The Concept of Quilombo and Black Cultural Resistance
- To outline the pre-diasporic history of Quilombo as an African institution of Angolan origin.
- To describe the connotations of this institution in the colonial and imperial periods in Brazil.
- To delineate the role of the institution of Quilombo in how ideological principles become cultural resistance.
- To historicize the ideology within the Black consciousness movement and Brazilian society in the twentieth century.
The Western world constructed an image of Africa as an isolated and strange continent, where history began with the arrival of Europeans. The History of Black people, like that of the territory they came from, is only allowed to exist in the context of the major events in Western civilization. This is a serious failure historians risk rupturing the identity of Black people and their descendants, both in relation to their African past and to their historical role in the countries they were forcibly relocated to during the slave trade.
In the long, hard struggle to defend personal and historical identities, Black people’s resistance has taken many forms. We could make a long list of such social and political movements in Brazil. One, the Quilombo (or Kilombo), is the object of my study. It is a key milestone in the history of our people’s capacity for resistance and organization. All these forms of resistance can be understood as the history of Black people in Brazil.
Quilombo as an African Institution
Unlike other Europeans, the Portuguese settled on the African continent and established a colony in Angola. Two initial incentives led them to do so: the first was to repeat what they had done in Brazil, to acquire lands and establish a colony. The second, soon frustrated, was to find precious minerals. As early as the fifteenth century, Europeans discovered that the trade in enslaved people was the true source of wealth. Brazil became the major recipient of such ‘merchandise’ in the middle of the sixteenth century. As demand grew, penetration into the African interior intensified, often coordinated by the King of the Congo, who aided and abetted the Portuguese attacks. The preferred ‘hunting ground’ was the ethnic region of Mbundu in the south of Angola. It was in the seventeenth century that the Portuguese definitively settled on the trade in humans, more than any other activity, as the best way to serve colonial interests. Three principal methods proved effective. The first was using traffickers, who purchased captives in far-flung markets along the borders of Congo and Angola. The Mbundu people, located near Lake Stanley, famously called these traffickers pombeiros. The second method was to impose tribute on conquered Mbundu chiefs, to be paid in young adult captives known as peça da Índia [a piece of India]. The third method was to take captives directly through war. For the Portuguese governors, this last method was most appealing; many had interests in Brazil and needed to supply captives for their own lands there.
When they arrived on the African continent, the Europeans found many forms of societies. Indeed, in that period, these societies were undergoing processes of redefinition, with the emergence of state forms in some places. In the Kingdom of the Congo, these clashed with traditional structures such as the lineage-based mode of production of the Mbundu. David Birmingham gives a full account of the conflicts within Bantu societies of central West Africa at the moment of the Portuguese incursion.
Whether succumbing to the new conjuncture or resisting European invasion, many ethnic groups overlapped in the same spaces and came into conflict with each other. Among them were the Imbangalas (also known as the Jagas). They were hunter-gatherers who came from the east. Around 1560 they invaded the Kingdom of Congo, and by 1569, succeeded in expelling the king and the Portuguese from the capital, forcing them to hide on an island in the river. Thanks to their access to firearms, Europeans forced these belligerent peoples to retreat between 1571 and 1574.
Ten years later, the Imbangalas fought alongside the Mbundu against Portuguese incursion. Their entry into Mbundu territory, however, was preceded by a fierce struggle between the Mbundu leader, Ngola, and Kingui, leader of the Imbangala. The Imbangala, who dominated Angola, were considered particularly fearsome. They did not raise livestock or plant crops and lived entirely from pillage. They did not raise children, unlike other ethnic groups, in order to avoid the disruption of their nomadic lifestyle. They killed their children at birth and adopted the youth of the groups that they defeated. They were anthropophagic, and ornaments, tattooing, and palm wine held special cultural significance for them.
The Imbangala’s nomadic character and the specificities of their social formation can be seen in the institution of the Kilombo. The warlike Imbangala society was open to initiated foreigners. Given the adoptions of youth from other groups and distance from their own children, initiation replaced rites of passage as practised by lineage-based systems. The Imbangalas had an important role in this period of Angolan history, often resisting the Portuguese and controlling vast regions from which captives were taken. The Kilombo disrupted lineage structures and, in the face of other institutions in Angola, established a new centrality of power.
