S03 E01 Quilombo dos Palmeras episode transcript
Updated: Jul 7
This is the transcript for our Quilombo dos Palmeras episode.
In countries that don't exist anymore we've covered plenty of states that used or relied on slavery, but we don't often talk that much about slavery. Partly because slaves often aren’t always integral to the story of a country.
Except for Mercia, Willoughbyland, Sparta, Carthage, Aksumite Empire, Sultanate of Rum…
Yes, except for them.
And partly because even we can fall into the usual historical trap of only focusing on the well-documented powerful.
But the main reason is because we're a podcast about countries from history. And slaves don't usually have their own countries.
What about Liberia?
Ah, but that’s a country that exists. What this show is about is...
And because this story is about freeing slaves, it’s only fitting that Phil should read the script.
Nice! Wait a minute. Isn’t this a story about slaves liberating themselves from brutal oppressors?
Right. So it’s not up to you to hand me script-reading duties like you’re my colonial saviour.
Do you want to read it or not?
Yes. But only because I heroically choose to. I’m the new Ed around here, and you’re Phil, Ed.
Oh… not Phil.
Fine. Then I get to be the shouty guy who asks the questions. Uh hum.
What was the Quilombo dos Palmeras?
A runaway slave state near Recife (rehseefei) in Brazil. Or rather a state founded by runaway slaves and operating to free more slaves from the horrifying Portuguese and Dutch sugar plantations.
But what's a Quilombo?
A federation of settlements or mocambos. Mocambo was the African name for a hideout - sometimes fortified with wooden palisades and bristling with traps. So a quilombo was a collection of settlements working together - but is often translated as a war camp - which makes sense since its inhabitants were almost always on a war footing.
Palm trees. // These settlements were clearings deep in the rainforest.
Disk operating system. First used on IBM...
In this context?
[dp] Portuguese for “from”.
Right. I'm with you now. So, Quilomo dos Palmeras means Warcamp from Palm trees?
And how long did this whatever it was last?
From 1606 to 1694.
And how many people lived there?
While it's difficult to get an exact number, or in fact any reliable information, the population at its height was as large as 20,000 people. // This wasn't the only Quilombo around, but it was certainly one of the most important.
And were they all ex-slaves?
No, while it was true that the Quilombo dos Palmares was dominated by ex-slaves, it also attracted people who felt they simply didn’t belong in colonial society. But it’s also true that the majority were ex-slaves.
But they all freed each other, right?
Yeah.. not exactly. In fact if you were a slave who had been captured by the Palmerians, you remained a slave even in the Quilombo until you / in turn / captured another slave. So in that respect, it was like an anti-slavery pyramid scheme. Which isn't ironic. Since the pyramids weren't built by slaves. If you see what I mean.
But anyway, although we can say that most residents had been slaves of generally African or indigenous Brazilian descent - the Quilombo also attracted people who didn't want a place in colonial society.
But why were their African slaves in Brazil anyway?
Yes. Good point. This is important to talk about because more than a third of the estimated 12.5 million Africans shipped to the New World found themselves in Brazil.
In 1575, the Portuguese colony of Luanda was founded in modern day Angola.
And by 1610, the Portuguese had started exporting small groups of slaves out of Angola and to their new colonies in Brazil. Now, slavery wasn’t a new invention. Until the Atlantic Slave Trade really got going // slaves had been counted as the spoils of war. And initially slaves were obtained by the Portuguese in wars against local African rulers.
Now, even in the 17th century, not everybody was 100% cool with slavery. Portuguese writers of the time even had to justify the practice by saying that only a small number of Africans were being shipped to Brazil and they were being converted to Christianity… so it was basically for their own good, right?
But // almost immediately, this was demonstrated to be... bollocks. In 1616, the Portuguese built a new port to accommodate the [air-quote] “small amount” [close-air-quote] of slaves which grew rapidly as Portuguese conquests in Africa increased.
In one such war in the 1650s, Portugal crushed resistance led by some Angolese aristocrats and took prisoners including one Ganga Zumba, who was to become the first king / of the Palmares of Quilombo.
You’re not answering the question. Why did the Portuguese need African slaves in Brazil?
Yeah. The sugar industry was perhaps the most valuable cash crop of the 17th century. Sugar was not-quite-but nearly worth its weight / in / gold.
