The Invincible Spirit of Palmares: The Story of Brazil’s Largest Community of Escaped Slaves


The history of enslaved Africans in Brazil is one of horrific exploitation and violence, but also of heroic resistance and anti-colonial struggle. Nowhere is this as clear as in the experiences of the 16th century settlement of escaped slaves, Palmares, which fought for survival and independence against colonial powers.

Image: Vivi Cuiabá

In the era of the transatlantic slave trade,1 Brazil was the destination for the greatest number of enslaved Africans. According to historian Luiz Felipe de Alencastro, “12 thousand voyages were made from African ports to Brazil to sell about 4 million slaves who arrived here alive over the course of three centuries.”2 The numbers portray in a frighteningly patent way the magnitude of the slave-trading enterprise. But they do not speak for themselves. Behind the numbers were the lives of millions of Africans who made history, both in what was to become Brazil as well as in Africa. Black people kidnapped from Africa cannot be reduced to these staggering numbers; at every moment, they asserted themselves as agents of their own lives. The degree of violence and oppression they suffered is immeasurable. The responses of enslaved Black women and men to this violence and oppression are part of the tradition of all oppressed peoples and classes of the world. This can be seen quite clearly if we examine certain aspects of Brazil’s main quilombo, or settlement of escaped African slaves: Palmares.

Slavery had a profound impact on Africans’ way of life. Capitalism made its entry into Africa through the captivity of its people, tearing them away from their continent, destroying old relations there, and restructuring them under new forms. Black women and men in Africa reacted to this process in different ways, as part of a complex of possibilities that we do not yet fully understand. Their forms of social organization were diverse, as were their religions, traditions, and worldviews. The enslaved people who arrived in Brazil mostly came from West Africa — as was the case of those who ended up in the northeast, specifically in Bahia — and from Central Africa. To grasp the dimension of the changes caused by oppression and the violence of slavery, one must explore this diverse universe of African cultures. In other words, the tradition of resistance we examine here does not begin with the arrival of enslaved people to Brazilian ports, but in the African territory itself. Since we are focusing on Palmares, we will limit our discussion to just a small, but valuable, example. In various regions and at different times, Africans responded to slavery by adopting or reinforcing a nomadic way of life, with the aim of defending themselves against traffickers. After listing some of the impacts of the arrival of commercial capital to Africa and its relationship with nomadic life, historian Robert Slenes notes,

We thus came upon an unusual discovery, not unlike what we know about the enormous human tragedy that was brought about on both sides of the South Atlantic by the slave trade. Before being captured and brought to southeastern Brazil, many people who had fled Central Africa, perhaps the majority, were practically already “quilombolas” [inhabitants of settlements of free slaves] — including in the original sense of the word, since they lived in villages that were little more than camps (of warriors).3

The late 16th century saw the emergence of the largest quilombo in the Americas, which resisted colonial repression the longest. It was located in the captaincy of Pernambuco, which is today Alagoas State, in northeastern Brazil. Palmares was undoubtedly one of the greatest threats to the interests of the colony and, by extension, to Portugal, throughout the 17th century. It is unknown exactly how the Palmares quilombo came into being, but it seems to have been “founded by about 40 enslaved people who had incited an insurrection in the sugar mill near Porto Calvo, one of the main villages of Pernambuco at the time.”4 The use of the colony’s physical space was subordinated to the interests of the metropolis. In the sugar-producing regions of the time, this meant that cities were built close to the Atlantic ports, and sugar plantations expanded close to the cities. So the hinterlands of the colonial districts were slow to become occupied, and many quilombos were established there. Pernambuco in particular had specific geographical advantages, such as the dense mountain ranges that made it difficult to access. Palmares emerged in the heart of Serra da Barriga, 120 kilometers from the coast: “The people of Palmares sought to build their huts along the mountain range [of Barriga], in an extensive region ranging from the São Francisco River to the cape of Santo Agostinho.”5

But like all quilombos in Brazil and elsewhere in the Americas, Palmares was not isolated. On the contrary, one can only understand its existence and resistance for such a long time by examining its relationship with nearby cities and farms, free settlers, and, of course, the enslaved people of the senzalas (slave camps). The people of Palmares not only occupied physical space but also an intricate and decisive network of relations with the colony; these took many forms, including looting, robbery, the destruction of sugar mills, communication with enslaved people, the exchange of goods and information and the kidnapping of enslaved men and women, among others. The escape of enslaved people was part of the colonial reality, and plantation owners and authorities were forced to adapt to it.

