistic skills might be able to say if there is an etymological link between “Zumbi” and “nzumbe”. I have no idea, but part of me hopes it’s true.

      Posted by davidgaughran | October 9, 2011, 4:56 pm
  2. Hi David,

    I’ve been following your informative, friendly and generally excellent blog in digital publishing for awhile now, but I had one of those ‘yees … ‘ moments when I saw you had started this one as well. I am a Latin America-enthusiast myself. I have not really seen any blogs yet on the topic of historical South America that appear to be as ‘deep’ and yet easily accessible as South Americana. I do wish it the best of lifetimes, also as a promotional vessel for your upcoming book, “A Storm Hits Valparaiso” (that was the title, right? 🙂

    As regards enthusiasm for all things S.A.: As a matter of fact I’m writing this comment from my hotel room in La Paz, Bolivia, one of the last stay overs on a 3 week vacation with my girlfriend and her (hold fast) 77-year old grandmother who ‘really wanted to see what it was all about’. The reason, I guess, is that my girlfriend and I have been coming to this part of the world, together and individually, since 1998 and of course there’s been a lot of stories and photos brought back home, particularly from Peru and Bolivia, so apparently it had an effect on my grand-mother-in-law’s wishes for her next ‘voyage out’ (to paraphrase – rather un-elegantly, I admit, Virginia Woolf’s first book, also about a trip to S.A.).

    Anyway, I do look forward to more interesting posts and would be glad, at some point, and if you think it is usable for you, to provide a guest post on any sort of conceivable topic regarding the Andean countries that I’m most familiar with: history, politics, ethnic groups, curious incidents of history,etc. I’m not sure how much you want to keep the blog focused around certain countries in S.A., so please don’t consider this a kind of ‘pushy’ offer. It was solely a spur-of-the-moment thing, and I can hardly say that I gain much from it myself except for the fun and pleasure. (But that, as they say, might also be more than enough.) Okay, now at least it has been mentioned. Let me round off with a question:

    Do you have any good stories about that tiny little land ‘above’ Brazil – Surinam? If so I’d love to see them in an upcoming post. I’m not alltogether sure why I’m interested in that country. I’ve never been there myself, but I found a fascinating article about it in an issue of Nationa Geographic a couple of years back and I’ve never quite been able to let go thinking of it since then. Every time we go to Peru or Bolivia (where we have friends and family) I always catch myself thinking, when the plane crosses from the Atlantic and into the Amazon: ‘okay, now you may be flying over/near Surinam’). Odd, huh?

    Or maybe not. Maybe that’s just the effect South America has … a continent with lots of history and mystery, and sometimes you merely sense it, but you will have to follow that intuition and go on a discovery journey of your own before you can put into words, or at least try to, what it was all about to begin with 🙂

    So, before I become too metaphysical, I’d better bow down and take my leave.

    Saludos de La Paz – and much happy blogging to you!


    Posted by Christopher Marcus | October 9, 2011, 3:13 pm
    • Hey Chris,

      Thank you for following me over and for your kind comments.

      First of all, an apology: your comment was caught in my spam filter; I just rescued it.

      I love that you are writing this from La Paz! And I’m insanely jealous. It’s bringing back memories of altitude sickness-related weirdness. The strange confusion of wandering around, not quite remembering where you were going or what you were doing.

      When I was there in 2006 (pre-Morales), there was a lot of instability. In fact, the road to the airport was closed by a big protest on gas prices. We were supposed to be flying to Cuzco and the motorway was completely blocked. The taxi just dumped us on the side of the road and said good luck! We managed to get through and thumb a lift on the other side, but not before seeing a maddened crowd storm one of the gas trucks and make off with all the canisters! One way to reduce the price, I suppose…

      And kudos to your grandmother for making the trip. I hope I have the same sense of adventure later in life.

      I would welcome a guest post. Send me an email to david dot gaughran at gmail dot com. I guess a post on “curious incidents in history” would fit best with what I’m doing here.

