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Original documents reveal new aspects of the history of Palmares

UNICAMP historian creates database of material collected from archives in countries such as Brazil, Portugal, and the Netherlands

Paulo RezendeZumbi, one of the symbols of the Black movement’s fight for their rights in Brazil, in the eyes of Brazilian artist Dalton PaulaPaulo Rezende

In the early 1990s, historian Silvia Hunold Lara was studying legislation on slavery when she was invited to write an article for the book Liberdade por um fio – A história dos quilombos no Brasil (Freedom by a thread – The history of quilombos in Brazil; Companhia das Letras, 1996), put together by historians Flávio Gomes and João José Reis. While doing research for the text, Lara visited the library at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), where she taught, and came across an original copy of an as yet unpublished book. Os primeiros quilombos (The first quilombos), compiled by Portuguese researcher Ernesto Ennes (1881–1957), contains 94 documents about Palmares, a refuge for escaped slaves in the captaincy of Pernambuco in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Because she was involved in other projects at the time, Lara only went back to analyze the documents in 2005, after deciding to make Palmares the subject of a thesis that she defended four years later at the Department of History of UNICAMP’s Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences (IFCH).

Since then, she has been researching what she considers to be the most important movement against slavery in the history of Brazil. “In addition to remaining for so long and being so geographically extensive, Palmares had an impact on the way the Colony dealt with enslaved people,” says the scholar, who is now a retired professor. An overview of all these years of research is provided in the book Palmares & Cucaú: O aprendizado da dominação (Palmares & Cacaú: The lessons of domination; Edusp, 2021), which was funded by FAPESP and won the social essay category of the Brazilian National Library Literary Prize in October 2022. The book addresses a little-known episode in Palmares’s history: the peace agreement of 1678, negotiated after colonial forces destroyed the settlement’s main mocambos (village-sized communities), including Macaco and Subupira. “The first time the word ‘quilombo’ appeared in documentation referring to Palmares was in a certificate from 1680. Its use as a term for the settlements of escaped slaves in Brazil became more frequent from the second decade of the eighteenth century onwards,” says the historian.

According to Lara, the peace agreement was based on mocambo inhabitants agreeing to obey the colonial government and determined that Gana Zumba, the leader of Palmares, hand over those not born in the mocambos to slave owners in Pernambuco and annexed captaincies. “At the same time, the government of Pernambuco ceded land to the Palmaristas [people of Palmares] to establish a village in the Cucaú region, recognized that the residents would be free to cultivate crops and earn the same profits as other vassals from Portugal, and granted manumission to those born in Palmares,” reports the researcher.

The deal did not last long: within less than two years, Gana Zumba was assassinated and Cucaú was destroyed by colonial troops. “Those who had been freed were enslaved again, which created a legal problem for the Portuguese Crown and caused heated discussions between Pernambuco and Lisbon, until a royal charter issued in 1682 recognized the 1678 agreement and demanded the case be investigated,” she explains. However, not all Palmaristas moved to Cucaú in 1678. The dissidents, led by Zumbi, took refuge in Serra da Barriga. In the late 1680s, the location became an armed base for Palmares, until it was destroyed in 1694. A year later, Zumbi was assassinated by a troop led by André Furtado de Mendonça. “But Palmares rose again many times: Mouza, the last mocambo, stood strong until 1714.”

In Palmares & Cucaú, the peace agreement and its developments are analyzed based on vast documentation, including sources gathered by Ernesto Ennes in his unpublished manuscript, Os primeiros quilombos (Subsídios para a sua história) (The first quilombos – Subsidies for their story). The “historical narrative of Palmares, despite being addressed so frequently, has until today been based on a relatively limited set of sources. Many historians have visited the archives, but the overwhelming majority concentrated their analyses on certain fundamental texts, transcribed and published throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,” writes Lara in the book. “There are still many documents to be researched,” adds the historian in an interview with Pesquisa FAPESP.

According to Lara, the sources she used reveal the names of several people from around Palmares, including the one she considers most important: the residents of the mocambos. “It is fundamental to bring these people to the center of Palmares’s history,” she argues. The expert is currently writing an article about how the names of people from Palmares are spelled, in partnership with philologist Phablo Roberto Marchis Fachin, from the Department of Classical and Vernacular Literature at the University of São Paulo (USP). The pair organized the book Guerra contra Palmares: O manuscrito de 1678 (War against Palmares: The 1678 manuscript), published in 2021 by Chão Editora (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue no. 320). In the book, the researchers transcribed the two original versions of a text written in the seventeenth century that came to be known as the “list of wars waged in Palmares, Pernambuco,” the authorship of which is attributed to Father Antônio da Silva (?–1697). One of them, which had been lost since the mid-nineteenth century, was found by Lara in the Torre do Tombo Archive, Portugal, in 2009. The text praises the role of the captaincy of Pernambuco’s then-governor Dom Pedro de Almeida (1630–1679) and the victories achieved against Palmares in attacks led by the soldier Manuel Lopes (?–?) in 1675 and by explorer Fernão Carrilho (c.1640–1703) in 1677.

