Slaves Resist Europeans at Palmares Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

For much of the seventeenth century, African slaves who fled from the sugar plantations along the coast of northeast Brazil journeyed to Palmares, a multiracial and multiethnic community built by former slaves. Although Dutch and Portuguese slaveholders mounted numerous well-armed attacks, the inhabitants of Palmares bravely resisted for nearly a century.

Summary of Event

In the second half of the sixteenth century, Portuguese settlers in Brazil began to plant and process sugarcane, and by the early seventeenth century, northeast Brazil supplied most of Europe’s sugar. In order to staff the plantations, the Portuguese expanded the slave trade from Africa. As sugar production increased, so did the numbers of Africans brought in bondage to Brazil. Plantation system;Brazil Slavery;Brazil [kw]Slaves Resist Europeans at Palmares (1630’-1694) [kw]Palmares, Slaves Resist Europeans at (1630’-1694) [kw]Europeans at Palmares, Slaves Resist (1630’-1694) Government and politics;1630’-1694: Slaves Resist Europeans at Palmares[1080] Social issues and reform;1630’-1694: Slaves Resist Europeans at Palmares[1080] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1630’-1694: Slaves Resist Europeans at Palmares[1080] South America;1630’-1694: Slaves Resist Europeans at Palmares[1080] Brazil;1630’-1694: Slaves Resist Europeans at Palmares[1080] Palmares rebellion (c. 1600-1694) Slavery;Palmares rebellion

Life on the sugarcane plantations was brutal for slaves, who often worked sixteen-hour days, toiling in the fields. Working in the boiling rooms where the juice of the cane was transformed into sugar was not much better: The heat generated by the copper cauldrons in which the cane syrup was boiled was so intense the experience was compared to life in hell. Not surprisingly, slaves fled the plantations. Finding it impossible to make their way back to Africa, they established communities in the interior of Brazil, where they re-created, as much as possible, the life they had known before being brought to Brazil and enslaved. Slaves on Brazilian sugarcane plantations came from many different regions in West Africa. Thus, runaway communities saw a variety of blended African customs and traditions. Because African women were always in short “supply” (Brazilian planters preferred to purchase men for the hard labor on sugar plantations), runaway slaves often formed families with indigenous and mixed-race women. Thus, these communities became multiracial and multiethnic, combining a variety of African, indigenous, and European ways.

Africans clearly despised life on sugar plantations, but Europeans coveted the wealth generated by the Portuguese. In 1624, a Dutch naval expedition attacked the Brazilian capital city of Salvador, hoping to take over control of both the production and the supply of sugar. Repulsed by the Portuguese settlers in 1625, the Dutch struck again in 1630, this time farther north, successfully taking the cities of Recife and Olinda in the captaincy of Pernambuco. For twenty-four years, the Dutch remained in possession of this rich sugar area in northeast Brazil. The Portuguese did what they could to expel them.

African slaves took full advantage of the fighting between the Portuguese and the Dutch in Pernambuco. Between 1630 and 1654, the largest runaway slave community in Brazilian history expanded to become a thriving alternative to colonial society. By the 1650’, Palmares included eleven villages, the largest of which was home to eight thousand people living in fifteen hundred households. Palmares at that time had a total population of between twenty thousand and thirty thousand.

By all accounts, Palmares was much more than a hideout for runaway slaves. It was a thriving community organized in a fair and representative manner (the chief was elected by a council of warriors). Because those who lived in Palmares were not interested in supplying the European market, they used their rich soil to plant food such as manioc, maize, and many varieties of fruits and vegetables. This bountiful production nourished healthy inhabitants, while Palmares’s leaders trained security forces to protect the community from outside attack. Their crops produced such an abundance that palmarinos engaged in trade with the plantations, supplying food for masters and slaves in return for firearms and other goods they could not produce. When unsuccessful at getting supplies through trade, palmarinos raided plantations and took what they needed. Over time, Palmares became a beacon for the oppressed plantation slaves, an alternative to their life in captivity. As such, the village threatened the control of slave masters and the authority of the Portuguese and Dutch colonial states.

The Dutch sent several expeditions to destroy Palmares, yet none succeeded, and the expulsion of the Dutch in 1654 encouraged the Portuguese to turn military attention against Palmares as well. In a 1655 raid, the Portuguese captured some of the children born in Palmares, including an infant who would later become the greatest leader of Palmares, the warrior Zumbi Zumbi . This child was taken in and raised by a priest, who gave him the Christian name Francisco. He was taught to read and write both in Portuguese and in Latin. Apparently, Francisco was treated well by his foster father, for many years later, once back in Palmares, Zumbi sent the priest gifts on several occasions. Despite a more pleasant life than that of most slaves, once he became a teenager, he decided to cast his lot with the palmarinos. In 1670, he returned to Palmares and took the name Zumbi. He proved to be an exceptional warrior, rising quickly to become one of Palmares’s most accomplished generals.

