Sunday, October 20, 2013


 One of the most glorious achievements in the history of the Iberian Peninsula was the long and desperate defence of Numantia against the Roman legionaries sent to effect the destruction of the city. When the beleaguered inhabitants could no longer maintain themselves, owing to the shortage of food supplies, they burned the city, and those who were not killed in battle with the Romans committed suicide. Scipio Æmilianus, the Roman leader, entered Numantia to find nothing but burning embers and piles of corpses.

 This incident has an almost exact parallel in the history of Brazil, only this time the heroes were Negroes, defending the capital of one of the earliest and one of the strangest Negro republics in the history of the world. The Portuguese, who were the first to introduce Negro slavery into Europe, did not long delay in carrying the institution to their colony of 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. No region of the Americas was so accessible to the slave trade, for the Brazilian coast juts out into the Atlantic Ocean directly opposite the Gulf of Guinea in Africa, whence most of the slaves were procured.

 It is profitless here to go into the question of the treatment of the slaves by their Portuguese masters. Some were badly treated, and took the chance of flight to the interior forest lands, rather than submit any longer. Various causes prompted yet others to escape from the colonial plantations. Thus many a quilombo, or Negro village of the forest, was formed. By far the most famous of these was the quilombo of Palmares, whose history is the subject of this article. In 1650, forty determined Negroes of the province of Pernambuco, all of them natives of Guinea, rose against their masters, taking as much as they could in the way of arms and provisions, and fled to the neighboring forest. There they founded a quilombo on the site of a well-known Negro village of earlier days, which the Dutch had destroyed. The tale of their escape was told throughout the province, with the result that it was not long before the population of the new quilombo was greatly increased. Slaves and freemen were eager to join their brethren in the forest. It seemed prudent, however, to go farther away from the white settlements, lest the very strength of the Negro town should invite annihilation or re-enslavement by the planters. Thus it was that the inland site of Palmares, not far from present-day Anadia, was chosen.

 A town was founded, and all seemed well except for one thing, an essential to permanence was lacking, for there were no women. A detachment of Negroes was sent on the romantic mission of procuring wives for the colony. This party marched to the nearest plantations, and, without stopping to discriminate, took all the women it could find, black, mulatto, and white. Palmares was now on a secure footing indeed. At first, the inhabitants lived by a species of banditry, robbing the whites whenever they could. Gradually, a more settled type of life developed. The Negroes began to engage in agriculture, and at length entered into something approximating peaceful relations with the Portuguese settlements. Trade took the place of warfare, although fear of the overgrown quilombo was perhaps as much the motive on the part of the whites as the desire for profits. A rustic republic of an admirable type was formed for the maintenance of internal order and external safety.

 Combining republican and monarchical features, they elected a chief, or king, called the Zombe, who ruled with absolute authority during the term of his life. The right of candidacy was restricted to a group recognized as composing the bravest men of the community. Any man in the state might aspire to this dignity, provided he had Negro blood in his veins. There were other officials, both of a military and of a civil character. In the interests of good order, the Zombes made laws imposing the death penalty for murder, adultery, and robbery. Slavery existed, and in this respect there was a curious custom. Every Negro who had won his freedom from the white man, by whatever method, as for example by a successful flight to Palmares, remained a free man. Those who were captured while in a state of slavery, however, became slaves in Palmares. Thus the reward of freedom was offered to those who should escape from the planters, and a punishment was held out to those who would not, or could not, do so.

 In course of time, the Negro republic expanded until it included a number of towns. Palmares alone is said to have had a population of 20,000, and the number of fighting men in the whole republic was some 10,000. The capital city, Palmares, was surrounded by wooden walls, made of the trunks of large trees. The city was entered by means of three huge gates, on the tops of which were great platforms, always well guarded. For nearly half a century the little republic prospered. It was perhaps only natural that the Portuguese settlers should wish to destroy it, for it represented an alien force and an ever present danger, certainly so far as their profits from the use of slave labor went. At any rate, in the year 1696, Governor Caetano de Mello of Pernambuco decided upon an expedition against Palmares. A strong force was sent, but it was met by the Negroes and totally defeated. A veritable army of some 7,000 men was now gathered, and placed under the command of a competent soldier named Bernardo Vieira. This time, the Portuguese troops were well provided with artillery, with which the Negro republic could not be expected to cope. Palmares was reached, but it was in no mnood for surrender, and it was necessary to begin a regular siege of the city. The defence was desperate. After the Portuguese artillery had breached the walls in three places, their infantry attacked in force. They entered the city, but had to take it, foot by foot. At last, the defenders came to the center of Palmares, where a high cliff impeded further retreat. Death or surrender were now the only alternatives.

 Seeing that his cause was lost beyond repair, the Zombe hurled himself over the cliff, and his action was followed by the most distinguished of his fighting men. Some prisoners were indeed taken, but it is perhaps a tribute to Palmares, though a gruesome one, that they were all put to death; it was not safe to enslave these men, despite the value of their labor. Thus passed Palmares, the Negro Numantia, most famous and greatest of the Brazilian quilombos.

Author: Charles E. Chapman - Assistant Professor of History,
University of California
Source: The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Jan., 1918), pp. 29-32Published by: Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc.Stable URL:

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