The plantation owners’ cries for greater security from the government were often answered with eloquent words, but no real measures. Colonial resources were scarce, and chasing after slaves was an expensive endeavor, which is why it was the private responsibility of plantation owners when it came to just a few captives. There was never a political-social balance in the colony. It was necessary to adapt to these precarious conditions, which meant seeking to destroy the quilombos when they emerged as a significant threat and to soften the repression when the risk was not as great. Palmares was no exception. At the beginning of the 17th century, however, Palmares became a source of tension for the colony:

From an initial stage of mere concern, the colonial authorities began to be startled by the growth of Palmares and the mass escapes. What was worse, this wasn’t the only problem. What came to haunt plantation owners were the raids carried out by the people of Palmares on sugar mills, properties and local villages. Large estates were looted, plantation storerooms and village warehouses were pillaged, cane fields were burned and enslaved people — mainly women — were kidnapped. Colonists who tried to resist were killed. At a time when there was a constant fear of foreign invasions by the French and the Dutch, fugitives grouped together in mocambos [communities of escaped slaves] were considered internal enemies. The colony was on full alert. There was alarm among plantation owners and residents. The metropolis followed the events closely. Colonial authorities were watchful. Enslaved people in plantations were hopeful. The war was just beginning.6

In early 1630, the threat of a Dutch invasion materialized. Pernambuco was in no position to put up a strong resistance; in just two days, Dutch troops took possession of Recife. But there were significant clashes in the surrounding areas, and the main resistance to the colonizers was concentrated on the Arraial do Bom Jesus hill, which was taken only in 1635. In the first half of the 17th century, Holland was emerging as a leading player in the Atlantic trade. It was already the destination of a considerable part of Brazilian sugar, but it lacked the land that would enable it to strengthen colonial ties and drive its domestic development. The conquest of Pernambuco, as well as regions in Africa and the Caribbean, was part of its plan to remedy this situation. Dutch invaders shook up the colony’s sociopolitical order, and any change in the routine was closely observed and analyzed by enslaved people and the residents of Palmares. As historian Décio Freitas points out, “Black people soon saw that the war was not theirs.”7 In the colony of 1630, the experience of 1624 merely highlighted an understanding that seemed to be widespread among slaves: Holland had no more to offer than Portugal. The residents of Palmares used the conflict between Holland and the colony to strengthen their positions.

Throughout the war, bands of armed enslaved people kept the two armies under constant pressure. This even led to diminished hostility between the armies, in their fight against their common enemy. In early 1636, the mood of the last Portuguese people who still resisted in the village of Porto Calvo bordered on despair. They began to systematically intercept trains from Bahia carrying food and ammunition for the troops. It was only in May 1636 that an expedition led by Bahia’s sergeant major, Belchior Brandão Dias, severely disrupted the activities of Black guerrillas, leading to the normalization of supplies. The conflict came to have a profound impact on the arrival of enslaved people.

Palmares would be the most significant domestic concern of Dutch Recife. Despite important changes in the colony, Pernambuco was valuable precisely because of the relationship between slavery and sugar, which was key to the West India Company. The destruction of Palmares was thus strategically essential.

The Dutch took the confrontation with Palmares to a new level. The repression would increasingly take place in the woods near Serra da Barriga. It would take 50 more years to destroy Palmares, but after the Dutch invasion, the recovery of Recife by the Portuguese and especially from 1660 onward, the fight against Palmares intensified.

