History of free African strongholds fires Brazilian resistance to Bolsonaro

Quilombo dos Palmares founded by Africans who escaped slavery maintained its independence for 100 years and has become a touchstone for a new generation


A palm-fringed ridge rises above the plains of Alagoas in north-east Brazil. Just a few replica thatched huts and a wall of wooden stakes now stand at its summit, but this was once the capital of the Quilombo dos Palmares a sprawling, powerful nation of Africans who escaped slavery, and their descendants who held out here in the forest for 100 years.

Its population was at least 11,000 at the time, more than that of Rio de Janeiro across dozens of villages with elected leaders and a hybrid language and culture.

Palmares allied with indigenous peoples, traded for gunpowder, launched guerrilla raids on coastal sugar plantations to free other captives, and withstood more than 20 assaults before falling to Portuguese cannons in 1695.


Hundreds threw themselves to their deaths rather than surrender, said local guide Thais Dandara Thaty at the historical site in Serra da Barriga. In her telling, those killed included Dandara her adoptive namesake captain of a band of warrior women, whose husband Zumbi is similarly shrouded in myth as a fearless Palmarian commander.

Some 5 million enslaved Africans were brought across the Atlantic to Brazil between 1501 and 1888. Many escaped, forming quilombos, or free communities.

Three centuries later, the remarkable saga of Palmares, the largest, is being seized on once more as a symbol of resistance against Brazils rightwing president and the countrys pervasive racism towards its black and mixed-race majority.

A pair of new television and Netflix documentaries, screened in late 2018 and this June, have examined the legacy of Palmares. In March, the victorious carnival parade of Mangueira samba school highlighted Dandara among a lineup of overlooked black and indigenous heroes. Later that month, Brazils senate voted to inscribe Dandara in the Book of Heroes in the Pantheon of the Fatherland, a soaring, modernist cenotaph in Braslia.

Angola Janga, a graphic novel charting the rise and fall of Palmares, has won a string of awards. Many people want an alternative view, to try to escape the one-sided, one-dimensional vision of our history imposed by the Portuguese and Brazilian elite, said author Marcelo DSalete, whose painstakingly researched book, including maps and timelines alongside striking monochrome illustrations, has been widely used in classrooms.


Quilombosin general are very big right now, said Ana Carolina Loureno, a sociologist and adviser to one recent documentary on Palmares. Young Afro-Brazilians have even coined a verb, she added to quilombar meaning to meet up to debate politics or simply celebrate black music, culture and identity.

This renewed prominence coincides with a sharp rightward turn in Brazilian politics. Jair Bolsonaro has denied that Portuguese slavers set foot in Africa, and vilified the roughly 3,000 quilombos dotted across Brazil today poor and marginalised Afro-Brazilian communities, often descended from fugitive slaves branding their residents not even fit for procreation.

The president has sought to erode the landholding rights of quilombo communities in favour, critics argue, of the powerful agribusiness sector. Police killings, mainly of Afro-Brazilians, in Rio de Janeiro and So Paulo have also risen sharply in 2019 with the ex-paratroopers encouragement.

Earlier this month, footage of supermarket security guards whipping a bound and gagged black teenager for allegedly shoplifting, prompted reflections on the lasting legacy of slavery.

A painting of Zumbi dos Palmares (1927) by Antnio Parreiras, kept in the Museu do Ing. Photograph: Museu do Ing

For centuries, writers portrayed Palmarians merely as runaway blacks and outlaws who rebelled against the crown, said the Alagoas historian Geraldo de Majella.

It was only in the mid-20th century that historians began to reconstruct its story via Portuguese archives, often in Marxist terms. Meanwhile, black militant movements took up the flag of Palmares as a movement of national liberation, De Majella explained. The largest guerrilla group during Brazils military dictatorship (1964-85) the Palmares Armed Revolutionary Vanguard counted former president Dilma Rousseff among its members.

Former President Luiz Incio Lula da Silva (2003-10) simultaneously bolstered recognition of Palmares and the legal rights of present-day quilombos. November 20th the date the Palmarian leader was slain was officially adopted as the National Day of Zumbi and Black Consciousness in 2003.

