Zumbi dos Palmares

By telling our stories ourselves, we see an example of how to live, how to inspire and how to honor our ancestors, Aguanile, Mai, Mai…

MimiTVA Posting from the DMV, February 2018

Zumbi was the last leader of the Palmares quilombo, in Brazil. Palmares was a free state founded by the slaves who escaped to freedom. Palmares is a land mass equivalent to the size of Portugal and fought maintained it’s sovereignty for almost a hundred years. Palmarés flourished in Northeastern Brazil throughout most of the seventeenth century.  Albert_Eckhout_paintingZumbi embodies for Afro-Brazilians, the personification of the epitome of resistance to the abhorrent slave-trade and it’s immoral practice of slavery.  Zumbi was the crux of a movement for African descendants to get and keep economic and political justice.

The last leader of Palmares is much more than a historical hero – Zumbi is a sacred ancestor. His spirit is revered known as inherently divine and immortal.  Since the establishment in Brazil of November 20 as National Day of Black Consciousness  – originally called Zumbi Day – in 1978, popular discourse has increasingly treated Zumbi not only as the most important Afro-Brazilian hero but also as having constituted on Brazilian soil an alternative state, another sovereign country free of racism and colonialism.

A lot of the information about Palmares comes from the detailed accounts of the Dutch and Portuguese campaigns against the quilombo between 1640 and 1695.  These official documents  are eye-witness accounts by the would-be invaders but must be noted that they are mal-informed by the racism and intellectual biases of their time. Not surprisingly, most sources have tended to see Palmares as a threat to Portuguese colonial (and, by extension, Brazilian) sovereignty and the quilombo’s defeat as basically a patriotic victory.

Yet, even white commentators have lionized the Afro-Brazilian state. The nineteenth century Portuguese republican Joaquim Pedro de Oliveira Martins called Palmares “a black Troy, and its story is an Iliad.” Recent generations of Brazilian leftists have seen in Palmares an alternative social order, as in this statement from Freitas: “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.”


From the moment Africans were forced into bondage in the new world; they resisted enslavement by flight, or marronage. Archeological evidence reveals the enslaved Africans of Alagoas and Pernambuco escaped & went to live in the interior.  By 1606 a steady stream of enslaved people freed themselves and escaped to a mountainous, palm-covered region of Pernambuco and there established a mocambo, or a maroon nation of much repute and power.

The area came to be known as Palmares due to the preponderance of wild palms there. The Palmares region, grew in it’s African population in the 1630s because of the Dutch invasion of  Brazil.  There where several expeditions into Palmares in attempts to re-enslave the community of free Africans.  At the time of one expedition, there were two large mocambos and any number of smaller ones. By the time of the Blaer-Reijmbach expedition there was at least one large mocambo; another large mocambo had been abandoned three years earlier.

The account of the expedition describes the large “Palmares”: It was surrounded by a double palisade with a spike-lined trough inside. This settlement was half a mile long, its street six feet wide. There was a swamp on the north side and large felled trees on the south. We might guess that the clearing was for cultivation or for defensive reasons. There were 220 buildings in the middle of which stood a church, four smithies, and a council house. The population was around 1,500. The ruler of that place, according to the diary, was severely just, punishing sorcerers, as well as those who would flee the mocambo. The king had a house and farms outside the settlement. The narrative also includes description of cultivation and foodstuffs, uses made of the palm, and crafts such as work in straw, gourds, and ceramic.

As was so often the case in the long history of wars against Palmares, the soldiers found the settlement virtually abandoned when they arrived; the Palmarinos would receive advance word of expeditions from their spies in the colonial towns and sugar plantations or engenhos.


The external history of Palmares from the expulsion of the Dutch in 1654 to the destruction of Palmares in 1694 is one of frequent Portuguese incursions – sometimes more than one a year – and Palmarino reprisals and raids. In the period 1654 to 1678 there were at least 20 expeditions against Palmares. In the internecine peace, Palmarinos traded with their Portuguese neighbors, 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 with Palmares was the best way to achieve stability in the colony.

Nevertheless, many local planters feared the predatory raids by Palmarinos, real or potential. They also wished to eliminate the lure of escape that Palmares constantly represented to the enslaved people on their plantations. In spite of much vacillation, colonial leaders opted again for the destruction of the quilombo, and sent militia captain Fernão Carrilho against them. Carrilho’s campaign of 1676-77 was not only one of the more devastating, but it was also the source of the most substantial descriptions of Palmares.

park-2This chronicle reports that at this time the king of Palmares was called Ganga-Zumba, which allegedly meant “Great Lord.” He had a palace, guards, ministers, and other officials. His subjects greeted him by kneeling and “clapping” their hands (probably a hand-snapping gesture also used in West Africa). His royal town was Macaco (Portuguese for ‘Monkey’), so named because a monkey was killed at the site. Macaco was fortified by a palisade with embrasures, and around the outside was sewn with iron caltrops and pitfalls.

This mocambo contained more than 1,500 houses. The other towns were ruled by chiefs who lived in them. The mocambo of Subupira, for example, was governed by the king’s brother. It too was fortified and circled with spiked pitfalls, and it comprised more than 800 houses. Subupira was where the Palmarinos trained for war.. The architecture of Macaco and Subupira suggests that Palmares was on a constant war-footing.



The descriptions of Palmares suggest that it had the political structure of a paramount chiefdom or kingdom along Central African lines. Sources sometimes describe Palmares as a “republic” with an “elected” king.  Information is scant on how the state was governed. Perhaps the “election” of the king comes from descriptions of chiefly and bureaucratic checks on the power of the king and the lack of hereditary succession, as in some West African states. It’s also possible that the principal chief was elected by the chiefs of the other villages or even by popular acclaim, like the Imbangala of seventeenth-century Angola.

