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 inspiration


 Note from BW of Brazil: Sometimes there are topics, figures and subjects that are simply too monumental to approach in simply one post. Today’s topic is one of them. The names Zumbi and Palmares have been mentioned countless times on this blog in the past two and a half years. And for good reason. The legend of the Palmares quilombo (maroon society of escaped slaves) and its greatest leader, Zumbi, are central to the history and modern day struggle of Brazilians who recognize their African ancestry. All over Brazil, there are or have been hundreds of organizations and cultural groups named after this legendary leader, as well as  a national holiday in recognition of black consciousness and also Brazil’s first and only predominantly black college. As with any historical figure, there is much debate and battle over the way such a figure should be portrayed as well as accepted myths and legends that will keep the debate going for years to come. Today’s post is long overdue but only scratches the surface of the hundreds/thousands of articles, books, documentaries, song lyrics, etc. that have been dedicated to an African warrior in Brazil. If you’ve never heard of Zumbi, enjoy the journey! A luta continua!

Quilombo dos Palmares

Zumbi, the loud scream from Palmares

He made ​​history as the last leader of the largest focus of black resistance to slavery in Brazil, in the 17th century. But a multitude of issues still need to be answered to trace his true face

By Reinaldo Lopes

Capa 2

In February 1685, an almost unbelievable letter crossed the Atlantic and arrived in the northeastern state of Pernambuco. It was signed simply “Rei” (meaning King). The text said: “I El-Rei have knowledge of you Captain Zumbi of Palmares to which I forgive you of all excesses, ye have practiced (…), and as such I do so by understanding that your rebellion was justified in the evil doings by some of the masters in disobedience to my real orders. I invite you to watch at any resort that suits you, with your wives and your children, and all your captains, free from any bondage or subjection, as my loyal and faithful subjects, under my royal protection.” The one who capitulated in the message was the king of Portugal himself, Dom Pedro II (theirs, not ours). But we don’t know if the “captain” accepted the invitation. In fact, we don’t know if the letter arrived one day to be delivered. But we know that the recipient, treated in this language full of honorific and adulations, was really the warrior Zumbi, an almost mythical opponent of Portuguese rule in Brazil.


If he was already a myth in the 17th century, debates and research of the last 300 years have revealed much about either the true Zumbi. This is due largely to the fact that the stories about his life were, without exception, made ​​by his enemies and Portuguese settlers, who began to fight him, the hired hands of slave masters. “Full documentation on the life of Zumbi and Palmares are a little encrypted through, seen through the eyes of expeditions that tried to take over the quilombo,” says historian Silvia Hunold Lara, of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp). According to her, the uncertainty is so brutal that it extends to form of the name of Palmarino leader –is it Zumbi or Zambi? The first form is more common in Luso reports, but that does not mean it’s the right one.

To appreciate the effort itself or justify failures to catch him, the first reports about Zumbi, made ​​mostly by the Portuguese military, helped create the character who would become a founding identity of African descendants in Brazil. A strong, proud man, unhappy with his social status, that decided to face his tormentors and liberate his people. But not even this image of a revolutionary Zumbi is sustained by facts. His biography is shrouded in several questions. Among the most elementary is his origin. Was he an African chief brought forcibly to be a slave? Or was he born in Brazil? On one thing, at least, the experts agree: he lived and died in Palmares, a quilombo (meaning maroon society) ie, a stronghold of former slaves and their descendants.

Life in Palmares

The first reports on the Quilombo of Palmares are mismatched and date from the early 17th century. They indicate that it arose in the late 16th century, in the south of the then captaincy of Pernambuco. Probably fleeing from a northeastern sugarcane mill, a group of enslaved Africans left the coast and went to the interior – trying to avoid bounty hunters and soldiers who, at the behest of the masters, captured and killed fugitives. The journey on foot, which may have lasted up to two years, led the former slaves to the mountains of Barriga, the region known generically as “os Palmares”, meaning “the Palmares”: a piece of Atlantic forest covered with palmeiras (palm trees), wedged in the middle of the hinterland (current territory of the state of Alagoas). Those lands were known to be fertile, but the combination of dense forest and steep terrain made ​​it a natural fortress.