      As for Surinam, I know next-to-nothing. It’s one of the few countries I haven’t been to in all of the Americas (I think I’m missing Belize, Venezuela, French Guiana, Surinam and Guyana) and I know little of its history other than it was a former British and Dutch colony and only got its independence quite late: ’75 or something. I think the Dutch West India Company had some involvement there, but that’s the limit of my knowledge – for now anyway!

      And you’re right about the effect South America has. It gets into your blood.



      Posted by davidgaughran | October 9, 2011, 4:53 pm
      • Surinam is indeed a bizarre enclave, that seems to have survived intact the upheavals of the rest of the continent.

        For me the three western Guineas have always a held a special fascination, especially as the possible home of the legndary El Dorado. The source of the legend, and such gold as has been found to substantiate it, is a topic we’ll probably never know the truth behind.

        But I’m intrigued by the possibility that the gold of eastern South America was never part of the New World riches, and actually may have came from the Old Word, as per my comment last week about likely trade between sub-Saharan West Africa and South America’s north east coast.

        Posted by Mark Williams International | October 9, 2011, 5:31 pm
      • I think there is still a touch of the wild west about certain parts of the three Guyanas.

        Re: gold – while I’m sure it was traded, and there may well have been trade with Africa, there is (and was) a lot of mineral wealth in South America. Peru and Mexico had (and have) huge mining concerns, and southern Brazil had several gold mines.

        Posted by davidgaughran | October 11, 2011, 1:54 am
      • Well, I guess Surinam is a mystery both of us will have on our ‘SA-to-list’ then 😉

        I was caught in the blockades and social upheavals of Bolivia myself back in 03, just before they ousted prez Lozada (after a 100 people had gotten killed in clashes between police/military and rioters/protesters). It was a grim time and I guess it signifies a lot about Bolivia, because the two times I’ve been there since have been completely different – much more calm, and yet with an underlying tension under the surface, as always. If a country in SA is a volcano waiting to erupt, but never quite so much that it destroys itself (yet) … Bolivia would probably be a good candidate. It is scary at times and at other times quite fascinating. The racial divide is intermingled with the social divide, inextricably I’d say – and it doesn’t help things much. But … let me not go out of a tangent here. After all, this is a humble commentary field, not an essay. But I’m sure my passion for the Andean countries got across time and cyberspace … 🙂

        I will use my long transatlantic flight next Friday to think about some topix for a g-p. On top of my head, I can think of some connected to the Pacific War in this area, when Bolivia lost its access to the sea (something they still mope about to this day), or some of the odd naval clashes in the region throughout this and other wars in the 19th century. Like the worn-out Greyhound-busses you sometimes see in the streets here, repainted (sometimes) but hardly refitted, the SA nations often appeared to get some of the ‘left-overs’ in the great naval race of the late 19th century (and up to WWI) and had to make do with a few patched-together cruisers and a single battleship to protect a few thousands miles of coastline. That’s also something that intrigues me, and might be worth writing about.

        But I’ll think about it and be back.

        Thanks and suerte to go 2 U 2 🙂


        Posted by Christopher Marcus | October 10, 2011, 5:29 pm
      • I’m reminded of the song the Chileans sing to the Bolivians when they play each other at football: Vamos a la playa! The taunting, of course, referring to the war in which Chile captured all of Bolivia’s coastline leaving it landlocked to this day.

        I’ll be writing something at a later point about Potosi – the thumb of silver sticking up out of the altoplano in Bolivia that once provided over a quarter of the Spanish Crown’s revenue (alone). And I’ll do pieces on the birth of Argentina’s navy (founded by an Irish privateer) and Chile’s navy (which was essentially cobbled together by a disgraced British captain who hijacked the Spaniard’s fleet in the Pacific one-by-one in a series of daring moves) – but that’s all very early 1800s during the independence wars.

        I love all this stuff, I just wish I had more time!

