Note from BBT: In the last few posts, I have discussed the date of January 21st, which in Brazil is recognized as a national day for the combat of religious intolerance. Today, I am covering another historic day in the nation’s history: an uprising led by a group of black Muslims in the state of Bahia.
As it turns out, the details behind that day, which began on January 24th, continuing into January 25th of 1835, also show us that that incident was as much driven by the struggle against slavery as it was a reaction to another case of religious intolerance.
Slave insurrections were quite common in Brazil, the country that received more enslaved Africans than any other country in the Americas, but that of the Muslims in Bahia, known as the Malês, stands out for a number of reasons.
Some of the names recognized as leaders of the revolt include Pacifico Licutã, Ahuna, Manoel Calafante, Elesbão Dandará, Luis Sanim and also included Luiza Mahin, a warrior woman who is often celebrated during the Month of Black Consciousness celebrations every November. Mahia was known to have participated in numerous slave revolts and was also the mother of one of black Brazil’s most important historical figures, the lawyer Luís Gama.
According to records of the time, a group of Muslims had met in the basement of the residence of the aforementioned Manoel Calafante, who creeted them with the well-known Muslim greeting, “salamum aleikom, aleikom salam” when they were surrounded by state security agents. As it turns out, a freed black woman by the name of Guilhermina had snitched to autorities and called out the leaders of the planned revolt. The details of the uprising had been written out in Arabic.
With their plans being exposed before they could fully put them into action, the rebelling Malês dispersed throughout the city, some attempting to escape by sea. Many in face drowned after having been attacked a warship, with bodies washing ashore in the beach for several days after the confrontation.
1,500 people partipated in the uprising, with 70 being killed. Those facing judgment were subject to various types of punishment, including whipping, or death by hanging. For those who escaped these destinies, they were forced to practive their faith in secret.
Although this uprising is an important piece of black resistance in Brazil and in the African Diaspora, it is still relatively unknown by the public. In 2019, a five-part mini-series about the revolt, directed by Jeferson De and Belisario Franca, opened the International Black Film Festival.
On January 25, 1835, a group of black Muslims known as the Malês led one of the most infamous uprisings against slavery and religious intolerance in Bahia
Africans known as the Malês rocked Salvador in the night of January 24-25, 1835
By Reinaldo José Lopes
In the early morning of one morning in January, in 1835, some men from Salvador’s police went to do what they routinely do – to investigate the rebel slaves.
This is how they had the biggest surprise: 50 slaves with swords in their hands, ran up on the cops screaming.
Suddenly, the role of escort of the justice of the peace Caetano Galião, who commanded the due diligence, gave rise to a desperate reaction.
Carrying their rifles, the soldiers could do nothing to stop the advance of the African warriors, who killed one patrolman and wounded four others, taking over the streets of the city. What would become known as the “uprising of the Malês,” a rebellion commanded by Muslims in the middle of Bahia, began.
This first squadron of rebels, urged to start the uprising a few hours before schedule due to the denunciation of other Africans, alerted the other Malês groups in the city to join the combat.
In the end, hundreds of Muslims and their allies confronted the army in the streets of Salvador during the early hours of what was the largest urban revolt of slaves in the Americas.
The documentation of the time about the uprising is not very clear about the rebels’ ultimate goal, but there are indications that they intended to establish a state commanded by Islamic Africans, in which even blacks and mulattoes born in Brazil would have a subordinate status.
Little by little, the Bahian government’s investigations into the uprising revealed a clandestine network of Islamic propaganda that united slaves who had already come from Africa as Muslims with other converts in Brazil and African adherents of other religions.
Thanks to the somewhat less suffocating environment of urban slavery in Bahia, the Malês were able to create a rebel organization quite different from that represented by the quilombos (maroon societies), generally made up of slaves who escaped from large rural properties.
“Most of the more than 20 conspiracies and slave uprisings that took place in Bahia in the first half of the 19th century involved rural slaves from the Recôncavo mills,” says João José Reis, author of Rebelião Escrava no Brasil – A História do Levante dos Malês, 1835, one of the main studies on the subject.
Africa and Brazil that produced the Malê rebellion were quite different from the situation that favored the existence of the Quilombo of Palmares for almost 100 years during the 17th century. And this began with the very region of origin of the blacks brought to Bahia at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th.
Instead of the tribes of Angolan farmers who prevailed at the beginning of colonization, the main source of new slaves to Salvador and the Bahian sugar mills were the bellicose kingdoms of West Africa, where today is Nigeria. “They were the most developed civilizations of black Africa,” says historian Décio Freitas, a former professor at the Federal University of Alagoas.
Owners of technology comparable to that of medieval Europe and fully integrated with the trade routes that united Africa and the West, people like the Yoruba, the jejes and the Hausa formed powerful states, many of them already influenced by Islam. However, at that time such nations were not lasting long, decimated by a catastrophic series of conflicts.