By the time of Zumbi’s return, Palmares had become an armed encampment. Portuguese attempts to destroy the community had intensified; authorities were even encouraging bandeirantes, Bandeirantes mixed-race individuals who hunted the indigenous for enslavement in the south of Brazil, to come north with their men and help eliminate the “black republic.”

In 1678, following a costly Portuguese raid, the elected leader of Palmares, Ganga Zumba Ganga Zumba , negotiated a peace settlement with Portuguese authorities. In return for guarantees of land for himself and for his followers who had never been slaves, he agreed that slaves taken from plantations would be returned to their owners. Many in Palmares thought he was foolish to trust the white men, and some believed that turning over any black man to a slave master was betrayal. Zumbi, who helped to organize resistance to Ganga Zumba, eventually became the leader of the faction that chose to continue to defend Palmares.

Although Ganga Zumba was given land, he and his followers soon discovered they were not free from raids by settlers searching for new slaves. Blacks living in the community continued to be viewed as potential slaves. Not long after leaving Palmares, Ganga Zumba was poisoned (possibly on Zumbi’s orders), and he died. It became clear to palmarinos that any negotiation with the whites would lead only to disaster. Peace was no longer an option. As the state mounted a number of attacks on Palmares, the former slaves dug in and resisted. They repulsed at least fourteen well-organized military attacks as they struggled to maintain their vision of an alternative way of life for black men and women in Brazil.

In the 1680’, a notorious bandeirante, Domingos Jorge Velho, Velho, Domingos Jorge was invited to bring his men and reinforce local government troops in a concerted attack on Palmares. When he and his men arrived in 1693, they mounted a serious challenge to Palmares. After a number of unsuccessful attempts, the five thousand troops took Macaco, the capital of Palmares. Zumbi escaped and began to regroup. One of the captured palmarinos under torture agreed, however, to take the troops to Zumbi. Thus, betrayed by a friend, he was captured and killed on November 20, 1695. Permanently destroyed was his free community where Africans, indigenous, and mulattoes (mixed race) worked for their own well-being.


Palmares has become the ultimate symbol of black resistance in Brazil. Those who lived in Palmares created a viable alternative to a colonial system that abused Africans and Amerindians in order to supply agricultural commodities to the European market. At Palmares, African slaves organized their own government and forged a more equitable economic system than the one established by Europeans. In the face of numerous attacks, the inhabitants of Palmares organized armies and held back the raids of Europeans for almost a century. Their last leader, the great Zumbi, refused to believe the false promises of the Europeans and died rather than betray his people. In the twenty-first century, the slaves who escaped to Palmares continue to provide Brazilians with proud examples of the capacity of Africans and their descendants to engage in a noble struggle against racism and economic oppression.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Robert Nelson. “The Quilombo of Palmares: A New Overview of a Maroon State in Seventeenth-Century Brazil.” Journal of Latin American Studies 28, no. 3 (October, 1996): 545-566. Focusing on rigorous translations of documents by contemporary observers describing Palmares, this article examines the mixture of African, indigenous, and Portuguese influences on that community. It raises the possibility that, had Zumbi not led an opposition movement to Ganga Zumba, the peace treaty might have established an enduring settlement of free blacks in northeast Brazil.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Diggs, Irene. “Zumbi and the Republic of Os Palmares.” Phylon 14, no. 1 (1953): 62-70. An early overview in English of the history of Palmares.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Karasch, Mary. “Zumbi of Palmares: Challenging the Portuguese Colonial Order.” In The Human Tradition in Colonial Latin America, edited by Kenneth J. Andrien. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2002. An excellent account of the life of Zumbi and of the challenge Palmares posed to Portuguese colonial government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kent, R. K. “Palmares: An African State in Brazil.” Journal of African History 6 (1965): 161-175. The classic account in English of the development and destruction of Palmares.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nascimento, Abdias do. “Sortilege II: Zumbi Returns.” In Crosswinds: An Anthology of Black Dramatists in the Diaspora, edited by William B. Branch. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. This play by one of Brazil’s leading black dramatists illustrates the enduring appeal of Zumbi and Palmares.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

António Vieira. Palmares rebellion (c. 1600-1694) Slavery;Palmares rebellion

Categories: History