        Posted by davidgaughran | October 11, 2011, 1:46 am
      • “And I’ll do pieces on the birth of Argentina’s navy (founded by an Irish privateer) and Chile’s navy (which was essentially cobbled together by a disgraced British captain who hijacked the Spaniard’s fleet in the Pacific one-by-one in a series of daring moves) – but that’s all very early 1800s during the independence wars. I love all this stuff, I just wish I had more time!”

        Well, if it works well for both of us with some guest-postin’ of mine… I would probably not be able to resist helping out with research/writing on some of the more quirky naval history of said countries. I was at the Argentine naval museum in Tigre back in 04, and it was a treat – never knew that there were Admirals more important (or with bigger portraits) than Lord Nelson. 🙂

        I’ll be in touch, if nothng else then after I’ve cleared some jetlag, come next week.



        Posted by Christopher Marcus | October 11, 2011, 9:55 pm
      • You have free rein, Christopher.

        Posted by davidgaughran | October 17, 2011, 1:01 pm
  3. Wonderful!

    This will make sa great book when you come to collate it all. I’m insanely jealous you;re finding time to do this! The West African version will have to wait a good few months yet.

    At some stage an overwiew of the European situation would be useful for those not immersed in that background. Anyone relying on the modern British education system will have a very limited understanding of the European conflicts that underpin these events. European history, outside of conflicts with Britain is rarely taught, and the rest of the world only exists where Britain ruled.

    Safe to say most of the younger generation only know of South America’s existence through football. 😦

    Speaking of which, with Brazil 2014 on the horizon, that ought to be a great time to aim to get this launched as a book!

    Posted by Mark Williams International | October 9, 2011, 3:42 pm
    • Hey Mark,

      A lot of this stuff is offcuts from book research, or stuff I cut out of my novel where I was trying to share interesting stuff from history and had forgotten I was writing, you know, a story.

      I will try and explain the European angle at some point. There’s lots there. The British invasion of Buenos Aires in 1807. Napoleon’s secret plan to escape his island prison and place himself at the head of a unified South American republic. The help America gave to Argentina and Chile in building their navies as a means of checking Spanish power in the region. The French mercenaries that fought on the side of the rebels. The huge amount of Irish and Brits that did the same. The Irishman that set up the Argentine Navy. The flight of the entire Portuguese royal family to Brazil after Napoleon’s invasion.

      There’s lots to cover! I will also be talking about a lot more modern stuff too: the repressive military regimes, backed by the CIA, that ruled in the 60s and 70s. The torture. The disappeared. Activists in the Amazon. Chico Mendes. Klaus Barbie. The death of Che Guevara. Pinochet. The Falklands/Malvinas War. The rise of the drug lords. And of course, Paraguay’s simultaneous declaration of war against Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil which resulted in the loss of a third of its territory and most of its able-bodied male population.

      Oh, and El Pulpo – the United Fruit Company – which owned whole swathes of countries, not just the prime arable land, but the banks, the railroads, schools, hospitals, and, in many cases, governments too.

      And so much more…

      I could turn it into a book one day. If I did, I think I would rather keep it a collection of vignettes rather than some all encompassing history – that way I can write about the stuff that’s interesting to me and ignore the rest.

      Posted by davidgaughran | October 9, 2011, 4:23 pm
      • All that of course without even considering the pre-colonial period!

        In fairness to the Rest Of The World I think pretty much most regions have fascinating tales to be told, with equally larger than life characters and equally bizarre political wranglings, largely unknown outside their locale.

        For far too long history has been hijacked by academia and presented in dry text book terms, rather than as infotainment.

        Narrative non-fiction history is, I’m certain, the new black for the ereading future. The ability to present vignettes like this with links to more substantial posts on websites for those who want to go that extra mile is definitely the way forward. And as format technology develops and images are more easily and reliably presentable this can only get better and better.