Initiation rites were based on the practice of circumcision, by which young people of different lineages were incorporated into one warrior society. Here is how the Kilombo obtained its meaning. Individuals would become Kilombo once they incorporated themselves into Imbangala society. Kilombo also meant the territory or field of struggle, the jaga and the sacred place where initiation rites took place. When some Imbangalas were involved in trading enslaved people with the Portuguese, the encampment of escaped slaves was referred to as Kilombo, and so were nineteenth century Angolan trading caravans.
The trade of enslaved people brought Brazil and Angola into close relation, so it is not hard to connect the history of this institution in Africa (Angola) and Brazil. The difficulty is to establish direct lines of contact, such as Quilombos in Brazil which had territorial or ethnic origins in Angola or members of Quilombos in Brazil who were direct descendants of members of Kilombos in Africa, as well as direct links between the struggles of quilombos in Brazil and those on the other side of the Atlantic.
Quilombo as an Institution in the Colonial and Imperial Periods in Brazil
The first reference to a Quilombo in an official Portuguese document appears in 1559. After the wars in the Northeast of Brazil in the seventeenth century—including the destruction of the Quilombo of Palmares and its consequences—pockets of Black populations re-emerged living free from colonial rule. This re-emergence frightened the Portuguese authorities. In a document dated 2 December 1740, they provided their own definition of what Quilombo meant: ‘all habitations of Black fugitives in groups of more than five, even if destitute or lacking buildings, tools, or cultivation’. Among the Brazilian Quilombos of the seventeenth century, the great state of Palmares was beyond comparison.
Its dismantling was a seminal moment in the history of Brazil. The historical evidence suggests that the spread of Quilombos at the time was directly related to it.
The dates of these events are noteworthy. The Quilombo of Palmares paralleled events in Angola in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Indeed, Palmares is perhaps the only Quilombo through which we can directly associate the Kilombo as an Angolan institution with the Quilombo of colonial Brazil. Jaga resistance peaked between 1584 and the middle of the next century, after which the group allied itself with the Portuguese slave trade. At that very moment, Angola-Janga was being built: the Quilombo known as Palmares in Brazil.
Palmares was linked to Angola in other ways. Firstly, the name of its African leader Ganga Zumba recalls the title of the Imbangala King, Gaga. Secondly, records of the hair-piece worn by Ganga Zumba in Recife during the Palmarino truce recall the Imbangala king Calando, who adorned his long braids with shells as sign of authority. Thirdly, there is a correspondance in modes of warfare by opposing probable enemies on multiple fronts. Just as the Angolan Kilombo cut through the vertical power structures of the lineage-based system and established a new centre of power in relation to other institutions, Palmares too, made a horizontal cut through the colonial regime and confronted it with a new kind of centrality. Palmares was, after all, also known as Angola-Janga in Brazil.
The name of the colonial territory ‘Angola’ is derived from the Mbundu king N’gola, who passed it on to his many descendants and successors. It is very possible that some members of this African dynasty were transported to Brazil during the trade in enslaved people and indeed became leaders of the resistance movement. The surname Janga is a variation of Jaga, and probably demonstrates that these two lineages—the N’gola and the Jaga—were linked in the leadership of the Quilombo of Palmares. Both names connect Palmares to Mbundu territories in Angola.
The Quilombo of Palmares allows us to assess the extent of interaction between Brazil and Angola at the time. Other quilombos, though, distanced themselves from the African model. They adapted according to their needs inside Brazilian territory. But the historiographical task of studying Quilombos in Brazil and analysing them according to their form and structure across time remains unfulfilled. In general, Quilombos are described throughout history as if they were African villages where the Black populations took refuge to pine after their motherland.
In the colonial period, Quilombos were characterized by the formation of large States, such as that of Comarca in the Rio das Mortes, Minas Gerais, dismantled in 1750. Like Palmares, Cormaca responded to the structural conditions of economic ‘cycles’ in Brazil; from sugar in Pernambuco to gold in Minas Gerais.
From this perspective, it is possible to describe Quilombos as alternative social systems, or in the words of Ciro Flamarion: breaches in the slavocratic system. An important and controversial element is to account for the position of large Quilombos precisely in relation to the regime of enslavement. The African is no more a ‘good savage’ than Africa is a strange paradise.