But farming sugar is intensive work and manpower was needed - // [preferably unpaid manpower]. African slaves were favoured because they were said to live 4 years longer than the average slave; withstood disease better and were apparently more obedient than native American slaves.
African slaves were caught, stripped of their names and given European first names / and a baptism. They were also branded up to three times with information about them - like a very painful passport.
What about when you're about to go on holiday and you can't find your passport and you have to apply for a new passport?
Even more painful than that.
These poor souls were baptised, branded, then shipped across the ocean to the Americas – the crossing could be 35 days at the shortest and 5 months at the longest. Conditions were - not surprisingly - hellish. Mortality rates from the journey alone were around 1 in 5 people but could be as high as 60%.
Disease, dehydration and starvation were rampant. The hulls of ships were crammed with chained slaves, who had 140cm squared space for a man and 83cm squared for a woman.
If they survived the journey, they would be taken to warehouses, fattened up and prepared for market.
Why are people such bastards to other people?
It’s a complicated and ongoing question, but the cruelty of slavery - just like the cruelty of most industires - had its basis in economics. Slaves were very cheap – so their survival wasn’t all that important. It was far more profitable to feed a slave poorly, work them to death and then just buy more slaves. So, even if you just saw a slave as a mere object, you’d still treat them as you would any cheap object i.e. entirely disposably.
And this debasement of one lot of people by another created a culture of extreme brutality – where beatings and lashings for the tiniest supposed infractions were commonplace.
Once punishment had been administered, lime and salt were rubbed into wounds to maximise pain but minimise the spread of infection so the man or woman could return to work.
Alternatively, if the slaves were not to return to work, urine would be rubbed into their wounds to encourage infection. See? There was an evilly machiavellian logic to the cruelty.
Slaves were also chained to boiling cauldrons, their spines were broken, ears sliced off or genitals removed. The Portuguese colonists could pretty much do anything they could dream up.
And guess what? They did.
So….guess what slaves did?
Right. The point of bringing up all this graphic detail isn't for audio clickbait but to underline how getting lost in a tropical rainforest might be massively preferable to not getting lost in a sugar plantation.
Slaves in their thousands ran deep into the jungles of Brazil. Because … why wouldn’t you?
In the interior, they set up macambos – or hideouts – small villages deep in the jungle where they lived off the land and where coconuts were the staple. Within the jungle, they were hard to find and - should their makeshift camps be discovered by Portuguese militias - they could abandon them; melt into the jungle and only return once the Portuguese had given up looking / and gone home.
And one Quilombo - not far from the Portuguese regional centre of Pernambuco - turned into something resembling a full blown state - that was [get ready to roll credits] - The Quilombo dos Palmares.
But was the Quilombo dos Palmares really a country?
[vocal fry] Well, as far as we can call anything we cover a country. It had a government, a religion, a king, a capital. The whole shebang. It even traded with Portuguese settlements.
Its capital at Macacau was a fortress built into the mountain – with triple line defensive walls and booby-trapped pits filled with spikes. It was the Quilombo’s last line of defence as well as its most economically developed area.
Macacau looked every bit the important colonial town - featuring hundreds of houses, several chapels, four blacksmiths, a town hall and most likely a peri-peri chicken outlet.
The Quilombo dos Palmares was ruled by a monarchy with an advisory council.
Monarch: Now my advisory council, what is your advice?
Advisory council: Form a republic.
Monarch: And that’s why you’re just advisory. Council dissolved.
And although there wasn’t a state religion per se, the dominant faith was a blend of Catholicism and African traditions. Not / unlike the voodoo faiths that popped up in the Caribbean.
And although we’ve said that these jungle settlements survived by being hidden, the Quilombo dos Palmares survived precisely because it was near enough Portuguese settlements to siphon off new recruits and supplies.
Within striking distance of Pernumbuco – the largest sugar plantation in Brazil - slaves / both ran away and were seized from sugar mills in raids where the Palmarians also took women and munitions. But this came at the cost of raids from the Portuguese in return.
Who were the kings of the Palmares?
We think there were two main kings - Ganga Zumba and Zumbi.