Zumbi monument in Rio de Janeiro
Zumbi monument in Rio de Janeiro

If the creators of the quilombo actually came from a mill, the vast majority must have been man because farms harbored few women. The proportion of slaves born in Brazil also must have been very low, since it was rare that Africans were able to live long enough to have their own families. “Everything indicates that the Africans from the Angolan complex (a region encompassing besides Angola, also part of the current Congo) would have had a leading role in Palmares,” says Mário Maestri, of the Graduate Program in History at the University of Passo Fundo, in Rio Grande do Sul. There is, for example, the tradition of what they called their stronghold of Angola Janga, or “Angola Pequena (Little Angola)”. If this idea is correct, the original people of Palmares were composed largely by people of the Bantu linguistic group – one of the first in Africa to develop agriculture, the raising of animals and the use of iron, having expanded through a good part of their continent.

Painting depicts a battle in Palmares
Painting depicts a battle in Palmares

In the early years of the organization, the cluster of fugitives became a thorn in the side of the Portuguese. The inhabitants of Palmares periodically invaded mills to liberate slaves, stealing food and weapons and abducting women, a rare thing in the formation of the quilombo. In 1602, the Governor General of Brazil, Diogo Botelho, sent an expedition against them – the first being 40, 60 or even more, according to some historians. After destroying cabins and taking some prisoners, the Portuguese thought they had finished with the village. But whenever a troop appeared, Palmares inhabitants migrated into the woods, leaving behind plantations and cabins that were destroyed and burned. Days later, others were erected.

Map showing where Quilombo dos Palmares is located in Brazil, where more than 20 expeditions were undertaken to destroy the quilombo, and where it is believed Zumbi is believed to have been killed on November 20, 1695.
Map showing where Quilombo dos Palmares is located in Brazil, where more than 20 expeditions were undertaken to destroy the quilombo, and where it is believed Zumbi is believed to have been killed on November 20, 1695.

This way of life limited the growth of the settlement. But in 1630, fortune smiled upon Palmares. That’s when the Dutch landed at Pernambuco, in an attempt to take the profits of sugar from the hands of the Portuguese and Spanish, then ruled by the same king. The invasion created an uproar in the Northeast. With the initial victory of the Dutch in 1645, part of the Luso-Brazilians kept up a kind of guerrilla warfare. Plantation owners enlisted their slaves to fight, which facilitated the escapes. Amid the instability Palmares grew, received thousands of new residents, and when the Dutch were finally expelled in 1654, the village had become a power formed by several populational settlements.

Quilombo dos Palmares National Park
Quilombo dos Palmares Memorial Park

The data on the dimensions of Palmares are mismatched. Colonial documents speak for 30,000 people, a number probably overestimated. The demographic growth was mainly due to new residents. There is also the possibility that the population of Palmares was polygamous and even polyandrous – which means that a woman could have multiple husbands. To feed the growing population, the local economy was composed of a mixture of hunting, gathering and agriculture, which planted crops such as cassava, sweet potatoes and beans. Admittedly there was also trade with neighbors. “The idea that Palmares was an isolated refuge in the woods may even be true for the first few years of settlement. However, after mid-century, the relationship between blacks and their neighbors certainly evolved into an intense exchange with Indians and even whites,” says Flávio Gomes, researcher at the Department of History of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). The presence of whites in Palmares is still a motive discussion, but it is known that this occurred later in quilombos of other regions. Despite the alleged hostility toward whites, there is evidence that livestock farmers brought their flocks to graze in the area of Palmares and maintained trade with the quilobolas, to the point of being called, disdainfully “colonists of the blacks.”

View from Palmares Memorial Park in the state of Alagoas
View from Palmares Memorial Park in the state of Alagoas

In relation to the Indians, the relationship seems to be more evident. Archaeological excavations have found Indian pottery, probably contemporary to the quilombo. “It is tempting to make this association and say that Indians were within the quilombo, but we could be dealing with some type of trade,” says American archaeologist Scott Allen, of the Federal University of Alagoas. According to Pedro Paulo Funari, historian and Unicamp archaeologist who joined the first team to take soundings at the site 15 years ago, pottery indicates that there were Indians in Palmares:  “The ceramic production was linked to the attributions of women. The presence of this material in Palmares may mean that the ex-slaves had Indian wives.” Something perfectly consistent with the lack of black women there. Anyway, mestiçagem (racial mixture) was on the tip of the tongue of Palmares inhabitants. Their language seemed to have an African base mixed with words and structures taken from the Portuguese and Tupi – the settlers needed interpreters to speak with them.