Wikimedia CommonsPamphlet distributed by the Pelotas Black Awareness Group in November 1983Wikimedia Commons

In the book, the organizers compared the two original versions with a transcription of the document published in the Brazilian Historical and Geographical Institute’s journal Revista IHGB in 1859, which has since been the main source for research on Palmares, according to Lara. “In the nineteenth-century publication, several words and expressions were substituted, in addition to changes in punctuation, the order of paragraphs, and in particular, the names of the mocambos and Palmarista leaders,” points out Fachin. “The person who transcribed it in the nineteenth century must not have understood the format of the seventeenth-century letters. It is also likely that they did not know that the names were Central African. Because the Revista IHGB document was referenced by so many researchers, the errors were perpetuated,” says the philologist. For example, the researchers point out that instead of “Ganga Zumba,” the correct spelling is “Gana Zumba.” “About 80% of the enslaved people brought to Bahia and Pernambuco at that time came from the interior of the Luanda region in Africa and spoke Kimbundu. In this language, Ganga means ‘priest,’ while ‘gana’ means ‘lord,’” explains Lara. Another example is the leader known in historiography as Acotirene (?–?), believed to be the mother of Gana Zumba. Her name would actually have been Aca Inene.

Digital repository
All the material collected over the last 17 years is available in the Documenta Palmares database. The repository created by the scholar holds around 4,400 documents, mainly from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, whose originals were in archives and libraries worldwide, including Brazil, Portugal, and the Netherlands. It also contains the titles of 650 works related to Palmares, such as Cacá Diegues’s film Ganga Zumba (1964), based on the book of the same name written by João Felício dos Santos (1911–1989) and published by Civilização Brasileira in 1962. Finally, it has a maps section showing the approximate location of some of the mocambos, villages, Indigenous settlements, military camps, granted land, and expedition routes mentioned in the historical sources. Lara’s research was funded by FAPESP, the Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES), and the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq).

The cartography was done in partnership with historian Felipe Aguiar Damasceno, author of the thesis A ocupação das terras dos Palmares de Pernambuco (séculos XVII e XVIII) (Land occupation in Palmares, Pernambuco – Seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), defended at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) in 2018. For his PhD research, Damasceno used georeferencing and Dutch and Portuguese documents to investigate the territorial dimensions of Palmares and the distribution of land grants in the region between 1678 and 1775. “Much of the literature produced in the twentieth century and even at the beginning of the twenty-first century consolidated the idea that the mocambos were primarily located in the territory currently occupied by the state of Alagoas. But documents from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries show that the best-known settlements, such as Macaco, were concentrated between Zona da Mata and Agreste, in what is now Pernambuco,” says the historian. “It is important to note that Palmares did not occupy one single region over the course of its more than a century of existence. Displacements occur and the relationships between the various settlements change over time.”

Paulo RezendePortrait of Gana Zumba in oil and gold leaf on canvas, by Dalton Paula, 2020Paulo Rezende

In the twentieth century, Palmares and Zumbi in particular became symbols of the fight for Black rights in Brazil, as highlighted by Rosa Lúcia Lima da Silva Correia, a professor at the Federal University of Alagoas (UFAL) and vice coordinator of the institution’s Center for Afro-Brazilian and Indigenous Studies (NEABI). “Grupo Palmares, founded in Porto Alegre in 1971, marked November 20, the day Zumbi died, as Black People’s Day, as opposed to May 13, the date that slavery was abolished in the country. Later, in 1978, the Unified Black Movement [MNU] renamed it Black Awareness Day,” says Correia.

Throughout the 1980s, intellectuals and leaders of the Black movement, such as intellectual and feminist Lélia Gonzalez (1935–1994) and actor, director, and playwright Abdias do Nascimento (1914–2011), met at UFAL to work on obtaining heritage status for Serra da Barriga in the municipality of União dos Palmares, Alagoas. In 1988, 100 years after slavery was abolished in Brazil, the site was named a National Monument. “That generation of militants understood the need for Serra da Barriga to serve as a space to safeguard the memory of the Black struggle for freedom,” says Danilo Luiz Marques, a historian and professor at UFAL and coordinator of NEABI. The activists also planned to create a museum there—the project, however, only came to fruition in 2007, with the inauguration of the Zumbi dos Palmares Memorial Park.

Some of these meetings were recorded and are now stored in the archives at NEABI-UFAL, created in 1980 as the Center for Afro-Brazilian Studies (CEAB). In the audio, it is possible to hear the voices of intellectuals such as historian Joel Rufino dos Santos (1941–2015) during a discussion on the significance of Palmares to the Black cause, mediated by sociologist Clóvis Moura (1925–2003), who founded the Brazilian Institute for African Studies (IBEA) in 1975. At the end, singer and actress Zezé Motta interprets the samba song “Senhora Liberdade” (“Miss freedom”), composed by Nei Lopes (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue no. 275) and Wilson Moreira (1936–2018). In addition to the recordings, the collection contains items produced over the last four decades related to ethnicity, race, and the Black movement in Brazil and Alagoas, such as posters, correspondence, and images of militants climbing to Serra da Barriga taken by photographer and antiracism activist Januário Garcia (1943–2021). Marques is currently working on a project to digitize all of this material. “Our goal is to create a printed catalog and a database to keep this memory alive,” concludes the historian.

Scientific articles
LARA, S.H. O território de Palmares: representações cartográficas e dimensões territoriaisAfro-Ásia, Salvador, n. 64, p. 12-50, 2021.