We’ve identified Ganga Zumba as an Angolan aristocrat. Buuuut it’s unlikely that he was the only child of one Lord and Lady Zumba of 23, Railway Cuttings, Angola // since Ganga Zumba either means Great Lord or ‘Priest responsible for spiritual defence of the community’.
I get two pay checks that way.
But / either way, this Ganga Zumba fella ruled over Palmares as it was developing most - since we think the population peaked at 20,000 on his watch. There also seem to have been macambos named after his family members. And one of these might have been his nephew and the second king of Palmares, Zumbi.
Zumbi ruled over the Palmares in the last 20 or so years before its destruction, when efforts to take it down by the Portuguese reached / fever pitch. And this sums up the difference between the two kings. For while Ganga Zumba sought some accommodation with the Portuguese colonial powers, Zumbi was having none of it.
We think that Zumbi was born around 1655, and there are two possible origin stories for him. Either / he was the nephew of Ganga Zumba - so was a proper Palmarian - or there’s another tale that he was an orphan raised in Pernambuco, and taken in by a priest. In this version of events, Zumbi was well educated but left Pernumbuco to join Palmares after witnessing the plight of his people.
Zumbi could mean ancestral spirit; supreme spirit...// or // evil spirit. And that name may have been given to him because many of the people sent after him claimed to have killed him; so in a way he kept coming back to life. So.. zombie Zumbi.
Ah, good knight, so you’ve returned from your quest to the most treacherous rainforests of this kingdom, tell me, good sir knight, and if thy answer pleaseth my ear, thou shalt inherit all the worldly goods thou can desire, riches beyond your wildest dream, my fair daughter, Esmirelda’s hand in marriage and this three piece suite, courtesy of our friends at Kyote’s furniture warehouse. But answer me, did you complete your quest, did you kill that foul demon known only as Zumbi, did you? And bear in mind if your answer in the negative, none of these treasures shall be yours and a fate worse than death shall await you. So answer me, good sir knight, without any further delay, did you vanquish Zumbi?
Did you really, sir knight?
Honestly, I can take it, so he’s definitely dead?
Although Zumbi had several wives, apparently sticking with African customs, he did have a queen of sorts - Dandara - who fought alongside him. And although we can’t say that Dandara was definitely real, she was at least symbolic of the fact that women fought alongside men in the Quilombos.
But hang on. Slave-freeing society surviving and thriving next to slave-owning society. You’d have thought that Portuguese wouldn’t have been exactly delighted.
They weren't. The problem with Palmares' success is that it became a bigger target for the Portuguese. And raids happened on an almost annual basis for most of Palmares' existence. But these raids were made up of colonial settlers, slaves and native Brazillians so were… lacklustre.
Listen to me slaves. It's now time to take out the people who free slaves. Can I get a hell yeah?
I'll take that as a yes.
Not wanting to spend weeks in dense tropical forest, the raiding parties would inflict minimal damage and simply report back to the governor that they had vanquished the slave settlements.
Signor, it was a vicious battle, but I return from the jungle having defeated the sloths.
I sent you to kill the slaves.
Right, and that’s what we did.
But things changed. After one raid, the Portuguese found something that worried them – muskets and gunpowder. It was one thing to be fighting former slaves armed with semi-sharpened sticks, but if Palmares was arming itself with modern weapons, the Portuguese would lose their one gunny advantage. Future raids into Palmares would focus on extermination, not just recapturing slaves.
So the governor got serious and recruited Fernao Carilho [fernow carEEo] – a veteran commander and tough SOB. If this were an 80s American TV movie, he would have a scar on his cheek and constantly be smoking a cigarillo.
Impressed by the cigarillo, they gave him 185 soldiers, many of whom were ex-slave mercenaries who knew how to live in the jungle. This was a force that wouldn't chicken out after the first million mosquito bites. And he soon scored a quick victory.
In one raid, they injured Ganga Zumba himself and captured some of his family members.
However, still wary of him, the colony nevertheless sent a peace offering to Ganga Zumba.
He was to be given his own reserve. Anyone born free in Palmares could remain free and live on his land. But any runaway or kidnapped slaves had to be returned to their owners.
Ganga Zumba accepted the terms – obviously glad to settle down and call it a day. The majority of men in the council agreed to take the offer. But a vocal minority led by Zumbi disagreed – saying that the Portuguese could not be trusted to live up to this treaty.