Quilombo dos Palmares Memorial Park
Quilombo dos Palmares Memorial Park

The consolidation of the quilombo culminated in the creation of a sort of confederation between the various settlements of Palmares. The local population chose as chief a warrior known as Ganga-Zumba, who ruled from Macaco, the main village of the refuge. It is unknown if “Ganga Zumba” would be his name or a title given to the leader. “The word ganga meant ‘power’ or ‘sacerdote’ (priest) in many societies of Central Africa,” says Flávio Gomes.

Quilombo dos Palmares Memorial Park
Quilombo dos Palmares Memorial Park

For most experts, it was in this era of relative calm that Zumbi would have been born in Palmares. One of the reasons for sustaining that the leader was born right there and didn’t arrive after fleeing from slavery, is the fact that he was the nephew Ganga Zumba. However, the family connection is also uncertain. To Mário Maestri, the designation of “nephew” should not be understood literally. “The network of kinship must have been mainly symbolic. The historical conditions would not have allowed the formation of a family clan that dominated Palmares  politically,” says Maestri. So to say that Zumbi was the “nephew” of Ganga Zumba amounted to saying that he was a protege of the chief.

Quilombos dos Palmares. Recognized and preserved as part of Brazil's National Heritage
Quilombos dos Palmares. Recognized and preserved as part of Brazil’s National Heritage

The origin of Zumbi remains controversial. Being born in Palmares or not determines whether or not he was a slave. And if he was born free in Palmares, where, as professor Funari says, miscegenation between blacks and Indians was common, one cannot rule out the chance that he himself was a mestiço (person of mixed-race) of an Indian mother and African father. Can you imagine the size of the controversy that we’re getting into here? “You cannot say how reliable this possibility is. But it is possible,” says Funari.

If Zumbi’s origin is uncertain, his childhood is definitely legendary. Décio Freitas, a historian from Rio Grande do Sul who died in 2004, wrote a classic text about Palmares, which claimed to have discovered an account of the capture of Zumbi as a baby by a Portuguese expedition to the site. He would have been sold to padre Antônio Melo, who would have raised him to be an altar boy. At 15, however, Zumbi fled. “This is a fantasy version, but not impossible,” says Flávio Gomes. “Décio has ever shown the document that supported this biography of Zumbi. And besides, he was known for systematically romanticizing his production,” says Maestri.

"Zumbi is us": Countless cultural/historical/social organizations are named after Zumbi
“Zumbi is us”: Countless cultural/historical/social organizations are named after Zumbi

Except for Décio’s text, there are no other reports on Zumbi’s youth. He must have grown up in a period previous to the war that the Portuguese mounted against the quilombo, driven by the shortage of man power in the mills. At that time, social life in Palmares was a semblance of what its inhabitants knew of their ancestors in Africa, perhaps with indigenous elements and even Portuguese incorporated into their daily life. Its leaders, like Ganga Zumba, must have been warriors and religious leaders. We don’t know if Zumbi married or had children (although the letter from the king of Portugal, reproduced earlier in this article, suggests that). Zumbi is generally described as a warrior because the reports about him appear in a period of war. But it’s not hard to imagine that, in peacetime, Zumbi planted cassava and hunted wild pigs.

1964 film "Ganga Zumba" and 1984 film "Quilombo"
1964 film “Ganga Zumba” and 1984 film “Quilombo”

General Zumbi

It was in a report by the military command of Pernambuco, written around 1670, that the name Zumbi appear cited for the first time. The document attributed to him the success of “fugitive” ex-slaves in the battles with settlers in the vicinity of the Barriga mountain range. Zumbi was the confidant of chief Ganga Zumba, a kind of general of the armies of Palmares. Other documents of the same time highlight the military capabilities of Zumbi. One says that when faced with an expedition led by Manuel Lopes Galvão, Zumbi was shot in the leg that would have left him lame, but didn’t prevent him from continuing to fight.