        All my NNF WIPs are dusted off and calling me back. as the digital revolution unfolds new opportunities to pursue my dream of educational books written to be read, not studied. Suddenly even the most obscure topics are fair game, and a good writer can make the most obscure topic interesting and readable.

        Given my fiction schedule mine will have to wait a while. On the bright side that will perhaps coincide with the next breed of ereaders that can present handle colour images and maps properly.

        Posted by Mark Williams International | October 9, 2011, 5:04 pm
      • Agreed. I think there is a big future for narrative non-fiction (and for fresh voices). I would like to publish some myself. So many projects, too little time!

        Posted by davidgaughran | October 11, 2011, 1:57 am
  4. I’m ashamed to admit how much of the history of South America I’m ignorant of. The leaders of Palmares came to a rather brutal end 😦

    Posted by John | October 9, 2011, 3:57 pm
    • Hey John!

      South American history is rarely thought outside the continent. I had to teach myself. And it’s really fascinating. So many crazy stories and characters. I’ll try to put something up every few days as I have time – there’s lots more to come!


      Posted by davidgaughran | October 9, 2011, 4:12 pm
  5. I know Mark talked about tying everything in to European events and what not… Yes, that might be extremely useful for us Americans.. that is the USA. What I knew of history flew in one ear and out the other, and I don’t think we touched much on anything the USA wasn’t part of, due to it’s dryness in the text books.

    This sort of fascinating stuff, where you can see the human behind the politics, and all the other elements that influenced the events is awesome.

    Posted by Cathryn Leigh | October 10, 2011, 5:17 am
  6. Now let me catch my breath – this is such a surprise, David … !

    I was reading your other blog – Let’s Go Digital – when my eye caught the little link leading here.

    In fact, I grew up in Brazil, and got interested in storytelling while there. Slavery was abolished in 1888 – Napoleon actually playing a part here, albeit indirectly – and in a way it is a very recent past. The house I live in in Frankfurt, Germany, is older than 1888, just to put things in perspective. And as a kid I have sat around the fireplace hearing the stories of one of the elders, who had still witnessed slavery as a tiny boy. Nobody knew his exact age, not even he himself, but he looked as old as the stone he was sitting on.
    Every time people tried to put him in the hospital for a general check up, he would get out of the bed at night to sleep on the floor. And he would constantly try to make a fire in the room, to cook his food, not trusting what he got on the tray. He did not belong there, he belonged to his little village where people cared for him, and to the “mata”. He belonged at the fireplaces, telling children about the world of magic and legends … He was one on these people who deeply influenced the way I looked at everything.

    While my German Grandfather read me the tales of the brothers Grimm when we visited, I got all the tales of the indigenous people, the old African tales, and how they cleverly adapted to Brazilian surroundings, … intravenously.

    I am not sure if you ever heard about the beautiful stories of the native Americans in Brazil. Different tribes with universes of stories … each tribe trying to explain the world to themselves and to their children. Each story more poetic than the other. The result being a painting of the world that surrounded them.

    David, I am planning to go off to Scotland for a month in January, but one of these days I’ll be back to Ireland, and then we need to get a good bottle of whiskey and talk. (smile)

    Posted by Lassal | October 17, 2011, 9:37 am
    • Hey Lassal,

      Thanks for popping over. Growing up in Brazil must have been interesting. I know very little about the native tribes in Brazil and I would love to hear more.

      And one of these days I’ll be back in Ireland myself – living in Sweden at the moment, which is about as far away from Brazil (physically and spiritually) as is possible on this small planet of ours.

      I guess that’s where storytelling originated for all of us, groups of people huddled around the fire passing down folk histories and attempts to understand the world.

      Posted by davidgaughran | October 17, 2011, 1:05 pm
      • Sweden?! Oh well …
        I’ve been to Iceland a couple of times – amazing legends in the northern parts of Europe as well, albeit very different ones.
        Have you read the Sagas?
        But then … that does not belong to “southamericana” 🙂

        Posted by Lassal | October 17, 2011, 1:11 pm

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