Nearly 5,000 black rural communities in Brazil today trace their origins to one of the former settlements of runaway slaves known as quilombos, according to a study by researcher Flávio dos Santos Gomes. When Gomes set about following the thread that links Brazil’s present to its past as a slaveholding society, he discovered a gap of 100 years, from the abolition of slavery in 1888 to 1988, when Brazil’s new Constitution lent these communities visibility by formalizing the expression “descended from quilombos.” Gomes, who is a historian and professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), has been studying slavery since the early 1990s. He explains that the usual sources on the topic, like criminal cases, police records, and newspaper reports, “talked about quilombos and attempts to destroy them and capture their inhabitants” but not about how they survived.
“I decided to go at it from another perspective,” says Gomes. “I started studying black rural communities across the country – their origins and transformations, especially in the post-abolition period. I saw it would be possible to assess the formation of a black peasantry in Brazil.” The product of his endeavor is Mocambos e quilombos – Uma história do campesinato negro no Brasil (Mocambos and quilombos: A history of the black peasantry in Brazil), recently released by Companhia das Letras. The book is based mainly on Gomes’s study “Cartografias da plantation: demografia, cultura material e arqueologia da escravidão e do pós-emancipação do Brasil” (Cartographies of the plantation: the demographics, material culture, and archaeology of slavery and the post-emancipation period in Brazil), a research project that he is conducting at the UFRJ Institute of History with the support of the US Guggenheim Foundation, the Rio de Janeiro Research Foundation (FAPERJ), and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). The book features a list of all remaining quilombo communities in Brazil.
Commerce turned out to be the link between past and present. It has generally been held that mocambos and quilombos – both terms apply to the same phenomenon but were used in different periods and places – were isolated strongholds of runaway slaves who produced only for their own consumption. “The whole time, these communities had connections with agents from the surrounding society, like innkeepers, grocers, and networks of merchants,” says Gomes. “They formed interwoven agrarian clusters, and their surplus production supplied local networks of farms and ranches, villages, open-air markets, and trading posts.” These business transactions in turn spurred religious and cultural exchanges and ethnic miscegenation.
The economic activity that was practiced by quilombos and that basically survives on today’s descendant communities traces its roots to a unique feature of Brazilian slavery: the custom of masters granting their slaves small holdings or giving them one or two days a week to grow crops for their own sustenance. This was a way slave owners found to lighten the economic load of supporting their captives – but they had other motives as well, like wanting to instill a “love of the land” and thus discourage insurrection and mass escapes. In this respect, the tactic had the opposite effect: when slaves acquired the habit of farming and mastered agricultural skills, including how to market surpluses, they were inspired to escape and build a life sustained by working the land. “The farm economy was also vital to the formation of families and the creation of a measure of financial autonomy, although the logic was the opposite of the monocultural plantation economy,” says Maria Helena Machado, professor with the Department of History, University of São Paulo School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences (FFLCH-USP), and specialist in the social history of slavery.
Attack and defense
In the 1970s, historian Ciro Flamarion Cardoso (1942-2013) and US anthropologist Sidney Mintz (1922-2015) analyzed the experience of farming on Brazilian slaveholding plantations. Cardoso refers to this phenomenon as “protopeasantry” or “peasant breach.” In the opinion of Gomes, who explored the issue in his book A hidra e os pântanos (The Hydra and the swamps) (Unesp/Polis, 2005), these terms reflect an underestimation of how owner permission for slaves to farm plots of land contributed to forging an autonomous black peasantry. These scholars also failed to grasp the extent of continuity, reflected in the survival of communities even today. “Flávio Gomes’s research is important because it ties farming experience to the quilombo, and the quilombo to the peasant community,” observes Machado.
Quilombos date back to at least 1575, when the existence of a mocambo was first recorded in Bahia. Gomes believes they appeared so early because there was no more efficacious form of protest against slavery than escape. “Many collective escapes were preceded by uprisings or riots,” the historian says. Never completely stationary, quilombos counted on having safe havens in hard-to-reach places like mountains, caves, forests, and mangrove swamps. Given the enormous financial damage wrought by the loss of manpower, plantation owners would send mercenaries and troops out to capture fugitive slaves, but this did not keep the communities of runaways from growing in number. “The establishment of a quilombo attracted repressive forces, just as it attracted more escapees,” says Gomes. Additionally, quilombo inhabitants would arm themselves with homemade weapons or pistols and shotguns that had been stolen or ceded by trading partners and go off on expeditions, enticing captives to flee or even kidnapping them to boost the size of their fugitive community. Coordinated efforts by quilombo residents and slaves on large plantations sparked a rebellion on a plantation in Santana, Bahia, in 1789. A series of uprisings unfolded through 1828 and, according to Gomes, a peasant economy of black runaway slaves emerged during this period.
Quilombos were usually surrounded by trenches and sharp stakes, but their inhabitants did not simply take defensive action. “Circumstances of time and place turned some quilombos into guerrilla units that sowed fear across plantations,” the researcher says. The most effective and profitable means of protection, however, was to form a network of economic partners, including other small farmers, prospectors, fishermen, peddlers, small shop owners, native Brazilians, and army deserters, along with slaves who had purchased their own freedom from their masters. The firewood that supplied the Imperial Court in the state of Rio de Janeiro in the 1870s was produced in quilombos located in mangrove swamps along the Iguaçu River and was sold by recently freed slaves.
“Quilombos continued to multiply, even after slavery ended, but they were no longer mentioned in police documents or newspaper reports,” says Gomes. Immediately following enactment of the Golden Law (Lei Áurea), which abolished slavery, “[quilombos] continued to move, disappear, emerge, and fade away within the tangled knot of forms of peasantry in Brazil,” while still interacting and mixing with their surroundings. Gomes believes that the post-abolition invisibility of quilombos can be ascribed to population and farm censuses, which used unclear, inconsistent criteria for classifying race and color and also failed to classify economic activities “between family farming, seasonal labor, and extractive activities.” Furthermore, early 20th-century black rural communities were often forced to move because of living or working arrangements. Their chief source of support continued to be the sale of agricultural products. “Many communities would make flour and, as in the past, sell part of their output,” says Gomes.
Anthropologist Neusa Gusmão, a retired professor from the School of Education at the University of Campinas (Unicamp), lends less credence to the notion of strict continuity between clusters of runaway slaves and today’s black rural communities. “We can’t say for certain that the origins of today’s black peasantry lie in the former quilombos,” says Gusmão, who has researched and written about rural black culture. “The current designation ‘quilombo’ reflects a reshaping of the term, which sees [quilombos] as tied to the land and to unique cultural practices.”
Gusmão agrees, however, that these groups were “almost completely” invisible to “both society at large and academia” in the 1970s and 1980s. The Constitution of 1988 represented only one stage in enhancing their visibility, which was also attributable to refined methods of demographic research. That same year, the events and protests organized in remembrance of the 100th anniversary of abolition brought attention to the question of quilombos and their relation to black identity. It was much the same in 1995, the 300th anniversary of the death of Zumbi, leader of Palmares, Brazil’s most famous quilombo. According to Gomes, organizations like the Palmares Cultural Foundation – which, as an agency of the Ministry of Culture, recognizes and certifies communities descended from quilombos – have played an important role. Academic scholarship in various fields has also “helped social movements establish ties with these communities.”
GOMES, F. S. Mocambos e quilombos – Uma história do campesinato negro no Brasil. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2015, 238 pp.