Countless books, celebrations and a national holiday are dedicated to Zumbi
Countless books, celebrations and a national holiday are dedicated to Zumbi and Palmares

Under constant attacks, Palmares became a fortress, with various settlements surrounded by reinforced wattle and daub walls. On the slope leading to the village of Macaco, the quilombolas dug holes, put pegs on the bottom and covered them with dry leaves. This was so common that the location was entered on maps of colonial soldiers with the nickname the Outeiro dos Mundéus (mundéu or Munde, is precisely the name of this trap). And Palmares inhabitants also left for the offensive. “Several quilombo expeditions attacked between 1660 and 1670, the villages of Serinhaém, Porto Calvo, Penedo and Alagoas, mainly to capture arms and ammunition, but also to plunder farms and businesses,” Décio Freitas wrote in his Palmares – A Guerra dos Escravos (Palmares – The War of the slaves).

Around 1675, the attacked communities funded a large military expedition under the command of Fernão Lopes Carrilho, who had already faced and defeated Indians and rebellious slaves in other parts of the Northeast. He imprisoned or killed several of the main leaders of the quilombo, wounded Ganga Zumba himself and almost captured the mother of the leader. Carrilho even announced that he had destroyed Palmares instead. It was not true, but for the first time in decades, the situation forced Ganga – Zumba to negotiate.

In 1678, a mission sent by the “king of Palmares”, as he was called, entered Recife. A chronicler wrote: “Notable was the uproar that caused by the view of those barbarians. Because they entered with their bows and arrows and a firearm (…), all stout and valiant.” The peace agreement stipulated that those born in Palmares would be free, gain land to cultivate, the right to trade with their neighbors and the condition of vassals of Portugal. It looked great, except for the fact that the freed slaves (and perhaps theZumbi himself, according to those who advocate the thesis that he was born a slave and escaped to Palmares) would have to go back to their masters. Ganga Zumba decided to accept the clauses and moved with a few hundred followers and his brother – Gana Zona to the location of Cucaú. Zumbi refused to go and declared himself to be the new leader of Palmares (Ganga Zumba died soon after and the stories of the time give account of Zumbi having ordered him to be poisoned). There was then a war between supporters of Zumbi and of Gana-Zona which led to the intervention of the Portuguese and the extinction of the “free Quilombo” of Cucaú.

Popular painting of Zumbi
Popular painting of Zumbi

The colonial authorities and the king of Portugal himself repeatedly tried to offer the new head a similar agreement to what they made with Ganga Zumba, but Zumbi never accepted the agreement. In the early 1690s, the bandeirante (1) Domingos Jorge Velho was called and received the mission to lead an expedition to hunt down and exterminate at once the pockets of resistance in Palmares. At the head of experienced killers particularly known for bloodthirsty methods, Jorge Velho did not back off from giving some beatings Zumbi’s warriors. In 1692, in a three week battle, a troop of about a thousand men was reduced by half before escaping and seeking refuge in the woods. Two years later, Jorge Velho returned. He had under his command an incredible army for its time: 9000 men  and some cannons.

The resistance of Palmares depended on keeping the enemy artillery away from the ramparts of Macaco. After a siege that lasted weeks, however, Jorge Velho managed to get closer with his canons. Zumbi personally led a desperate attack to prevent the destruction of the barriers, but failed. The bandeirantes killed hundreds of warriors and invaded Palmares capital. Zumbi fled.

The last year of the leader’s life was marked by sparse attacks, alongside a handful of companions, who were trying to keep the slave rebellion alive. It was by means of a member of that group, Antônio Soares, that Jorge Velho’s men reached Zumbi. Captured and tortured, Soares agreed to lead the bandeirantes to the rebel secret hideout. Once there, he killed Zumbi with a treacherous stab. In possession of the leader’s body, the mercenaries pulled out one of his eyes and cut off his right hand. Zumbi’s penis was severed and stuffed into his mouth. He was decapitated and his head taken to Recife, where it rotted in a public square.