Undeterred, Ganga Zumba packed up his favourite bedpan and relocated to his reservation, leaving Zumbi to be elected new king.
But // not pausing to try something from the coronation buffet, Zumbi realised that Palmares would come under more attacks than ever, so put Palmares // on a war footing.
And, whoever he was, Zumbi was obviously a charismatic man and a great leader - even earning grudging respect from one Portuguese soldier who described Zumbi as:
"A negro of singular valour, great spirit and rare constancy, he is the marvel of the rest because his industriousness, judgement and strength are an embarrassment to our people and an example to his.”
And knowing how to take a compliment, Zumbi really stepped things up.
He built tougher defences and sent spies to live on Ganga Zumba’s reservation. They reported back that people were unhappy with lives on the reservation and they’re little better than lives as slaves. Indeed, slaves start to trickle back to Palmares. And Ganga Zumba is poisoned – possibly on Zumbi’s instruction.
Zumbi starts increasingly daring raids on sugar mills and properties and even storms prisons in main towns, freeing prisoners who are more than happy to stick it to the man. No town militias could stand up to Zumbi’s fighting force – who used hit and run tactics and ambushes.
Zumbi had become the terror of the colony and even Portugal itself // was taking notice of his exploits.
This was disrupting Portugal’s sugar production; and became an embarrassment as the great Portuguese Empire seemed unable to deal with a band of runaway slaves.
We’re even told that the King of Portugal wrote a letter to Zumbi promising him amnesty and good terms if Zumbi surrendered!
King of Portugal.
He also pointed out that if Zumbi wrote to five other European monarchs, he'd get loads more letters back. Such were the wonders of chain mail.
But while this furious letter writing is going on, attacks by the Portuguese are ramped up. Macambos are burned down – leading the Palmerians to retreat to their fortified capital of Macacau.
Portugal turns once again to the Palistas, or banditerios, slave traders and mercenaries who are just about the most brutal, merciless and amoral soldiers around. Living in the interior, they were already men on the edge of society and often a mix of native and Africans; so had zero loyalty except to whoever was paying.
Massacres? No problem. Genocide? Yes please. Tripping up pensioners? Deffers.
The leader of these Palistas was [soft] George Velho - who was promised all the land he conquered if he could kill // Zumbi. He was also given license to kill anyone he came into contact with – just like James Bond, except he was in the service of an evil empire…. [dp] Like James Bond.
The order of the day was extermination. All Palmarians had to be killed since they were now considered too rebellious to be returned to slavery.
So in 1693, Velho sets out from the coast with his small army of Palistas and colonial militias. Zumbi ambushes them and is able to kill or drive off the militias but the Palistas hold their own in battle and aren’t phased by the attacks. Though finding themselves too outnumbered, the Palistas return to Pernumbuco.
But George Velho isn’t going to give in that easily.
In 1694, Velho is given another force but is joined by Benardo via de Melo as second in command. De Melo is a wealthy nobleman who provides his own troops with armaments including a cannon. But instead of being some kind of noble weekend warrior who's heard good things about paintballing, de Melo is actually very levelheaded and strategic – and so is a good counterbalance to Velho.
Didn't he also have a cannon.
Yes, also he's got a cannon.
The army moves up the coast recruiting everyone they can – including treasure hunters, glory seekers and the prisoners of every town they go through. The clergy of Brazil also call a crusade upon the “black infidels.” This attracts Catholics who want to earn eternal brownie points by…shooting ex-slaves...and Velho is able to rustle up 700 Palistas… presumably by making the same conversation 700 times, i.e.
One more job,
I told you, I don’t do that anymore.
What if I told you something that would make you change your mind.
Velho's force now numbers 8,000 SOLDIERS!
Zumbi knows he can’t fight them in the open, so pulls all his forces to the hillside fortress of Macacau – bristling with nasty traps. It’s like Apocalypse Now meets Home Alone.
You guys give up or you’re thirsty for more / apocalypse now clips
The last stand begins.
The first attacks are repelled, but they reveal a vulnerable section of the wall. So Portuguese forces are sent to attack the wall which gives way. Portuguese forces pour into… a trap!
Weren’t they listening when I said this place was bristling with traps?
