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Liberdade por um fio: Historia dos quilombos no Brasil.

Liberdade por um fio: Historia dos quilombos no Brasil. [Freedom Hanging by a Thread: The History of Runaway Slave Communities in Brazil.] Edited by Joao Jose Reis and Flavio dos Santos Comes (Sao Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1996. 509 pp.).

"Flight is inherent to slavery," observed Agostinho Perdigao Malheiro in his 1866 study of Brazilian slavery; Joao Jose Reis and Flavio dos Santos Gomes go him one better, describing "flight and the formation of groups of runaway slaves" as "the most typical" form of slave resistance. (9, 83) The encampments and settlements (known in Brazil as quilambos or mocambos, terms of Angolan origin) created by these runaways are often cited as heroic examples of slave struggle against the forces of oppression. Historians Reis and Gomes, both of whom have published important monographs on Brazilian slave resistance, [1] agree that the quilombolas (inhabitants of quilombos) were heroic. But they also caution that to view the runaways primarily as heroes is actually to "diminish the richness of their experience. Let them be celebrated as heroes of freedom[;] but what we celebrate in this volume is the struggle of men and women who, in order to live in freedom, weren't always able to act with the certainty and coherence n ormally attributed to heroes." (23) In order to explore the diversity of quilombo experience, the editors have brought together seventeen richly informative essays that cover the full temporal (from the early 1500s to 1888) and geographical (from the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul to the northern states of the Amazon) range of Brazilian slavery. The resulting volume gives us a vivid picture, not just of the breadth and magnitude of the quilombo experience, but of the debates currently driving research on runaway communities.

One area of debate centers on the communities' political, social, and economic structures. Here, the authors readily admit, the evidence uncovered to date is quite scanty and fragmentary. Pedro Paulo de Abreu Funari, writing on recent archaeological excavations at the seventeenth-century quilombo of Palmares, concludes that those excavations have not yet yielded "data sufficient to reinterpret [Palmares] as an archaeological macro-site, or, even less, its political organization ..." (46) Several essays cite Portuguese descriptions of monarchical systems of government in the larger, more established runaway communities. But it remains unclear whether those descriptions more closely reflected quilombo governance or the imposition of Portuguese political categories on quilombo society. Observors also differed in their description of the power wielded by those "kings." While some described highly authoritarian regimes in which monarchs ruled through harsh punishments and discipline, others described more egalita rian systems in which elected monarchs ruled "in the style of a Republic," as a 1767 document put it, or through democratic consensus. (252, 458)

Much more evidence survives on the economic structure of the communities. Those that succeeded in attaining any size and longevity did so by constituting themselves as productive economic units, so much so that quilombo production frequently played a significant role in regional economies. Runaways in the gold-mining zones of Minas Gerais (see essays by Carlos Magno Guimaraes and Donald Ramos), Goias (Mary Karasch), and Maranhao and Para (Matthias Rohrig Assuncao) supported themselves by seeking out new gold deposits in remote areas and mining those unclaimed veins. The quilombolas' success in finding such deposits was one reason why slavehunters pursued them so closely, in the hopes of recovering not just escaped slaves but their mines as well.

The more established settlements also practiced extensive agriculture, which in many cases was sufficiently productive to generate surpluses for sale to local merchants, from whom the quilombolas bought salt, alcohol, cloth, weapons, and other goods. Royal officials angrily denounced the resulting ties between retail merchants and the runaway communities, charging the merchants with informing the runaways when government troops were coming, which enabled the communities to flee and escape capture. (272-77, 417, 448-49)

Ties and alliances also existed, surprisingly enough, between runaways and landowners. Quilombolas sometimes earned cash by working for local landowners; and some runaways evaded slavecatchers by accepting employment, and protection, on farms and plantations. They "are not enemies of work, as the whites claim," noted one observer in 1865, "and in many cases are employed by landowners (we know those who do this) on their farms ... "(462n18) Joao Jose Reis provides a fascinating account of an early nineteenth-century quilombo in Bahia that was sheltered by local farmers who gave escaped slaves plots of land in return for the slaves agreeing to work for them. When the quilombo was finally discovered and broken up by royal troops, ten white landowners were indicted for aiding and abetting the runaways.

These multiple points of contact and interaction between quilombos and colonial society lead Donald Ramos to conclude that the runaways "not only did not threaten Luso-Brazilian society, but rather, more frequently, cooperated with it." (165) His own evidence, however, suggests that few members of that society would have agreed with this proposition. The quilombos did cooperate in some ways with colonial society; but they also warred on it, principally through theft (including the theft of slaves to add to their encampments), but occasionally through more violent attacks on towns, plantations, and travelers. Most of the essays, including Ramos's (176-82), cite repeated appeals to officials by local residents for protection against the quilombos. The legendary quilombo of Palmares, in the northeastern state of Alagoas, was seen as such a threat to the sugar zones of the Northeast that its final defeat and destruction in 1695 was celebrated with parades and masses all over Brazil (see essay by silvia Hunold La ra, 98-99). And during the 1700s, royal officials were obsessed with the need to prevent a second Palmares from forming in the gold-mining zones of Minas Gerais. (Guimaraes, 156-61)

As the number of Africans entering Brazil began to increase in the late 1700s, the monarchy ordered the total "extinction of these [runaway] settlements, leaving not even a shadow of them." (333) And for good reason: as Stuart Schwartz's essay on the 1814 Hausa conspiracy in Bahia shows, the quilombos formed a crucial link in the chain of communication between urban slave rebels and the rural plantation slaves that the rebels hoped would join them in their uprising. As slave imports continued to rise after independence in 1822, government offensives against the quilombos intensified; this was even more the case after the Muslim slave uprising of 1835 in Bahia, which sent shock waves throughout Brazil.

Despite these efforts to eliminate them, the quilombos remained a constant feature of Brazilian slavery through final abolition in 1888. When royal troops were pulled out of the countryside and sent to fight in Paraguay in the 1860s, runaways and quilombos multiplied and became markedly more aggressive. In 1867 an army of 400 quilombolas attacked farms in Maranhao and sent a petition to local authorities calling for the final abolition of slavery. The following year, in the Amazonian province of Para, the runaway community of Trombetas demanded the right to purchase its members' freedom from their owners, and threatened to move across the border to Surinam to join the Saramaka runaways if their demands were not met. (450-53, 484)

Taken as a whole, these essays clearly demonstrate the profoundly contra-dictory nature of the quilombos. An integral and in some ways functional part of the slaveowning order, they were simultaneously a profound threat to that order. To paraphrase Flavio dos Santos Comes, they existed within the world of slavery, while offering a radical alternative to that world. (282) In providing such a pathbreaking and broadly inclusive survey of the quilombo experience, this volume performs an immense service to students of the Brazilian past and of the slave past throughout the New World.


(1.) Joao Jose Reis, Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia (Baltimore, 1993); Flavio dos Santos Gomes. Historias de quilombolas: Mocambos e comunidades de senzalas no Rio de Janeiro--seculo XIX (Rio de Janeiro, 1995).
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Andrews, George Reid
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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