Zumbi dos Palmares an inspiration to African Brazilians

By Murphy Browne Wednesday November 19 2014 in Opinion
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By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)


Angola, Congo, Benguela

Monjolo, Cabinda, Mina

Quiloa, Rebolo

Here where the men are

There’s a big auction

They say that in the auction,

There’s a princess for sale

Who came, together with her subjects

Chained on an oxcart

To one side, sugarcane

To the other side, the coffee plantation

In the middle, seated gentlemen

Watching the cotton crop, so white

Being picked by Black hands

When Zumbi arrives

What will happen

Zumbi is a warlord

A lord of demands

When Zumbi arrives, Zumbi

Is the one who gives orders


Excerpt from “Zumbi”, composed and sung by African Brazilian singer, Jorge Ben, released in 1974.


“Black November” is celebrated in the city of Salvador in the Brazilian state of Bahia, which has the largest number of African Brazilians. Black Awareness Day (“Dia da Consciência Negra”) has been celebrated in Brazil every year on November 20 since 1960. On November 20, the enslavement of Africans and other injustices since the abolition of slavery are discussed and the contributions of African Brazilians are recognized and celebrated.

 

November 20 was chosen as Dia da Consciência Negra/Black Awareness Day to remember the transition of Zumbi, a famous Brazilian Maroon leader. Zumbi dos Palmares (1655-1695), the last leader of the famous Palmares Quilombo ,was beheaded on November 20, 1695 by the Portuguese and his head publicly displayed both as a warning to enslaved Africans and proof that Zumbi was not immortal.

 

In 2011, Dilma Rousseff, the President of Brazil, signed into law a bill that makes November 20 a Brazilian National Holiday, although many Brazilian states had previously recognized November 20 with a public holiday.

 

Zumbi, who posthumously has risen to the status of National Hero to many Brazilians and even has a Brazilian airport (Zumbi dos Palmares International Airport) named in his honour and a postage stamp (2008) commemorating his memory, was once the bane of the Portuguese colonizers/enslavers in Brazil.

 

Zumbi was born a free African in the community of Palmares, where Africans had established a free Maroon community (quilombo) in 1594. Palmares was the most successful community of quilombos, established by Africans who fled enslavement in Brazil and survived and thrived for 100 years. The presence of Africans living free in a country where White people enslaved millions was a beacon of hope to enslaved Africans. As a result, the combined forces of Dutch and Portuguese attacked the Palmares community.

 

During one of these attacks, six-year-old Zumbi was kidnapped by a group of Portuguese who sold him to a Catholic priest. When he was 15, Zumbi escaped and returned to Palmares, where by the time he was in his early 20s, he was a respected military strategist and a leader in the community.

 

In 1678, the Portuguese governor negotiated a deal with the leader of Palmares. The deal was a cessation of hostilities between the White inhabitants and the people of Palmares if they would agree to move from the location they had settled since 1594 and that they would capture and return any enslaved Africans who fled to their community seeking freedom. The leader of Palmares agreed but Zumbi wisely refused to agree to those terms. The Portuguese proved to be deceitful and enslaved the Africans, who believed their promises and left the safety of Palmares.

 

Mary Karasch, a White American historian, wrote in her article “Zumbi of Palmares: Challenging the Portuguese Colonial Order” published 2013 in The Human Tradition in Colonial Latin America, edited by Kenneth J. Andrien: “The Portuguese were not to be trusted, and to live in peace with them would only lead to re-enslavement. To preserve their freedom they had to resist and fight for their people and their own way of life.”

 

With Zumbi’s refusal to leave Palmares (where Africans had lived as free people for more than 80 years) and his supporters’ determination to defend their territory and their freedom, the Portuguese renewed their attacks on Palmares. Zumbi, as the new leader of Palmares, led the fight against the Portuguese. In “Zumbi of Palmares: Challenging the Portuguese Colonial Order”, Karasch also wrote: “What is clear from the documentation is that a newly unified and revived Palmares under the leadership of Zumbi took the offensive. One wonders if they particularly raided plantations where their former comrades had been re-enslaved. For a period of 13 years (1680-1693), Luso-Brazilian expeditions were ineffectual in stopping Palmarino attacks.”

 

On January 6, 1694, Palmares suffered a surprise attack because of a careless sentry who failed to warn Zumbi of an approaching army of Portuguese. Although Zumbi and his followers from Palmares fought valiantly, they were surrounded and outnumbered. The Portuguese destroyed the Palmares Quilombo, captured 510 Africans and sold them in Bahia.

 

Zumbi and a few men escaped and continued the fight. Zumbi was eventually betrayed by one of his trusted men, who bargained Zumbi’s life for his own with the Portuguese. Zumbi was killed in the ensuing fight on November 20, 1695 and his body was delivered to the officials of the city council of Porto Calvo.

 

In “Zumbi of Palmares: Challenging the Portuguese Colonial Order”, Karasch writes: “An examination revealed fifteen gunshot wounds and innumerable blows from other weapons; after his death he had been castrated and mutilated. The last degradation by his enemies occurred in a public ceremony in Porto Calvo, in which his head was cut off and taken to Recife, where the governor had it displayed on a pole in a public place. His objective was to destroy the belief that Zumbi was immortal.”

 

Although Palmares was one of several quilombos established by Africans in Brazil, the Quilombo of Palmares was the largest, with a population of 30,000 and lasted longer than any other (100 years) from 1594 to 1694. Some of Zumbi’s followers who escaped the carnage visited upon them by the Portuguese attack on Palmares escaped to live in other quilombos and enslaved Africans also continued to flee until slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888. Some of the quilombos were so well-hidden that they were never discovered by the Portuguese and the inhabitants lived in freedom and seclusion.

 

In one case, the inhabitants of a quilombo (Remanso, Bahia) were unaware that slavery had been abolished for more than 80 years until they were discovered in the 1960s. Since 1988, the quilombos have received protective status under Brazil’s constitution in an attempt to maintain the distinctive culture, history and language developed by these communities.

 

During the November 20 recognition of Zumbi’s contribution to Brazilian culture and history, many events take place at Zumbia National Park, which has a monument created in his honour. However, in spite of the special day to honour Zumbi and the recognition of his place in Brazil’s history, African Brazilians continue to experience oppression in a White supremacist culture.

 

In his 1989 book Brazil, Mixture Or Massacre?: Essays in the Genocide of a Black People, African Brazilian scholar and historian, Abdias do Nascimento, wrote: “On the whole in this pretentious concept of ‘racial democracy,’ there lies deliberately buried the true face of Brazilian society: only one of the racial elements has any rights or power – Whites. They control the means of dissemination of information, educational curriculum and institutions, conceptual definitions, aesthetic norms and all other forms of social/cultural values.”

 

Nascimento, who transitioned on May 23, 2011, was a Pan-Africanist who played a significant role in raising awareness among African Brazilians. He also wrote Racial Democracy in Brazil, Myth or Reality?: A Dossier of Brazilian Racism (1977), Race and ethnicity in Latin America – African culture in Brazilian art (1994), Orixás: os deuses vivos da Africa (Orishas: the living gods of Africa in Brazil) (1995) and Africans in Brazil: a Pan-African perspective (1997).

 

Recognition of Zumbi would not be complete without recognition of Nascimento, as the African Brazilian activist scholar who has been described as a “militant Pan-Africanist” spent his life raising awareness of the struggle of African Brazilians to navigate a White supremacist culture/system.

 

tiakoma@hotmail.com

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