Imagine flying, impossibly, over the Earth in the 17th century—during the time described in American history books as the colonial period, when Europeans swarmed into the New World to dominate an almost empty wilderness. Instead, you would see tens of millions of native people already living in the Americas, joined by an extraordinary flow not of European colonists but of African slaves. Up until the early 19th century, almost four times as many Africans as Europeans came to the Americas. Looking down from above, you wouldn’t know that the tiny numbers of Europeans were supposed to be the stars of the story. Rather, your attention would focus on the two majority populations: Africans and Indians.
You’d have a lot to watch. By the tens of thousands, African slaves escaped the harsh conditions of the European plantations and mining operations and headed for the interior, into lands controlled by Indians. Up and down the Americas, ex-slaves and indigenous peoples fashioned hybrid settlements known as maroon communities, after the Spanish cimarrón, or runaway.
Largely conducted out of sight of Europeans, the complex interplay between black and red is a hidden drama that historians and archaeologists have only recently begun to unravel. Nowhere is the presence of this lost chapter more in evidence than in Brazil, where thousands of maroon communities are emerging from the shadows, reaffirming their mixed culture and pressing for legal title to the land they have occupied since the era of slavery. The stakes are high: New laws are giving Brazil’s maroon communities, called quilombos (the word for “settlement” in the Angolan language of Kimbundu), a key role in determining the future of the great Amazon forest.
Macaws screech overhead as the little boat motors upstream, water hyacinth rocking in its wake. The vessel is traveling through the lower Amazon Basin, riding from the mouth of the great river along a tributary to the hamlet of Baixo Bujaru. The village in the northern state of Pará has changed surprisingly little since the 18th century, when it was established by slaves who had escaped from their Portuguese masters. Little more than a school and a community building surrounded by airy wooden houses, it has no electricity, running water, or medical care and is accessible only by boat. Multiple hands pull in the boat as it approaches the main dock. Waiting are almost a hundred people who have come to meet the visiting medical team: a doctor, dentist, nurse, nurse-practitioner—and two beauticians. “Is it true that in other countries you don’t get a facial and your dreads done with your Pap smear?” the pilot asks. “Brazil is a civilized nation!”
During centuries of slavery roughly five million African captives were brought to Brazil. Almost as soon as they were put to work, the slaves began slipping out of their masters’ control, creating fugitive worlds in the country’s interior. Protected by a labyrinth of rivers and impenetrable forest, these illicit settlements endured for decades, even centuries.
Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, the last nation in the hemisphere to do so. But the end of slavery did not mean an end to discrimination. Tucked into remote pockets, Brazil’s maroon people, known as Quilombolas, continued to conceal themselves, staying so far from official sight that by the middle of the past century most policymakers believed they no longer existed. In the 1960s Brazil’s military rulers decided to open up the Amazon Basin—it was, they argued, the nation’s destiny. Land speculators poured in, feeding a classic real estate bubble. Hoping for quick money, they put huge areas to the ax, planted grass for ranches, and looked for the next buyer. Any people found on the property were deemed to be squatters and driven out, often at gunpoint. Countless quilombos were erased. But many managed to survive, Baixo Bujaru among them.
In the waiting crowd in Baixo Bujaru was Bettina dos Santos, the pilot’s mother, born about 70 years ago in a house 45 minutes upriver. In those days there was no school. Nor were there any legal protections when the generals sliced Baixo Bujaru into ranches and sold them to politically connected investors. Armed men cut down maroon forests and placed cattle on the denuded results. With the local church, dos Santos says, she helped organize protests. “But we couldn’t stop it—they had too many guns.”
In the 1980s geologists discovered valuable bauxite (aluminum ore) and kaolin (a fine clay used to coat paper) in the next watershed over, also occupied by Quilombolas. Once more the state freely distributed their land, licensing it to mining companies. “So again we let them know we were here,” she says. This time they were successful. In March 2008 Baixo Bujaru and its neighbors gained title to their land.
