Quilombo, The Movie and the Maroon Within Us


Synopsis of the film:
Quilombo, Carlos Diegues’ historical saga, is a stirring fusion of folklore, political impact, and dynamic storytelling, realized in vibrant tropical colors and set to pulsating beat of Gilberto Gil’s rhythmic musical score.The story derives from fact: in 17th-century Brazil, groups of runaway black slaves escaped to mountainous jungle strongholds, where they formed liberated self-governing communities known as Quilombos. Like the movie roots, this film chronicles Palmares, the most famous of these “black Eldorado’s” which flourished for several decades under the reign of the legendary chieftain Ganga Zumba.

The Quilombos

A quilombo (from the Kimbundu word kilombo) is a Brazilian hinterland settlement founded by Quilombolas, or Maroons and, in some cases, a minority of marginalised Portuguese, Brazilian aboriginals, Jews and Arabs, and/or other non-black, non-slave Brazilians that faced oppression during colonization. Quilombos was in fact a group of African fugitive slaves and their descendents.

Some of these settlements were near Portuguese settlements and active both in defending against capitães do mato commissioned to recapture slaves and in facilitating the escape of even more slaves. For this reason, they were targets of the Dutch, then Portuguese colonial authorities and, later, of the Brazilian state and slaveowners. Some quilombos that were farther from Portuguese settlements and the later Brazilian cities were tolerated and still exist as towns today, with inhabitants speaking distinctly African-Portuguese Creole languages. In the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America, such a settlement is called a palenque and its inhabitants are palenqueros who speak various Spanish-African-based creole languages.

It is widely believed that the term quilombo establishes a link between Palmares (see later) and the culture of central Angola where the majority of slaves were forcibly brought to Brazil, because, during the time of the slave trafficking, natives in central Angola, called Imbangala, had created an institution called a kilombo that united various tribes of diverse lineage into a community designed for military resistance during that time of upheaval. However, the documentation on Palmares typically uses the term mocambo to describe the settlements, and quilombo was not used until the 1670s and then primarily in more southerly parts of Brazil.

The most famous of the quilombos was Palmares, an independent, self-sustaining republic near Recife, established in about 1600. Part of the reason for the massive size of the quilombo at Palmares was because of its location in Brazil, which was at the median point between the Atlantic Ocean and Guinea, an important area of the African slave trade. At its height, Palmares was massive and consisted of several settlements with a combined population of over 30,000 renegades, mostly blacks. Ganga Zumba and Zumbi are the two most well known warrior-leaders of Palmares which, after a history of conflict with, first, Dutch and then Portuguese colonial authorities, finally fell to a Portuguese artillery assault in 1694.

In Brazil, both men are honored as heroes and symbols of black pride, freedom and democracy to this day. Zumbi’s execution date (as his birthday is unknown), November 20, is acknowledged as the National Day of the Black Conscience and he has appeared in postage stamps, banknotes and coins.

The Brazilian 1988 constitution granted the remaining quilombos the collective ownership of the lands they have occupied since colonial times, thus recognizing their distinct identity at the same level of the Indians.

In the Spanish dialect of the River Plate, the word quilombo has come to mean brothel, and later big mess. In Venezuelan Spanish, it means boondocks

A 1984 film titled Quilombo depicts the rise and fall of Palmares. Directed by Carlos Diegues, Quilombo is a mystical, yet mostly accurate, historical epic that chronicles the lives of Ganga Zumba and Zumbi.
The Maroons

Ndyuka Maroon

A Maroon (from the word marronage or American/Spanish cimarrón: “fugitive, runaway”, lit. “living on mountaintops”; from Spanish cima: “top, summit”) was a runaway slave in the West Indies, Central America, South America, or North America. Maroon populations are found in Jamaica, Amazon River Basin to the American states of Florida and North Carolina.

In the New World, as early as 1512, black slaves had escaped from Spanish and Portuguese owners and either joined indigenous peoples or eked out a living on their own. Sir Francis Drake enlisted several ‘cimaroons’ during his raids on the Spanish. As early as 1655 runaway slaves had formed their own communities in inland Jamaica.

Ndyuka Maroon women with washing. Suriname River. 1955

Ndyuka Maroon women with washing. Suriname River. 1955

When runaway slaves banded together and subsisted independently they were called Maroons. On the Caribbean Islands runaway slaves formed bands and on some islands formed armed camps. Maroon communities faced great odds to survive against white attackers, obtain food for subsistence living, and to reproduce and increase their numbers. As the planters took over more land for crops, the Maroons began to vanish on the small islands. Only on some of the larger islands were organized Maroon communities able to thrive by growing crops and hunting. Here they grew in number as more slaves escaped from plantations and joined their bands. Seeking to separate themselves from whites, the Maroons gained in power and amid increasing hostilities, they raided and pillaged plantations and harassed planters until the planters began to fear a mass slave revolt
The early Maroon communities were usually displaced. By 1700, Maroons had disappeared from the smaller islands. Survival was always difficult as the Maroons had to fight off attackers as well as attempt to grow food. One of the most influential Maroons was François Mackandal, a houngan, or voodoo priest, who led a six year rebellion against the white plantation owners in Haiti that preceded the Haitian Revolution.

In Cuba, there were maroon communities in the mountains, where escaped slaves had joined refugee Taínos. Before roads were built into the mountains of Puerto Rico, heavy brush kept many escaped maroons hidden in the southwestern hills where many also intermarried with the Natives. Escaped Africans sought refuge away from the coastal plantations of Ponce. Remnants of these communities remain to this day (2006) for example in Viñales, Cuba and Adjuntas, Puerto Rico.

Maroon communities emerged in many places in the Caribbean (St Vincent and Dominica for example), but none were seen as such a great threat to the British as the Jamaican Maroons.A British governor signed a treaty promising the Maroons 2500 acres (10 km²) in two locations, because they presented a threat to the British. Also, some Maroons kept their freedom by agreeing to capture runaway slaves. They were paid two dollars for each slave returned.

Beginning in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Jamaican Maroons fought British colonists to a draw and eventually signed treaties in the 18th century that effectively freed them over 50 years before the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. To this day, the Jamaican Maroons are to a significant extent autonomous and separate from Jamaican society. The physical isolation used to their advantage by their ancestors has today led to their communities remaining amongst the most inaccessible on the island. In their largest town, Accompong, in the parish of St. Elizabeth, the Leeward Maroons still possess a vibrant community of about 600. Tours of the village are offered to foreigners and a large festival is put on every January 6 to commemorate the signing of the peace treaty with the British after the First Maroon War.


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