African slaves who were brought to Brazil throughout the 400 years of the continued trafficking of human labor were subjected to a number of cruelties and were dehumanized by their white (generally Portuguese in this case) overseers. In response to this treatment and aided by the strength provided by native cultures, the quilombo at Palmares was begun. Throughout its steady growth and until its bitter end nearly one hundred years later, it served as a testament to the power of rebellion, population, and cultural cohesion. Theoretically speaking, it is nearly impossible not to take a generally materialist view when considering the formation of the fugitive slave society of Palmares. While culturalist critiques offer some valid insights, the level of oppression associated with the early slave trade in Brazil deserves a much more thorough exploration than mere cultural conjecture and to limit any examination to societal influences would be missing the scope of the case of Palmares.
The colonial experience in Brazil, just as in several other colonies, was supported and maintained by the presence of African slaves. The Portuguese and the Dutch imported thousands of slaves to the Amazon region to build and grow massive plantations. It is nearly impossible to imagine how these early European colonists would have survived (and even thrived) without the thousands of slaves and their efforts to bring slaves began early and lasted for nearly 400 years. “The Portuguese, who were the first to introduce Negro slavery into Europe, did not long delay in carrying the institution to their colony in Brazil. It was in 1574 that the first slave ship reached there. Thereafter, great numbers of negroes were brought, especially to northern Brazil, in the equatorial belt, to work in the profitable sugar fields" (Chapman 29). The sugar cane industry and the large plantations profited the colonists greatly and their success could not have been achieved without the assistance of these first slaves. In time, the slave population grew exponentially and the seeds of tension were sown. As we will see in later sections of this essay, there was a growing sentiment on the part of the African slaves to attain higher standards of living and this in turn led to the development of quilombos. The development of these communities of runaway slaves and freedmen was also due to growing resentment and hostility against white colonist forces. Before these issues are explored more fully, however, it is important to look at the historical basis for the events that would erupt in Brazil, particularly in the quilombo in Palmares.
Brazil was uniquely situated to become one of the first and largest areas where slaves were brought to in Latin America since it was located directly across the Atlantic from the African port of New Guinea, where a significant number of future slaves would hail from initially. In terms of population and demographics, it is striking to realize that “it is estimated that 40 percent of the Africans imported to the Americas ended up in Brazil" (Reis 56) especially since slave ships left African harbors with other destinations in mind. Since the Portuguese were the first to begin the wide scale export of slaves and one of their most successful burgeoning colonies was in the fertile northern section of Brazil, it is only appropriate that many years later this same area would be home to one of the largest, organized, and structurally complex quilombos, Palmares. It should also be noted that in addition to this massive influx of Africans to the region, there was also a local Indian population present, thus making two groups that were open to marginalization by white colonists. This eventually led to an even greater tension in the region that formed something of a triangle, with the whites on top, who pressed down on the “lower" levels of people, the African slaves and the native Indians. As one might imagine, this was a perfect environment for early tension between all groups and this would eventually escalate, although not in favor of the whites. In many senses, after the arrival of African slaves in Brazil, racial complexity added fuel to a fire that would burn for a few centuries. As one scholar notes, “Wherever one turns, even in places where it is supposed that Amerindian blood or that of the Portuguese-Indian hybrid is preserved in its purest state, it will be found that the African has been there: in the very heart of the Amazon region on the Sierra do Norte, and in the backlands" (Freyre 69). This mixture of races all living in the same region created a complex social hierarchy based on race that would come into play once the uprisings on the part of the blacks (through their founding of the first quilombos) would first alienate and later integrate the displaced Indians. As years of oppression raged on in the Brazilian territory, it would be inevitable that the two most subjugated groups form a tentative alliance. “In Brazil, blacks and Indians had much in common during the colonial regime. Both groups had been enslaved and both suffered in the creation of Portuguese colonies and from the occupation of the land and the regime of export agriculture" (Diggs 62). Indeed, once the Palmares gained some degree of stability, Indians made up at least some of the population.
By the time Palmares had become stable and reached its population of almost 30,000 (sometimes less, depending on the source) the Indian and African populations had not formed a tentative alliance but also became closer in terms of culture and ideas. “Runaway slaves had spread among the Indians knowledge of the Portuguese language and the Catholic religion before any white missionaries had done so. Having set up their quilombos on the highlands where the Parcei Indians dwelt, the fugitive negroes had interbred with women whom they had taken from the Indians" (Freyre 285). This intermixture of knowledge and culture coupled with the growing hostility and anger at the white colonists was a dangerous mixture for the Portuguese plantation owners and is, as this paper argues, a key to the long-running success of the most populated quilombo, Palmares. In other words, according to this theory, being a marginalized group forced this alliance and it was the only way to gain some kind of authority over the whites and would allow organized retaliation.
