Monday, November 20, 2006

November 20

ZUMBIOn this date in 1695, Zumbi -- perhaps the greatest of the Afro-Brazilian folk heroes -- was captured and beheaded by Portugese forces, bringing a conclusion to nearly 70 years of resistance from the maroon community of Palmares.

Located in an inaccessible region of Northeastern Brazil, tucked behind the mountains that divided the coastal settlements from the continental interior, the quilombo of Palmares had drawn tens of thousands of fugitive Angolans during the 17th century. Enslaved by the Portugese, the Angolans fled the sugar plantations and established one of the largest settlements in the Western hemisphere. In some accounts, Palmares is known as "Angola Janga" or -- as mistranslated by the Portugese -- "Little Angola," although with as many as 30,000 inhabitants by 1650, there was nothing little about Palmares. Its large population and substantial economic power in the region immunized it against Portugese conquest for decades.

Throughout the 17th century, the Portugese periodically assembled war parties to move against Palmares. While they occasionally captured several hundred maroons, they were never able to conquer the quilombo and endured countless reprisals that killed hundreds and disrupted the plantation economy be encouraging further slave defections. Nevertheless, the Portugese assaults exacted a toll on Palmares, and by the late 1670s the "king," Ganga Zumba, reached an accord with his people's antagonists -- in exchange for accepting Portugese authority and rendering recent fugitives to the Europeans for re-enslavement, the people of Palmares would be offered amnesty and their freedom.

Zumbi, a young Angolan born in Palmares around 1655, rejected the overture and assembled a resistance movement that bedeviled the Portugese for over fifteen years. After Ganga Zumba's timely and somewhat suspicious death in 1680, Zumbi -- who had served as a commander of war under Ganga Zumba -- assumed the leadership of Palmares. War with the Portugese swiftly resumed.

In 1692, an irregular force led by the Indian fighter and slave catcher Domingos Velho was commissioned to bring Palmares into submission. Within two years, Velho's forces had laid seige to the quilombo and destroyed it. Zumbi escaped the final battle of this campaign in February 1694, when hundreds of his fighters were captured and hundreds more killed at his royal compound of Cerca do Macaco. By November 1695, however, his fortune came to an end when he was betrayed by a fellow fighter and taken captive by the Portugese, who beheaded him on the spot.

Lofting his head to the coastal town of Recife, the Portugese displayed it in the central plaza as proof of Zumbi's mortality.