In the same year, public schools were legally required to teach Afro-Brazilian history.

But limited archaeological evidence and the absence of Palmarian sources has encouraged freewheeling interpretations. Today, perhaps drawing on the historical presence of advanced metalworking at the site, some compare Palmares with Wakanda, the hi-tech, Afrofuturist utopia of Marvels Black Panther.

But the inclusion of Dandara whose first written mention occurs in a 1962 novel in the Pantheon divided opinion. I absolutely defend creative freedom in the way people look at our history, said DSalete. But we need to take care to differentiate between fact and fiction.

Fernando Holiday, an Afro-Brazilian YouTuber and conservative activist, has noted that Palmarian society had monarchical elements and also kept captives. Im sorry to disappoint leftist and black leaders, but today were commemorating a farce, Holiday said in a video. Zumbi wasnt a hero of abolition.

But Palmares and other examples of revolt and resistance, DSalete argued, are important as other ways of understanding our history so people can imagine and build another kind of society that is very different to one just based on violence and oppression.

That legacy of violence is apparent in Tiningu, a remote quilombo in Par state. The community has battled to receive legal recognition, threatened by the ranchers and landowners who have cut down much of the surrounding rainforest. One resident was murdered by a rival soybean farmer on the eve of Bolsonaros election. Here, Palmares is not merely history but a source of hope.

Zumbi was the beginning of everything, said local teacher Joanice Mata de Oliveira, whose school is daubed with the names of African nations. He was the one who began our fight.

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Starting school can be a traumatic experience for the parents | Emma Brockes

Dropping my children off each morning has stirred a panic I havent felt since they were babies, says Guardian columnist Emma Brockes


There is so much to worry about, said Gertrude Stein, you might as well not worry about any of it. But then again she never dropped two children off at school for the first time. Mine started last week and while one was fine, the other stood in the doorway of her new classroom looking tiny and lost and very alarmed and did the thing that, in extremis, parents fear more than tears: no tears. Looking on from the corridor, I felt something lift up and leave my body like the spirits in Ghost.

Controlling anxiety is the great labour of our age and one with no discernible end. I try to divide my fears into categories: those with controllable outcomes (there is a mouse in our skirting board), those with no solution but that I consider manageable (why do I persist in buying jeans that are too small when I know Im too lazy to return them?), and those that form part of a great, amorphous cloud of dread that hovers just over the horizon (where will it end? Why do we live like this? If there is a God, why did He allow Instagram to happen?).

When my children were babies, the existential terror of being responsible for other people was so vast the only way to control it was to attach it to real-world anxieties. It didnt matter how fantastical; I just needed a shape to hang on to. For a long time, every time I passed the waste-disposal chute in our hallway, I had to staunch a mental image of tripping, wrenching the door open and accidentally dropping one of my children down the 13-storey shaft to the cruncher below. It wasnt great, but it was better than shapeless fear.

That phase eventually wore off to be replaced with a worse one: the fear not of freak accident or ill-health but unhappiness. Were they unhappy? Why were they unhappy? Was it contextual or constitutional? Were signs of distress actually a good thing, given that the unhappiest people in the world are the ones who cant show their unhappiness?

Once my children learned to speak, it was curious to observe that their own anxieties trammelled along similar lines, the necessity of attaching a cause any cause to their fears. Over the past few months, I have talked them down about getting struck by lightning, getting killed in a flood, having a creature come out of the wall at them and something I still cant get a handle on about the Spice Girls not being real. What if a bug crawls into my mouth? asked my daughter the other day, and my answer It just wouldnt, dont worry about it was clearly inadequate because it keeps coming up.

Meanwhile, with school, my own anxiety seems to have gone back to square one: amorphous dread. The place is good, and safe, and well organised. Apart from the agony of drop-off, my girls seem happy. But handing them over has thrown up the dust from those earliest days of unsoothable panic and here I am once again: wandering the aisles of the supermarket on a Tuesday morning, crushing an indent into the side of a pack of tofu sausages while shouting at myself in my head. Get a grip, woman! What would Gertrude Stein say?!

Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist

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