De Melo calls a halt to further attacks and orders the building of a counter wall to encircle Macacau. The canon is brought up to the top of the wall and after hours of blasting away… it becomes clear that the man operating the cannon must be a temp, since nothing has been hit and they’re out of ammunition! He had one job!
Morale in the attacking camp plummets, supplies are running dry and large sections of the Portuguese army starts melting away back towards the coast.
Zumbi sees his apparent advantage and orders a counter attack which… fails as the Palistas match the Palmerans in a brutal fight to the death… many of Zumbi’s best commanders // are killed.
And things get worse for Zumbi & co. The governor of Pernambuco arrives with fresh reinforcements, supplies, and cannons… presumably with a new operator with a cannon licence.
Night falls, but the Portuguese don't retire for delicious egg custards and a refreshing 8 hours. Instead they stay up all night hurriedly building a tower in a mountainous position overlooking Macacau. This gives the Portuguese a devastating shooting position for their cannon. On seeing this, Zumbi says something to the effect of "why did you let them build a wall?" But this line manager appraisal comes // too late.
Sensing the end is nigh, the Palmarians try to slip away back into the jungle. Zumbi and his family are attacked. Zumbi allows his wife and child to escape fighting hand to hand with Palistas. He’s hit by cannonshot but somehow escapes.
The capital of Palmares is burned.
Even as they are setting it ablaze, Portuguese reports are quite admiring of the city they’re torching – with its 240 houses, 40 forges turning out weapons, chapels and a government house.
But it doesn't mean death for the remaining Palmerians, since George Velho orders as many former slaves to be spared as possible.
To be sold back into slavery.
Zumbi limps north and makes it to another Quilombo – planning another attack – but is sold out by one of his supporters. And even though he is surrounded by Palistas, he goes down fighting. /// What would you have done, Ed?
Flushed myself down the toilet.
Didn't have toilets.
Ok then. Hid under some leaves. Betrayed my friends. Dressed up like a lady. There are loads of options for a coward.
Zumbi's body is brutally disfigured after death (as most slaves were disfigured as punishment while still alive) and his head was cut off and displayed in Pernambuco to reassure people that Zumbi was not going to rise again from the dead. /// But that wasn't the end of it.
As long as slavery continued, Quilombos continued. And still continue. Though never on such a grand scale as Palmares.
And of course; history got a bit of a whitewashing for some time. George Velho was lauded as a hero of establishment Brazil well into the 20th century. Only in the last few decades has Velho become the villain and Zumbi adopted as a hero.
Palmares was recognised in 1988 and land was granted to the descendants of families who had lived there. And you can visit it. // There's ample parking.
In 1997, Zumbi was declared a national hero by the Brazillian parliament. There’s an unofficial Zumbi Day, which happens on a public holiday in many states in Brazil. In Sao Paolo, there’s even a university named for Zumbi dos Palmares.
Zumbi is also seen as an important figure in capoeira, the Afro-Brazillian martial art that mixes together combat, music and dancing.
Eddy Gordo in Tekken...
Zumbi represents independence, self-discipline and valour. Young Brazilians have a new verb, to quilombar. To meet up and discuss politics or African culture. In a country where there's great tension between indigenous communities and agribusiness and where racial divides run deep, and where towering bastards like Bolsanaro get elected, the beacon of the Quilombo dos Palmares is a strong and hopeful one, even if its hard to discern between the myth and the history. The mythtory.
And whether he was a runaway or bonafide African royalty, Zumbi dos Palmares has a pretty incredible legacy. Perhaps all those face-saving militia troops were right about him after all. No matter how many times they killed him, he just wouldn’t die. And it doesn't look like he's going anywhere now.
Long live King Zombie!
Darkness falls across pernambuco
King Zumbi rises
Under the shadow
To lead the Quilombo dos Palmares
Close to Pernumbuco
Portugal’s worst nightmare in the dark
Under the moonlight
You hear the dogs of war give out a bark
You try to scream
But George Velho sticks a musket in your windpipe
You want to run
But the Palistas will play your bones li ke they’re panpipes.
Quilombo dos Palmares
How can you destroy their homes when they pack up their beds?
Quilombo dos Palmares
Try and kill King Zumbi but he'll remain undead.
Quilmobo, quilmobo. Palmares!