A combination of repressive methods was implemented in the 1660s.8 The colonizers sought to use nearby settlements as a base for supplies for expeditions and to force the movement of Palmares into the interior. An outpost was built in Serinhaém (1672), direct attacks were carried out, and amnesty was granted to prisoners who took part in the campaigns against Palmares. The destruction of bushland relatively close to Palmares and the reinforcement of the siege on the settlement, despite successive defeats, besides starving the people of Palmares, led to a more direct struggle between them and the military expeditions. The always complex and intricate relationship between Serra da Barriga and the cities became more intense. In a confrontation with an important expedition of more than 300 men launched by the authorities of Serinhaém, Porto Calvo, Penedo, and Alagoas in 1676, Zumbi, who was still a military leader under the command of Ganga Zumba, was struck by a bullet and lost his leg. The result of that expedition was the murder of Palmares residents, 45 prisoners, sick and wounded soldiers and a defeat of the people. The response from Palmares came swiftly:

In the following month, the residents of Palmares retaliated. In every town — Porto Calvo, Alagoas, Ipojuca, São Miguel and Serinhaém — the small garrisons proved powerless to contain the forces of Palmares. The indigenous people fled in terror. Sugar mill owners kept watch over their homes at night. Mills and cane fields were devoured by flames. There was no stopping the attacks from Palmares. If colonial authorities and planters gathered a larger contingent somewhere, the attacks took place elsewhere. And so it was as, throughout the rest of 1676, that former slaves became, in a sense, the masters of southern Pernambuco.9

The mocambos defended themselves against the heightened attacks with bushland guerrilla tactics and with the improvement of their own fortifications. To a significant extent, this internal reorganization, or rather, adaptation to military needs, through a greater social division of labor, was under the command of Ganga Zumba. According to Flavio dos Santos Gomes,

The central power of Palmares from 1645 to 1678 was probably in the hands of Ganga-Zumba, even though there was military and economic autonomy in some areas. In terms of organization, a kind of autocratic policy prevailed. The socioeconomic structure of Palmares — particularly when attacks against it increased in the second half of the 17th century — was strongly marked by its political-military organization.10

With the reinforcement of military expeditions, albeit at a high cost to the colony and its provinces, Palmares was increasingly under threat.11 The expeditions, led by the Jesuits, intensified under the command of Antônio Vieira, with the support of Saint Anthony, who was believed to protect those dedicated to the destruction of Palmares. Nevertheless, the quilombo continued to resist. The attempt to achieve peace, which had already made some headway in the mid-1660s, gained strength. Ganga Zumba, until then leader of Palmares, accepted the peace proposal, which, among other things, guaranteed the autonomy of Palmares, freedom for those born in the quilombo, and the demarcation of their lands by the Crown. Captives who fled to Palmares were to be handed over to the authorities and the residents of Palmares would be considered vassals of the king.

Ganga Zumba accepted the agreement, and this acceptance was fiercely opposed by an important leader of the resistance named Zumbi. An irreparable division emerged in the heart of Palmares, under the impact of the peace treaty and the continued expeditions.

The people of Palmares were divided, however, regarding the full acceptance of the treaty. While Ganga-Zumba and others migrated to the Cucaú region, Zumbi, an important military leader, chose to remain in the Macaco mocambo with many others. The negotiation was under threat. The war would continue. Part of it would take place inside Palmares itself. The people of Palmares commanded by Ganga-Zumba thus migrated to the region of Cucaú, as part of the agreement. At the same time, other Palmares residents — in other mocambos — remained in Serra da Barriga. Others may have also migrated to neighboring districts. With the possibility of a peace treaty, the coordination between several mocambos in Palmares seemed to weaken.12

Ganga-Zumba was appointed general of the Crown and was followed by several mocambos to Cucaú. He feared internal reprisals and retaliation by the people of Palmares:

Several, in fact, abandoned the mocambo of Cucaú and joined the ranks of Zumbi. The leader’s fears were justified: Ganga-Zumba ended up being poisoned and many of his followers were executed.13

Freitas goes so far as to assert that the followers of Ganga Zumba were actually supporters of Zumbi who had devised a plan to destroy Cucaú and assassinate Ganga Zumba as well as all those who agreed with the terms of peace.14

Palmares was reconstructed, and new mocambos (small settlements of escaped slaves) emerged. Zumbi and his determination not to negotiate with the colony became a serious political problem. This situation led the colony to invest in the destruction of Palmares. Portugal was drowning in debt because of its conflicts with Spain, which lasted until 1668, “as a result of which the Portuguese kingdom returned to its previous position as the pauper of Europe. Strictly speaking, Brazil was practically its only source of income at the time.”15 If the coffers were empty, the colony needed to serve its purpose better than ever. It is true that, owing to a combination of factors, the district of Pernambuco no longer achieved the same levels of productivity as before. Sugar production was undergoing a significant crisis in the late 17th century, largely because the Dutch were expelled and settled in the Caribbean, where they began to produce sugar under better conditions. Internally, the crisis led to intensified repression. Palmares had come to symbolize Pernambuco’s problems and had to be destroyed.

