Maroon State: Slave community and resistance in Palmares, Brazil

Written by: Jack Bennett.

The emergence of Palmares, a quilombo – or community of self-liberated slaves – as a political and social reality in the Brazilian heartland between 1605 and 1695, posed a threat to the colonial order in the region through overt, subversive resistance. This alternative African state faced numerous military campaigns against it and remained unrecognised by Portuguese and Dutch colonial authorities throughout the seventeenth century. This was due to the colonial perspective that Palmares posed a corrupting threat to order and stability, with multiple alliances forming between the Crowns of Portugal, the Netherlands, and slave traders in an attempt to suppress and destroy the community. The quilombo was led by Ganga Zumba, and oversaw the emergence of a proto-metropole which had a sophisticated legal and bureaucratic structure and a population of some ten thousand formerly enslaved people. This removal of colonial bondage allowed for an element of autonomous freedom, in an Atlantic World of colonial domination, control, and slave trading. 

Crucially, what the emergence of Palmares reveals is the importance of Afro-Brazilian solidarity and resistance in identity formation, fights for independence and liberty, and the development of an anti-racist and anti-colonial dogma. With fifteen thousand slaves arriving in Brazil from Angola between 1620 and 1623, Thornton (1998) argues that African culture and kinship was not a fixed system, but one of multiple possibilities, continuing, accommodating and adapting to rapid change under colonial rule in Latin America. This was achieved through the transferal of a variety of African social and political forms across the Atlantic, that allowed for the assimilation of different African ethnicities and groups into socio-economic communities of predominantly former enslaved Africans that would endure under colonial pressures for almost a century. Moreover, Mintz and Price (1992) argue that when this heterogeneous population became a homogenous enslaved African population, differences in status overlapped with differences in culture, bridged by the shared condition of enslavement, facilitating the creation of new institutions; a culture defined by constant internal and external dynamism. This highlights the importance of change rather than simple, passive or static processes of cultural retention between Africa and the Americas. 

These rustic black republics reveal the dream of a social order founded on fraternal equality, and for this reason are incorporated into the revolutionary tradition of the Brazilian people. Parallels can be illustrated between defensive and insular African communities resisting the actions of slave traders, and formerly enslaved quilombo communities resisting colonial power in Brazil. For instance, infra-structurally, Palmares utilised the pitfalls and caltrops found in Buraco de Tatu as people from Angola used palisades. During the seventeenth century, the territory the Portuguese called Angola was disrupted by factors that included: the pressure of the Portuguese slave trade and occupation of the coast; the collapse of states such as the Kingdom of the Kongo to the north; and invasions, principally from the northeast. The people of central Angola responded by coalescing under the name Imbangala. Interestingly, the nascent Imbangala states gathered together diverse groups of people in a community without lineage. Since these communities existed in conditions of military conflict and political upheaval, they found in the institution of the Kilombo a unifying structure suitable for a people under constant military alert – these entrenched Angolan wars fed the Brazilian slave trade. This determined a distinctly African polity in Brazil, defined by confederation, tributary relations, and cross-lineage relations. The flexibility of the institution of the Kilombo as a mechanism for integrating a community without institutionalised lineage engaged in warfare and self-defence, as was Palmares, explains why some adaptation of the Imbangala institution would thrive in Brazil, even if only a minority of Palmares’s inhabitants were actually of Imbangala origin.

Military threats, challenges, and incursions shaped the very existence of Palmares during this period. Following a large influx of enslaved people during the 1630s as a consequence of the Dutch invasion of north-eastern Brazil, campaigns were led by slave traders and royally commissioned mercenaries to quash the proto-state of formerly enslaved people. Under this Dutch dominion and even after the Portuguese reconquest of Pernambuco by 1654, Palmares experienced a series of unsuccessful incursions and colonial attempts at dissolution. From the first large scale expeditionary force led by Captain Joao Blaer, in 1645, to over twenty assaults against Palmares between 1654 and 1678. All of which proved unsuccessful due to the vitality and defensive capabilities of the community of formerly enslaved people. The final campaigns against Palmares, however, including those of Domingos Jorge Velho, 1692 to 1694, brought about the destruction of Palmares. In the internecine peace, Palmarinos traded with their Portuguese neighbours, exchanging foodstuffs and crafts for arms, munitions, and salt. The trade with Palmares was such that many colonials opposed war with the Palmarinos, and in the 1670s there was widespread opinion that establishing peace was the best way to achieve stability in the colony. The threat posed to the stability of plantation slave labour resulted in Carrilho’s campaign of 1676-1677 and great devastation. In 1678, Ganga Zumba, tired of war, accepted the peace terms from the Governor of Pernambuco, which affirmed his sovereignty over his people on the condition that he return any fugitive slaves and move his people from Palmares to the Cucai Valley. Then in 1680, the military leader of Palmare, Zumbi, led a coup and proceeded to rule the quilombo with dictatorial authority until the destruction of Palmares in 1694. This perpetual state of instability and warfare defined the lifestyles of formerly enslaved people and the formation of Palmares as a persistent source of resistance in the Atlantic sphere of imperial dominance, an early indicator of future upheavals to come. 

Ultimately, the Central African solution of the Kilombo was a remodelled and transplanted socio-political construct, created through the forced transportation of enslaved Africans during the seventeenth century, and re-imposed within the Brazilian colonial order, in order to serve maroon communities. The Palmares of Brazil developed into a Creole society. Critically, this process of hybridisation facilitated the emergence of communities and new identities in colonial Latin America, which remained intrinsically connected to the enslavement of Africans and their forced transportation within the Atlantic triangulation of human and product commodification. Through the process, comrades (or malungos) from diverse ethnic backgrounds were united in the common cause of self-determination and independence from brutal repression and labour. Fundamentally, this was not achieved on the basis of lineage, but for the purposes of commodity production, raiding, and self-defence. Therefore, the persistence and adaptation of African cultural elements such as the Kilombo to the Brazilian context, in fact, demonstrates the continuity of African and African Diasporic cultures in the process of New World transculturation and the development of resistance and revolution. 


Image source: “Zumbi dos Palmares: An African warrior in Brazil – The legend of the nation’s greatest black leader continues to be a topic of debate and in spiration.” Black Women of Brazil. August 18, 2014. Accessed April 10, 2017.

Anderson, R. “The Quilombo of Palmares: A New Overview of a Maroon State in Seventeenth-Century Brazil,” Journal of Latin American Studies 3 (1996): 545-566.

Anonymous, “The War against Palmares,” in The Brazil Reader: History, Culture, Politics, eds. John J. Crocitti and Robert M. Levine (Durham, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).  

Kent, R. “Palmares: An African State in Brazil,” The Journal of African History, 2 (1965): 161-175.

Mintz, Sidney and Price, Richard, The Birth of African American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992).

Thornton, John, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

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