The fate of the defeated warriors or that of their family could either be the work of a slave pastor in the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo, or the terrible crossing of the Atlantic towards Bahia. The currency that paid for this journey without a return was usually the Bahian smoke. “It’s thanks to this profitable tobacco trade that Bahia was the only region in Brazil to receive Sudanese slaves in large numbers,” says Décio.
It didn’t take long for the slave masters to realize that they were sleeping with the enemy, since decades of internal wars or against rival states had forged a strong warrior tradition among the newly arrived Africans. For João Saldanha da Gama, the Count of the Ponte, Portuguese governor of the province between 1805 and 1810, the new slaves belonged to the “The most warlike nations on the East Coast” and were a serious threat to peace.
In a few years, however, the Bahians found themselves with even more serious problems. In the wake of Brazil’s independence (1822), Salvador itself had to be taken back into the hands of the Portuguese, and the entire province, as well as several other regions of the country, became the stage for the conflicts between Brazilians and the Portuguese that remained here, not to mention the military rebellions and the revolts of the poorest sections of the population against the economic crisis.
The smell of insurrection against the unpopular rulers, who were in power while the young Dom Pedro II was still a minor, was so strong in the air that the uprising of the Malês exploded in the same year as the Farroupilha Revolution in Rio Grande do Sul and Cabanagem in Pará.
As if all this revolutionary ferment wasn’t enough, most of Salvador’s slaves (of whom 63% were born in Africa) enjoyed an unsuspected degree of freedom.
It’s that, unlike the blacks who were overworked in the mills, many of them did not even live with their masters or, when that happened, they worked all day outside the house. It was the so-called escravidão de ganho (slavery of earning), in which the slaves exercised the most varied trades (street vendors, fishermen, bricklayers, chair loaders) to support their masters and then bring to them what they could get by working.
In the city
Some might even took a percentage (ridiculous, obviously) of what they earned, and with that money they would later buy their own freedom. In addition to generating a considerable number of freed people (which also included those who were freed by their boss for whatever reason), this system allowed blacks to build their own network of friendships and contacts.
Among the Malês, for example, it was not uncommon to find a freedman living on the first floor of a house that rented its “store” (a kind of basement of the old colonial houses) to a slave, who in turn rented a corner of the place to another friend.
It was thanks to this that the revolt began to take shape in Salvador. Inadvertently, the slave dealers ended up bringing to the Bahian beaches not only experienced warriors, but also people who attended schools where they were taught to read and write in Arabic, to recite the suras or verses of the Koran and to follow the other precepts of the prophet Mohammed.
The majority of those who took part in the uprising seem to have been of Yoruba (or Nagô, as they used to say in Bahia at the time), an African ethnic group that created the religion of the orixás (orishas), but among which Islam was expanding in the early 19th century. The very word “malê” seems to come from the Yoruba term imale, which means “Muslim.
Subjects like the Yoruba slaves Ahuna and Pacific Licutan, experienced people, very cultured and charismatic, soon started to unite their companions around them and spread the word of Muhammad among other slaves.
This preaching included teaching to read and write in Arabic, the recitation of passages from the Koran and the distribution of small leather amulets, filled with passages from the sacred book. These talismans were very widespread and were considered powerful even by non-Islamic people. Apparently, the idea of a revolt was only slowly taking shape.
At first, the Malês were content to organize a common fund to pay for each other’s customs, or to meet to celebrate their religion. According to João José Reis, the group even built a kind of mosque – a shack in the back yard of the Englishman known as Abraham, master of the Malê slaves James and Diogo. There, they managed to celebrate Lailat al-Miraj, a feast that commemorates Muhammed’s ascension to heaven, at the end of November 1834.
Everything was great, if it weren’t for the appearance of the quarter inspector Antônio Marques, who interrupted the religious celebration and denounced the gathering to the Bahian authorities. Abraham, trying to avoid trouble for himself, ordered his slaves to bring the mosque down. “It’s not impossible that this last humiliation was the fuse of the revolt,” says João Reis.
Both the unity around Islam and ethnic solidarity influenced the rebels. For Decio Freitas, it was the religious cement that managed to unite different peoples and even enemies among themselves in the same uprising.
“The great problem of Africans here is that they were very different from each other. In Palmares, it was even necessary to invent a new language, based on several African languages and Portuguese. A universal religion like Islam managed to agglutinate them,” says Décio.
Even so, it was hard to forget the old divisions. “In 1835, not every Muslim entered the revolt and not every rebel was a Muslim,” says João José. According to him, the Hausahs, for example, who were the most numerous ethnic group among the most Islamized, appeared with few warriors. The movement was carried out mainly by Muslims of Yoruba origin, the Nagôs.