The Crown had always kept a watchful eye on Palmares. King Pedro II had not yet given up on the possibility of a peace agreement. His intention was to seek an agreement once more. Souto Maior was appointed governor of Pernambuco on February 19, 1695, with the express aim of reaching a peace agreement with the people of Palmares. The proposal was embraced by the sugar mill owners, who understood that any attempt at peace had failed in 1678. More than a century before Toussaint L’Ouverture corresponded with Napoleon, the king of Portugal sent Zumbi a letter seeking to get him to accept a deal:

I, the King, hereby inform you, Captain Zumbi of Palmares, that I wish to forgive you for all the excesses you have perpetrated against my Royal Land as well as against the people of Pernambuco, and that I do so because I understand that the reason for your rebellion were the evils wrought by some bad lords in violation of my royal orders. I hereby invite you to any estate of your choice, with your wife and children, and all of your captains, free from any bondage or subjection, as my loyal and faithful subjects, under my royal protection, of which my governor, now appointed to that district, is aware.16

We have no knowledge of a reply from Zumbi. In L’Ouverture’s case, his response was imbued with what he understood as the spirit of the French Revolution in the colonies — freedom — which led him to wage a national war of liberation against the French Empire. Portugal, however, had nothing to offer the people of Palmares, politically or ideologically. Zumbi understood that better than anyone. In any case, he took advantage of the governor’s policy by sending counterproposals for an agreement, which he deliberately substituted for new ones when they were accepted. He certainly used this opportunity to buy time and rebuild his forces.

The expedition led by João Marins and Alexandre Cardoso (preceded by a group of indigenous troops) managed to destroy important mocambos and “capture hundreds of people from Palmares.”17 Palmares did not limit itself to its internal reorganization. It responded to the attacks and intensified the “hostilities”18 with the kidnapping of white women and enslaved people and attacks “against towns and villages.”19 As in other times, changes in the social order had an impact on the people who were still enslaved. The failure of the peace treaty, the conflict in Cucaú, the renewed attacks by the people of Palmares on neighboring cities, and the intensified hostility against Palmares resulted in an “alarming increase in the number of escapes” and the loosening of the conditions of those enslaved in the district, who, for example, “rejected the money offered by the traditional brotherhoods of freed men for the emancipation of enslaved people.”20 Gomes notes,

In the slave quarters, captives must have been anxious. The defeat of Palmares could have an impact on their lives. Economic exchanges and networks of solidarity would then be destroyed. Not to mention that it would be the end of their dream of finding freedom in those mocambo. It was a time of expectation and apprehension. It was even said that the captives in the plantations would organize an insurrection with the support of the people of Palmares. It was total war.21

After the failure of the peace treaty, the idea resurfaced of using people of São Paulo for local repressive expeditions. Militias were formed that eventually proved capable of causing great damage to Palmares, mainly as of 1660, but they were unable to totally destroy them. The fame of the Paulistas as hunters of runaway slaves and destroyers of quilombos was already at its peak in the colony. Yet the interests in Palmares were diverse. The colonizers agreed it had to be destroyed, but what to do with the lands was another story. There were a number of soldiers and plantation owners who claimed the land as part of their payment for previous expeditions.

The eagerness to destroy Palmares placed Paulistas in an advantageous bargaining position. The leader of the São Paulo expedition that would ultimately defeat Palmares was Domingos Jorge Velho. He achieved this with a troop of almost a thousand men. Despite the preparations, which began in 1668, an “uprising of Janduí indigenous people in Rio Grande do Norte” led the Paulistas away from the region. They returned to Pernambuco to attack Palmares only in 1691.

