Zumbi (1655 - November 20, 1695, pronounced: "Zoom-bee") was the last of the leaders of Quilombo dos Palmares, in the present-day state of Alagoas, Brazil. The quilombo was a refuge of runaway slaves.
Quilombo dos Palmares was a self-sustaining republic of fugitive slaves escaped from the Portuguese settlements in Brazil, "a region perhaps the size of Portugal in the hinterland of Bahia" (Braudel 1984 p 390). At its height, Palmares had a population of over 30,000.
Forced to defend against repeated attacks by both Dutch and Portuguese colonial powers, the warriors of Palmares were expert in capoeira, a martial arts form developed in Brazil by African slaves in the 1500s.
An African known only as Zumbi was born free in Palmares in 1655, but was captured by the Portuguese and given to a missionary, Father Antonio Melo when he was approximately 6 years old. Baptized Francisco, Zumbi was taught the sacraments, learned Portuguese and Latin, and helped with daily mass. Despite attempts to "civilize" him, Zumbi escaped in 1670 and, at the age of 15, returned to his birthplace. Zumbi became known for his physical prowess and cunning in battle and was a respected military strategist by the time he was in his early twenties.
By 1678, the governor of the captaincy of Pernambuco, Pedro Almeida, weary of the longstanding conflict with Palmares, approached its leader Ganga Zumba with an olive branch. Almeida offered freedom for all runaway slaves if Palmares would submit to Portuguese authority, a proposal which Ganga Zumba favored. But Zumbi was distrustful of the Portuguese. Further, he refused to accept freedom for the people of Palmares while other Africans remained enslaved. He rejected Almeida's overture and challenged Ganga Zumba's leadership. Vowing to continue the resistance to Portuguese oppression, Zumbi became the new leader of Palmares.
Fifteen years after Zumbi assumed leadership of Palmares, Portuguese military commanders Domingos Jorge Velho and Vieira de Mello mounted an artillery assault on the quilombo. February 6, 1694, after 67 years of ceaseless conflict with the cafuzos, or Maroons, of Palmares, the Portuguese succeeded in destroying Cerca do Macaco, the republic's central settlement. Palmares was destroyed and Zumbi wounded. Though he survived and managed to elude the Portuguese, Zumbi later was betrayed and captured. He was beheaded November 20, 1695. The Portuguese transported Zumbi's head to Recife, where it was displayed in a public plaza as proof that, contrary to popular legend among African slaves, Zumbi was not immortal.
Today, November 20 is celebrated, chiefly in Rio de Janeiro, as a day of national pride. The day has special meaning for Afro-Brazilians, who honor Zumbi as a hero, freedom fighter and a symbol of freedom.
Braudel, Fernand, The Perspective of the World, vol. III of Civilization and Capitalism 1984 (in French 1979).
Last updated: 05-18-2005 18:19:12