Enslavement was known and implemented since African antiquity, however, what it lacked was colonial enslavement’s proprietary quality. A free person could end up enslaved in many ways; through war, political instability, being born to an enslaved person, as punishment for infringing group norms, or in response to internal threats that led individuals to seek protection from other lineages (so-called voluntary enslavement). This final instance is relevant to the Quilombo as an institution formed by people who had either been subject to, or threatened by, colonial enslavement. Quilombo, as a social group founded in extraordinary conditions, bore the mark of enslavement within it.
The great Quilombos were spatially and temporally linked to the social system of enslavement. They could not be entirely economically isolated from it. For instance, their interaction with the slavocratic system can be seen in Ganga-Zumba’s willingness to incorporate Palmarinos as colonial captives with the treaty of Recife. It’s important to remember that upon joining the Quilombo, people who had been enslaved under the colonial system often put themselves in the position of ‘voluntary enslavement’.
Nevertheless, the quilombos of the seventeenth century were distinctive as groups and ethnicities that posed a threat to the colonial system in particular territories and economies. It can be argued that Brazil identified itself as a centralized state for the first time when being faced with the Quilombo. The geographical area, official repression, and ethnic diversity of the Quilombo underwent significant change with the dismantling of Tijuco and Comarco do Rio das Mortes. Ethnic diversity became progressively common due to colonial enslavements policy of mixing peoples of diverse origins. In the eighteenth century, quilombos proliferated across the territory of the colonial captaincies. Unlike large Quilombos of the previous century, each institution did not pose a threat to the system on their own. If the seventeenth century Quilombo was a wholesale breach in the slavocratic system, these were cracks.
The Quilombo, seen as a singular institution across territorial spaces and historical time, produced instability in the system of slavery while coexisting within it. Changing economic activities in different regions often led to loosening ties between the enslaved and their enslavers. This colonial fragility led to the growth of the practice of escape. It became integral to the structure of Quilombo. Looting, plundering, and banditry were key to the survival of these agglomerations. The Penal Code of 1835 defined Quilombo as a refuge for bandits and distinguished it from other forms of resistance by enslaved people. It was, nevertheless, a threat to the stability and integrity of the Empire. Punishment for being a member of a Quilombo equalled punishment for being part of an insurrection: beheading.
In this period, the Quilombo became associated with the so-called ‘black danger’ of the wars in Bahia and Maranhão. Police suspicions increased. Powerful religious practices developed in some Quilombos, for example in Nossa Senhora dos Mares e Cabula in Salvador. Large quilombos were founded on the slopes and peripheries of important urban centres. In imperial Rio de Janeiro, for instance, there were Quilombos in Catumbi, Corcovado, and Manuoel Congo. Many of these institutions organized themselves within a single ideological framework: flight as a reaction to colonialism. This principle is not only present in literary references, but also in the oral tradition that sprung at the time.
The Quilombo as a Guide towards Ideological Principles
By the end of the nineteenth century, the Quilombo had become an ideological instrument against oppression. Often through abolitionist discourse, its magic nourished the dreams of freedom of thousands of enslaved people on the plantations of São Paulo. The transition of the Quilombo, from an institution into a symbol of resistance, transformed it once again. The emergence of the Quilombo of Jabaquara is the best example. Black fugitives from the plantations of São Paulo migrated to Santos and founded a Quilombo that was declared by the followers of Antonio Bento. This Quilombo became a huge favela. It both frustrated the ideal of a free territory dedicated to African cultural practices and, at the same time, enacted armed resistance against the slavocratic regime.
With the end of the slavocratic regime and an enduring history of resistance, the Quilombo enters the twentieth century primarily as an ideological construction. The aura of the Quilombo continues to nourish the national conscience in its yearning for freedom, precisely because of its legacy as a concrete, free institution existing in parallel to the dominant regime for three centuries. In the wake of the São Paulo Modern Art Week of 1922, the Brazilian publisher Editora Nacional published three books on Quilombo by Nina Rodrigues, Ernesto Enne, and Edison Carneiro. It is also worth referencing the work of Artur Ramos and Guerreiro Ramos, as well as Felício dos Santos in earlier novels.