Meanwhile, the people of Palmares continued to move in the mountains. They were nearing the villages again. Once again they frightened authorities and residents. The Paulistas’ war operation had to be launched immediately. In August 1692, after much preparation, several impasses and numerous discussions about the conditions for its launch, Domingos Jorge Velho’s expedition began its march towards Palmares. It included hundreds of soldiers, with huge amounts of weapons and provisions.22

The Paulistas’ struggle against the people of Palmares was truly epic. Both sides changed their usual tactics. The people of Palmares evacuated women and children from their quilombos, launching attacks on troops to delay their arrival, and they attacked and terrorized the camps in the night.23 The first confrontations were won by the people of Palmares (several members of the expedition were captured). “Reinforcements arrived. More men, supplies and ammunition. The main objective of the punitive expedition was to reach the Macaco mocambo, the capital of Palmares.”24

Palmares dominated the surroundings. “Bushland guerrilla” tactics, which were typical of the period of the first expeditions, were combined with sophisticated forms of resistance in Macaco, the main quilombo. Velho and Zumbi knew that Macaco would determine the direction of the war. The expedition was unable to invade Macaco without further preparation. A formidable defense system was set up for Macaco, which included not only a barrier “equipped with two-way faucets, flanks, redoubts and guardhouses that guaranteed the almost total safety of the defenders,”25 but also pit traps “hidden by vegetation and packed with pointed iron spikes, which reached the height of a man’s groin or throat.”26 There were also archers distributed in defensive posts. Velho’s men were at a disadvantage. They overcame this disadvantage with increased firepower and a combination of counter-barriers, allowing them to approach the quilombo. The expedition was again defeated. At this point, the expedition was divided into “three main bodies: one in the center, under the command of Sebastião Dias Mineli; another on the right, under his own command [that of Velho]; and a third on the left, under the command of Vieira de Melo. Contingents were distributed along the entire barrier, closing in on the area.”27

More reinforcements, supplies, and ammunition arrived. Another assault and yet another defeat. The increased firepower was made possible by the arrival of cannons and 200 men on February 3. An additional barrier was built from the 4th to the 5th, allowing greater firing precision. According to Freitas, when Zumbi discovered that the barrier had been built at dawn on the 5th, he ordered that the person responsible for surveillance be beheaded. He was certainly aware of the magnitude of the threat. In response to the new barrier, an evacuation of Palmares was quickly prepared. But

before this was achieved, the attack by the Paulistas was launched. Since Macaco was at the highest part of Serra da Barriga, some fleeing Palmares residents ended up falling into a chasm. Those in the rearguard of the evacuation engaged in direct combat with the colonial forces. Bloody battles were fought. They lasted for hours into the night. More than 500 Palmares residents were captured, mostly women and children. Many others were killed. Countless residents fled to the forest.28

The victory of the Paulistas was celebrated with the ecstatic colonial authorities.

In the early hours of the 7th, postmen rushed to the coast bearing the news of the fall of the Black stronghold. Melo e Castro celebrated the event by throwing money at the people from the windows of the palace, ordering a solemn Mass to be held to give thanks and authorizing the use of lanterns in Olinda and Recife for six days. At the same time, assistant Antônio Gaioso Nogueira was sent to Bahia to negotiate with the governor-general who was to embark for Lisbon with a letter addressed to the king.29

Vieira de Melo and Sebastião Dias returned to the coast with their troops. Velho remained in Serra da Barriga with his own. He intended to secure his lands and use the geographical advantages of the area to hunt for survivors and pursue his own interests there.30 Zumbi managed to escape with several residents of Palmares. At first, it was believed that he had died on February 5, but the authorities soon realized that Zumbi was alive. He was identified “leading a group that invaded the village of Penedo to seize arms and ammunition. In the following months, armed groups remained active in the Penedo district.”31

Other quilombos were attacked. Zumbi managed to escape the attacks and sought to rebuild his army from the forest. One of his lieutenants, according to Freitas, was captured and tortured to obtain information on Zumbi’s whereabouts. Having resisted the torture, he “yielded when the Paulista promised to ensure his freedom and his life in the name of the governor if he handed over Zumbi.”32 Zumbi gathered around him 20 men, “but when Soares arrived, followed at a distance by the Paulistas, the guard was reduced to six men.” Soares approached Zumbi, “buried a dagger in his stomach and gave the signal to the Paulistas.”33