Ganga-Zumba was probably the title rather than the proper name of the king or chief of Palmares in the 1670s. Despite the title and apparent official function of Bantu origin, the Ganga-Zumba known to history was possibly a native Palmarino of the Ardra Nation, identifiable with the Ewe-speaking Allada state on the Slave Coast.



Zumbi was the war commander of Palmares under Ganga-Zumba. Working from documents not fully cited, Freitas writes that Zumbi was born in 1655. That same year Brãs da Rocha Cardoso led the first Portuguese attack on Palmares after the expulsion of the Dutch. During that otherwise ineffective and unremarkable attack, a baby boy, native to Palmares, was captured and later given to a priest, Antãnio Melo, in the coastal town of Porto Calvo. The boy, baptized Francisco by the priest, was raised as the priest’s protãçgãç and instructed in Portuguese, Latin, and other subjects. At the age of 15, in 1670, the youth ran away to Palmares, although he later continued to visit the priest secretly.

Ganga-Zumba was wounded in an attack on the mocambo of Amaro in November 1677, and a number of his sons, nephews, and grandchildren were captured. The destruction wrought by Carrilho must have had an effect. In 1678, Ganga-Zumba, tired of war, accepted terms of peace 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 Cucaão Valley. Sometime thereafter, Ganga-Zumba and his followers relocated to the Cucaão Valley, closer to the watchful eye of the colonial government.


However, Ganga-Zumba’s treaty did not gain peace. An opposition faction preferred resistance to removal. A ban from Sergeant-Major Manuel Lopes dated 1680 called on “Captain Zumbi” and other rebels to cease their uprising, to adhere to the terms of the treaty, and to join his uncle, Gana-Zona. The document also affirms that in 1680 Zumbi or his partisans had poisoned their king “Ganazumba.” Kent viewed this last act as a “palace revolt.”

Clearly Ganga-Zumba’s concessions caused a rift in Palmares, but the death may also be viewed as the widespread African practice of sanctioned regicide, the ultimate check on royal weakness or abuse. Zumbi, until then a chief and military commander, occupied the capital and was proclaimed the supreme chief. He immediately set about prosecuting the defensive war against the Portuguese, ruling Palmares with dictatorial authority. Zumbi thus ruled Palmares from the time of Ganga-Zumba’s move to Cucaão to the destruction of Palmares in 1694.mapa-1

The broken peace eventually precipitated the enlistment of the aid of the “Bush Captain” Domingos Jorge Velho, a field commander charged with fighting Indians and capturing runaway slaves. This bandeirante, or wilderness tamer, from São Paulo and his irregulars joined forces raised in the Northeast for an assault on Palmares in 1692. In late 1693, after the defeat the year before, a new combined expeditionary force gathered in Porto Calvo. When they reached the heavy fortification of the royal compound of Macaco, they lay siege for 22 days.

depiction-of-the-palmares-quilomboThe attackers were building a counter-fortification when the Palmarinos began abandoning their positions in order to attack from the rear or in order to flee through a break in the opposing fortification. In the ensuing battle on February 5-6, 1694, Jorge Velho took some 400 prisoners. Another 300 died in battle, while some 200 hurled themselves or were forced from the precipice at the rear of the compound. In all, some 500 Palmarinos were killed and over 500 total were taken prisoner in the campaign.

Zumbi had escaped this fatal battle. He continued to skirmish with the Portuguese for over a year, until one of his aids revealed his location. There Zumbi and a small band of followers were ambushed and killed. His mutilated body was identified in Porto Calvo. Then his head was taken to Recife, the capital of Pernambuco, and displayed as proof against claims of his immortality. Jorge Velho fixed the date of Zumbi’s death at November 20, 1695.


These events recorded and republished in the historical record over the last four centuries provide the epic material of Zumbi of Palmares. Since the seventeenth century additions and variants have become part of the textual tradition. A case in point is the alternate version of Zumbi’s death, that he hurled himself from the precipice during the final assault on Macaco to avoid capture, committed to history by Sebastião da Rocha Pitta.

This romantic episode has been repeated by numerous historians and creative writers. The version has its basis in the allegations by eyewitnesses that a number of Zumbi’s compatriots met a similar fate. While the secondary sources coincide in great measure of their detail, they also contain contradictions and ambiguities among them. Together the primary and secondary sources have woven the text that is the history of Palmares and have contributed to the creation of the epic myth of Zumbi’s resistance.

The historiography of Palmares, though, is necessarily elite historiography. We do not know of any surviving accounts of Palmares by Palmarinos. The record of popular oral history is scant although it certainly exists.  Doubtless we all stand to learn much still from the efforts of those in disciplines such as folklore, oral history, and archeology. One can only imagine that archives in Brazil, Portugal, and Angola have a wealth of information yet to yield. By now, however, the epic of Palmares has taken a life of its own. As Brazil prepares to celebrate three hundred years of Zumbi’s immortality, it is good for all of us to reflect on what this epic has to teach us. On November 20, when Brazil turns its gaze to the Serra da Barriga in commemoration of Zumbi, it will also be looking forward to ways to create a just society, one that can be a true example to multiethnic societies elsewhere.

Edited by MimiTVA but information and full report from * ** Professor Robert Anderson teaches Portuguese and Latin American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is associated with the Duke-UNC Program in Latin American studies, which has supported his research on Palmares and the Zumbi Tercentenary.





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