This ethnic outline of the revolt allowed, in turn, many non-Islamic Nagôs, who believed in the armed solution to freedom and in the protective force of the Malê amulets, to enter the uprising.
In any case, there could be no more religious date for the revolt. The 25th of January, a Sunday, was the feast of Nossa Senhora da Guia, but also the 25th of the Muslim month of Ramadan – a time of the year consecrated to fasting, in which it was believed that evil spirits and forces of evil were neutralized.
The plan was simple: at dawn, the vanguard of the rebels, spread among several smaller groups in the city, would gather as many Africans as possible and then join the supporters of the rural area of Recôncavo.
The idea was to take power by killing all those born in Brazil, including other blacks, although some statements speak of keeping the mulattoes as slaves to the victors. The main enemy, of course, was the whites.
Information about the uprising, however, leaked out early the night before, through some freedmen who, knowing of the plan, denounced it to their ex-masters. These, in turn, alerted the president of the province of Bahia, Francisco de Souza Martins.
Without wasting a second of time, he reinforced the guard of the government palace, put all the city’s barracks on alert and redoubled the nightly rounds. The houses of suspected Africans began to be turned over in the early hours of the morning.
It was then that the confrontations exploded, around 1:30 a.m., in the “store” where Manoel Calafate, one of the Malê leaders, lived. Trying to break into the house where part of the conspirators were meeting, the patrol was impotent before the many Muslim warriors, armed with swords and wearing the abadá, a kind of white shirt that was the ritual clothing of the Males.
Most of them climbed the Ladeira da Praça, where the residence of Calafate was, while others jumped over the back wall and went another way. Both groups tried to wake up and gather as many supporters as possible, many of whom were bewildered by the early start of the uprising.
The first stop was the Palace Square. The intention of the Malês was to free their leader their leader Pacific Licutan from jail. He had been arrested to be auctioned because of a debt of his master. Bad idea: the prison guards, which were underground at the town hall, were entrenched and shot non-stop at the Africans, who were also under the close fire of the guards of the government palace. The rebels killed only one of the palace guards and left, receiving reinforcements from all sides.
An attempt to take the barracks of the convent of São Bento (St. Benedict) repeated what had happened in prison: the soldiers closed themselves inside the fortress and ended up repelling the Malês. By then, some of them had already died.
After that last fight, the group managed to reorganize near the Mercês convent, where more Malês came from the neighborhood of Vitória, many of them slaves of a local English colony.
The next attack of the Malês, who already included hundreds of warriors, was over the police barracks in the Lapa square. Of the 32 guards, two were killed, while the others retreated to the interior of the barracks and, by the bullet, prevented the Malês from taking it over.
After a few more skirmishes, the rebels saw that it was not working. They decided to leave the city and look for their companions who lived in the Recôncavo region, but in the middle of the way there was a Bahian cavalry barrack in a place called Água de Meninos. Trying to get through, they were greeted with a hail of bullets and forced to fight the cavalry outside, while they held off the soldiers on foot inside the barracks.
It was a massacre. A first cavalry charge dispersed the initial group of 50 or 60 Africans and began to hunt them down on the road. Soon more Malês arrived, but the uninterrupted shots coming from the barracks couldn’t be sustained for long, especially with the very low number of firearms the rebels had at their disposal.
A second attack by mounted soldiers ended any resistance. In total, about 70 rebels had died, against only nine soldiers and Bahian civilians. Well before dawn, everything was over.
The ensuing debauchery punished some 500 Africans, but as many processes are incomplete it is difficult to identify the sentence of all of them. Only four were sentenced to death, as this would cause serious harm to their masters, who almost invariably appealed this type of sentence.
Many whippings, usually in the hundreds, awaited 45 of them, while 34 were deported back to Africa. It is difficult to speculate what the fate of the rebellion would have been if it had been victorious.
“This is not clear, except that it would have been a society controlled by Africans, possibly by the Islamized Nagôs. But they couldn’t stay in power without solid alliances with other ethnic groups and especially with the numerous Nagôs who worship the orixás,” says João José.
“The denouncement certainly sealed the rebels’ fate earlier, but the factors are found both among Africans and their opponents. Besides being better armed, they were united when it came to combatting the Africans, for which they counted on Brazilians of all classes and colors, slaves or not”.
Control over the slaves grew in Bahia, but the revolt also helped to impose a reduction in the slave trade and, finally, its extinction in 1850, for fear that more Africans would unite like the Malês.
According to João José, the Bahian slaves gained fame as rebels and, in a way, this may have increased their bargaining power with their masters. “Fear was a not inconsiderable consequence that the revolt of 1835 that succeeded in sticking in the minds of the masters’ minds for a long time,” he says.
Source: Aventuras na História