Despite the racial or even cultural makeup of the quilombos, there are certain traits which define them. In order to provide a more detailed analysis of the Palmares quilombo, it is necessary to outline the basic components of the quilombos. The general consensus among scholars is the quilombo was composed of fugitive slaves who came together to live outside of white society. While they were not all even remotely at the level of complexity seen at Palmares, they can still be grouped together under this general definition. Although it is easy to think of quilombos as having a large number of people gathered under an even loosely organized society, this is not always the case. While this study focuses mostly on the largest quilombo, “they [quilombos] are not defined in terms of a necessarily large number of inhabitants or their social organization. Therefore, this is a highly flexible definition that encompasses a broad range of historical experiences" (Gomez 735). For the purposes of this examination, the Palmares quilombo will be studied most closely although it should be noted that its level of complexity is not inherent to all quilombos, nor is necessary for any of them to have such a societal structure or massive population to be considered such. It should also be remembered that there were many quilombos scattered throughout Brazil, although many would not survive as long as Palmares. “There were others of less importance in the Sierra del Cubato, Sao Paulo, Leblon, Rio de Janerio, Maranao, and in Mato Grosso. In 1650, the quilombo of Rio de Janeiro gave the authorities considerable vexation but in the end was destroyed by Captain Manuel da Silva. In the northeast there were also various quilombos modeled after Palmares" (Diggs 65).
In terms of defining the quilombo, there are other intricate issues to consider. For instance, the word “quilombo does not appear in the vocabulary of early seventeenth-century Brazil. Instead, the fugitive slave settlement was known as mocambo, an appropriate description since mu-kambo in Ambundo means a hideout" (Price 174). This literal meaning of the word is most helpful in understanding the true function of the quilombo. These are safe havens and places where refugees could gather, even in small numbers, to live free of oppression. Small bands of fugitive slaves would escape, often taking with them possessions from their home plantations, to begin somewhere away from white rule and with the intention of not being caught. In the vast virgin lands surrounding the few urban areas throughout Brazil there were plenty of opportunities to find a suitable place for a small agrarian settlement. Many of these sprung up throughout the Amazon region although unfortunately many were eventually found and destroyed or simply abandoned. Sometimes, however, fugitive slaves were able to find other opportunities to live freely, although this of course meant that there must be some trickery or coercion involved. “Slave flight, to be sure, did not always lead to the formation of quilombos. Fugitives often escaped individually or in small groups and disguised themselves as free or freed blacks or mestizos, especially in larger urban settlements located in or near mining and plantation regions" (Reis 57). Just as some fugitive slaves were able to escape through pretending, so too did many (especially men) seek out the Palmares quilombo which gained some fame throughout its relatively long history of nearly 100 years.
Like other quilombos, Palmares was formed when a small group of slaves left their home plantation and, like in many other cases, upon leaving they took all they could and did significant damage to the plantation. The raid that began the flight to Palmares involved forty men who, under cover of night, rose up against their masters in a surprise attack, killing some and injuring other white members. In their violent departure, they took all they could carry, mostly general supplies, and ran off into the forest. Eventually they would cross the harsh mountains and settle in a valley that came to be the quilombo at Palmares. This group of forty men was able to set up a rough camp that eventually began to grow both in size and complexity. In order to expand their numbers, they set off on raids to more plantations and encouraged slaves to join them at Palmares. After a number of such attacks, word began to spread about the growing quilombo and some members came from plantations or from other quilombos. At the very beginning, the quilombo at Palmares was not the self-sufficient community it would later become. Before the true signs of settlement began such as formalized agriculture or political society, the inhabitants lived by becoming bandits, stealing provisions and supplies from white plantations at every opportunity. They did not generally steal large items that could be used for skilled trades (as would later occur) but small items and foodstuffs for the most part. In the first year of the quilombo, there was little evidence to indicate that the quilombo would eventually pose any threat to the whites and its development was slow although ultimately successful.
As the population of Palmares grew, a more structured and settled way of living began to emerge with the introduction of formal agriculture which allowed better sustainability to support the ever-growing population. Within the first twenty years of the settlement, a tentative peace was reached between the residents of Palmares and the nearby Portuguese population. As one can imagine, this was not necessarily because the Portuguese wished to make a lasting peace, but merely because the sheer size of the quilombo was frightening. The population just before the raid that effectively ended the quilombo was nearly 30,000 by some estimates and this was enough incentive for the Portuguese to keep their distance until retaliation and the demise of the fugitive society could be organized. During this span of peace, the constant war between the colonists and the slave community subsided and actual trading between the two occurred.
While this idea of peace and freedom seems somewhat resolute during the period of relative tranquility discussed above, the quilombo at Palmares was not the perfect society by any means. For slaves on plantations, the chance to gain freedom through residing at Palmares was not always a positive experience. For example, at the inception of the quilombo, the population was comprised of only men. It eventually became necessary to bring in women, but instead of finding just volunteers from plantations, the fugitive slaves of Palmares took white, Indian, and even fellow African slave women as prisoners and brought them back against their will. In sum, while it might have been beneficial to be a strong male African slave during this time, being a woman of any race was dangerous and left one open to attacks on many levels. Aside from women, local Indians who were at first hostile, joined into the Palmares quilombo, mostly because this was one of the only ways they might have been able to gain an upper hand against the white colonists who had stolen their land and imposed several restrictions on their lives. While this is not to say that relations between Indians and the fugitive slaves, there was an alliance borne out of necessity. Between these two aspects, the racial and cultural makeup of the inhabitants of the quilombo at Palmares was diverse and became even more so as the children of mixed races were born to the women (who themselves were of various races) grew up. In some ways, this community represented a picture of racial harmony and coexistence. While Freyre explores this in-depth with a rather rosy perspective, it must be remembered that this was out of necessity—not out of desire to combine races. In the end, those with African heritage remained at the top of the Palmares “food chain" and there was a strict sense of racial hierarchy present—even without whites present.