Archaeology of Palmares: Excavations have been interrupted because of not finding significant traces of African occupation

As you read this story, the archaeologist Scott Allen and his colleagues at the Federal University of Alagoas (Ufal) are walking on messiest of historical puzzles. The team is investigating the plateau that sits high on the hills of Barriga for signs of Palmares and the waves of human occupation that arrived on the scene before Zumbi and his comrades. In seven months of work – Allen and company have been there since March – have led them to perceive that the site has undergone a lot after the end of the Quilombo. And ironically, even attempts to celebrate what Palmares represents could have been muddled. “From what the locals of the mountains told us, in the 1940s they began to open the forest for cultivation, still using only a hoe,” Allen says. Things changed, however, when, in the 1980s and 1990s, the plateau became the focus of the annual celebrations of November 20th, in honor of Zumbi. An embankment may have removed up to 60 inches of soil from the plateau significantly cluttering the stratigraphy (the succession of layers of soil, vital to establishing the sequence of occupation of an archaeological site). Allen’s team is following the footsteps of the first excavations after a long hiatus. In 1997, the Fundação Cultural Palmares (Palmares Cultural Foundation), which helps manage the site by mandate of the federal government, even prohibited excavations there since the original findings were showing a much stronger indigenous presence (and much less markedly African) than expected. Archaeologist Pedro Paulo Funari as well as Allen say they understand the prohibition and don’t attack the foundation – after all, few places are more symbolic to the black Brazilian movement. With new permission for the work, the UFAL researchers continue to find strong evidence of indigenous presence. There are funeral urns and other ceramic objects, which can be traced back to up to a thousand years ago and perhaps extend to the time when the quilombo existed. There is also faience, a type of Portuguese ceramic (in this case, made in the colony itself). Any piece could suggest African influences, but the analysis still needs to be more in-depth. “Despite everything, I believe we have a good chance of finding traces of Palmares inhabitants, in particular on other sites, less impacted,” said Allen. With the aid of the computer, they intend to “connect the dots” of each site found trying to find signs of architectural structures. And it still needs to be known where exactly the settlement of Macaco was. “I think it was more in the mountainside, not on top,” says Allen.

Zumbi statue in Salvador, Bahia
Zumbi statue in Salvador, Bahia

The fall of Zumbi: The legend of the group suicide in Palmares

Shortly after standing in front of Zumbi and greeting him, the traitor Antônio Soares stabbed him. This is, nowadays, the scenario most accepted by researchers in describing the death of the Palmares leader. Interestingly, this story remained forgotten for a long time. All in the name of an older, shall we say, epic version: “Until the early 1960s, historiography said that Zumbi and many others in Palmares had committed suicide in 1694 by throwing themselves from the cliffs of the mountains of Barriga,” says Flávio Gomes. To further enhance the legendary aura, the narrative of collective suicide has parallels to what the Jews would have done that defended the fortress of Masada in the 1st century (in the face of imminent defeat, they preferred to  throw themselves from the mountains than falling into the hands of the Roman invaders). This view may therefore have been forged by a Portuguese chronicler full of stories of antiquity in his head. The kernel of truth behind it is that Jorge Velho needed to build a counter wall diagonally in relation to the wall of the Macaco village, in a way so as to take his guns close enough to devastate Zumbi’s defenses. The work advanced greatly, but there was still a small gap between it and a canyon when the Palmares inhabitants discovered it. Zumbi then ordered the attack through the passage that remained. The warriors of Palmares were repulsed and about 500 of them ended up rolling into a rut below, which seems to have been interpreted erroneously as suicide. But in fact there are reports that, when the colonial soldiers entered Macaco and the other settlements, some Palmares inhabitants’ mothers killed their children and themselves to avoid slavery.


1. The Bandeirantes (meaning “followers of the banner”) were 17th century Portuguese Brazilian slavers, fortune hunters and adventurers from the São Paulo region, the Captaincy of São Vicente (later called the Captaincy of São Paulo). They were the leaders of expeditions called bandeiras (Portuguese, “flags”) that penetrated the interior of Brazil far south and west of the Tordesillas Line of 1494 that divided the Spanish (west) domain from the Portuguese (east) domain in South America. Source

Source: Guia do Estudante

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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