Zumbi and his men were murdered on November 20, 1695. His body was taken to Porto Calvo, where it was determined that it bore “fifteen gunshot wounds and countless wounds from a bladed weapon.” Like all oppressors, Castro e Melo used Zumbi’s body to send a message to those who dared to follow his example, and by the mutilation of Zumbi’s corpse they sought to terrorize the Black people who still lived: “After he was killed, the Black general was castrated and his penis was put in his mouth. One of his eyes was gouged and his right hand was severed.” His head was taken to Recife, where it was displayed until it decomposed “on a stake in the most public place in the city.”34 But this would not be the end of Palmares.35

Palmares would continue to represent the greatest threat of Black resistance in the imaginations of the colonial authorities. It was thus considered essential to prevent the emergence of a new Palmares. Black resistance was, in fact, an insurmountable barrier for colonial elites. Where there was slavery, there was resistance. Not only in Brazil but in all of the Americas. Palmares did not end with Velho’s expedition. It survived in the minds of the colonial elites, terrorizing them with the constant reminder of what was possible. The fear of the spread of new uprisings like that of Palmares throughout Brazil would continue to haunt the colonial authorities, inspiring the repressive policies of the colony (and the empire) until the end of slavery.

Notes   [ + ]

1. The following article is a chapter from the book Questão Negra: Marxismo e classe operária no Brasil (São Paulo: Iskra, 2013), originally titled “The Warrior Spirit of Palmares as an Example for the Working Class.”
2. Luiz Felipe de Alencastro. Tratado dos viventes: Companhia das letras (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2000).
3. Robert Slenes, Na senzala uma flor, 2nd ed. (Unicamp, 2011).
4. Gomes continues, “Was the purpose of the revolt to escape together into the forest to form a mocambo? We don’t know. The first documented reference to the existence of mocambos in the mountains of the Pernambuco district is from 1597.” Flavio dos Santos Gomes, Palmares (São Paulo: Editora Contexto, 2005).
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Décio Freitas, Palmares: A guerra dos escravos, 5th ed. (Mercado Aberto, 1990).
8. All governors of Pernambuco were assigned the primary task of destroying Palmares. It could be said that the governors’ balance sheets depended to a great extent on the degree of destruction inflicted on Palmares.
9. Freitas, Palmares.
10. Gomes, Palmares.
11. “The wars against the people of Palmares in the 1670s and 1680s began to weaken Palmares. During this period, several military leaders were arrested and killed. The constant and necessary displacements of the people of Palmares undermined their resistance. There was no time to plan further evacuations and reorganize their economy.” Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. Freitas, Palmares.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid.
17. Gomes, Palmares.
18. Freitas, Palmares.
19. Gomes, Palmares.
20. Freitas, Palmares.
21. Gomes, Palmares.
22. Ibid.
23. “Even though they stationed their troops in camps located in the mountains, the usual supply-related problems arose: hunger and lack of ammunition. The fierce attacks by the people of Palmares increased the fear of the expedition members. Terror could reign during the night. The threat of attacks by the people of Palmares was imminent.” Ibid.
24. Ibid.
25. Freitas, Palmares.
26. Ibid.
27. Ibid.
28. Gomes, Palmares.
29. Freitas, Palmares. He continues, “The governor proclaimed his exultation: ‘It did not seem appropriate to delay the report to Your Majesty of the glorious restoration of the Palmares. This happy victory is valued no less than the expulsion of the Dutch, and so it was celebrated by all these peoples.’”
30. Velho’s decision to remain after the fall of Macaco became a serious political problem, not only because he wanted land that others believed was rightfully theirs, but also because of his methods of terror.
31. Freitas, Palmares.
32. Ibid.
33. Ibid. Elsewhere: “In a letter dated March 14, 1696 to the king, Governor Melo e Castro said that ‘Zumbi fought valiantly and desperately, killing one, injuring some and, not wanting to surrender even to his companions, it was necessary to kill them and only the one got caught alive.’ Afterwards, Furtado de Mendonça [the Paulista responsible for the expedition] said that when he saw the ‘Black man dead, quite dead,’ he thanked God for the glory he had achieved.”
34. Ibid.
35. Gomes, Palmares. He continues, “In 1729, 1736 and 1757, the colonial authorities of Pernambuco would continue to receive news of mocambos established there in the mountainous regions where the people of Palmares had once lived.”

About author


Daniel Alfonso

Daniel is an editor of our Brazilian sister site Esquerda Diário.