This key moment in Brazilian national identity elicited intellectual production on Quilombo. Historical reflections emphasized the positive aspects of Quilombo to reinforce a national voice. Interventions included samba lyrics and academic contexts, both showing varying levels of familiarity with popular resistance. Today, Quilombo is remembered as a form of utopian desire. Until 1964, it was common to find the official historical narrative of Quilombos in school textbooks. Even into the 1970s, Quilombo played an ideological role of threading popular resistance and oppression into narratives of Brazilian nationality. It provided material for participative fiction, as seen in the theatrical work of Arena Contra Zumbi. The territory of Palmares came to signify the hope of a fairer Brazil; of liberty, unity, and equality.
The question of heroism, intrinsically connected to the Quilombo, cannot be overlooked in analysing its history. The hero figure, particularly Zumbi, is inescapably central. More than any other element in the history of quilombos, the image of Zumbi retains representational force as part of a new national soul.
Between 1888 and 1970, Black Brazilians could not, with a few exceptions, express their own voices in the struggle for recognition within Brazilian society. Therefore, it is remarkable that expression became possible as the country suffocated in profound repression, of freedom of thought and freedom of assembly. The 1970s were that moment of possibility. Perhaps by virtue of being an extremely oppressed group which did not pose an immediate threat to institutional power, Black people were able to inaugurate a social movement founded on discourses of self-affirmation and recovery of their cultural identity.
It was the rhetoric of quilombo, and the analysis of this alternative system that served as a beacon in the trajectory of this movement. We could call this a national correction. The absence of full citizenship and effective means of reparation, and the fragility of a popular Brazilian consciousness, led to a rejection of the national, and within the movement, to the identification of a heroic past.
Quilombo returned in the 1970s in reaction to cultural colonialism, just as it resisted before against an immediate colonial regime. It reaffirmed African heritage and sought a Brazilian model that fortified ethnic identity. All the literary and oral history of Quilombos helped drive this movement to overhaul hackneyed historical concepts.
In November 1974, Palmares do Rio Grande do Sul, a group including the poet Oliveira Silveira, suggested in the Jornal do Brasil that celebrations should commemorate the 20 November for the murder of Zumbi and fall of the Quilombo of Palmares rather than 13 May, the date of the abolition of slavery. Memorializing an event that emphasized ancestral resistance had a greater positive significance, they argued, than abolition, which was often characterized as handed down from above by the slavocratic and imperial system.
Their suggestion was immediately well received. The search for greater clarity about the history of resistance led to workshops, debates, research, and projects that fed the youth’s longing for liberty through institutions, schools, universities, and media.
Quilombo came to be synonymous with Black people, their conduct, and the hope for a better society. It became an internal and external crux for all forms of cultural resistance. Everything, from attitude to association became ‘Quilombo’ in the search for a greater recognition of Black inheritance. Today, 20 November is enshrined in the national calendar as Black Consciousness Day.
This brief study has sought to put Quilombo into a singular temporal framework. This task has necessarily been descriptive, since the diversity of Quilombo has been previously underplayed. An analytical project is needed to understand the persistence of Quilombo in Brazilian thought and in the collective unconscious of Black people. During its existence, the Quilombo served as a symbol for ethnic and political resistance. As an institution, it retains unique characteristics from its African model. As political practice, it proclaims liberal, emancipatory ideas, which resist the distortions imposed by hegemony at moments of national crisis. For Black people, often figured as docile and subservient, the figure of heroism fortifies everyday struggles against oppression and social inequality.
Quilombo is a powerful tool in the process of recognizing a Black Brazilian identity and in moving towards deeper self-affirmation as Black and Brazilian. Alongside other practices which strengthen cultural identity, the history of Quilombo as an actually existing breach in the system of oppression of Black people offers hope that similar institutions can have a similar effect today.
 David Birmingham, A conquista portuguesa de Angola (Lisbon: Regra do Jogo, 1973).
Translated from Portuguese by Christen Smith, Archie Davies, and Bethânia Gomes
First published in Afrodiaspora 3/6–7 (1985), 41–49.
This text is published in O Quilombismo Reader, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) and Archive Books, Berlin, 2023.