By U.S. standards, dos Santos’s living room is bare: a small table with family photos, a bookcase against one wall. Yet the woman who grew up with no access to medical care is now visited by a boatload of doctors and beauticians every few months. Dos Santos could not attend school and risked her life to protest deforestation. Now her daughter is studying for her Ph.D.; her son works for a farmers association. Smiling proudly from photographs, they are living testaments to the way Quilombolas have moved from invisibility to citizenship.
The Atlantic slave trade was a massive enterprise with tentacles that reached everywhere in the Americas, from Boston to Buenos Aires. But its center was the Portuguese colony of Brazil: For every African who landed in British North America, 12 arrived in Brazil, most of them destined for gold mines and sugar plantations, brutal work that killed a third to a half of them within five years. Sugar harvesting required hacking down hard, sticky, bamboo-like cane stalks in the baking sun; sugar processing involved boiling away the juice in smoking cauldrons. Little wonder the slaves quickly made for the exits, creating the most renowned quilombo of all: Palmares, which at its height in the mid-17th century held sway over 10,000 square miles in the north coastal mountains.
The founder of this maroon nation was said to be Aqualtune, an Angolan princess and general enslaved in a Congolese war in about 1605. Soon after arriving in Brazil, the pregnant Aqualtune escaped with some of her soldiers and fled to the Serra da Barriga, a series of abrupt basaltic extrusions that dominate the coastal plain like a line of watchtowers. On one high crest was a pool of water sheltered by trees, with an indigenous community living around it. Here, according to legend, Aqualtune built Palmares.
Today Palmares is a national park in the state of Alagoas reached only by a rutted, muddy, unmarked road that can easily rip out a car’s oil pan. A plaque by the high-crest pond recounts Aqualtune’s story—to the distress of historians, because nobody knows how much of it is true. What researchers do know is that the quilombo’s dozen villages became a haven for as many as 30,000 Africans and Indians, as well as a few renegade Europeans. It had roughly as many inhabitants at the time as all of British North America. By the 1630s, Aqualtune’s son, Ganga Zumba, ruled Palmares from a palace with rich decorations, lavish feasts, and cringing minions.
Ganga Zumba’s subjects used African-style forges to make metal plows and scythes for use in Indian-style mixed fields of corn, rice, and manioc and agricultural forests of palm and breadfruit. Around the settlements were protective palisades, pits filled with deadly stakes, and paths lined with lacerating caltrops. If attackers struck an outlying village, its people fled to the high outcrops, where fertile soils and artesian water made it possible to outlast any siege.
Lisbon saw Palmares as a direct challenge to its colonial state. Not only did maroon troops raid Portuguese settlements; they also blocked further European expansion into the interior. Enraged and fearful, Portugal launched more than 20 attacks on Palmares, always unsuccessfully. But the constant strife wearied Ganga Zumba, who agreed in 1678 to stop accepting new fugitives and move out of the mountains. Rejecting what he viewed as a betrayal, Ganga Zumba’s nephew Zumbi poisoned his uncle and tore up the treaty. In reprisal, colonial forces assaulted the Serra da Barriga year after year. The Portuguese finally destroyed Palmares after a terrible siege in 1694, killing hundreds of its residents. The quilombo was never rebuilt, but Zumbi and Palmares remained a symbol of resistance.
At first glance, the surviving quilombos look like other poor Brazilian villages. But most retain cultural elements of their residents’ African homeland, mixed with European and native traditions. Brazil has a host of hybrid spiritual regimes—candomblé, umbanda, macumba, terecô—in which Afro-Brazilians dance, drum, and practice the dancing martial art of capoeira. In their isolation, quilombos built pageants and festivals atop these spiritual traditions, tying communities together with the supple bonds of shared memory. Across Brazil’s north and northeast quilombos celebrate Bumba-Meu-Boi, a festival that satirically retells the tale of slaves escaping their fate with the help of Brazil’s original inhabitants. The struggle for freedom is revisited even more overtly in the ritual dance of Lambe-Sujos, in which “runaway slaves,” many covered head to foot in shimmering black oil, suck on baby pacifiers, symbolizing the cruel circular plugs strapped into the mouths of recalcitrant slaves. Clinging together in a spirit of resistance, the Quilombolas are celebrating their history even as they preserve it.