November 20, 2007

November 20 | Zumbi

1655 - November 20, 1695: age 40

Today is Zumbi Day in Brazil, a national holiday celebrating the revolutionary hero who died more than 300 years ago.

At the time, slaves could escape and slip into the hinterland where they established settlements called quilombos. They were a chronic problem for the Portuguese, because they not only sheltered newly escaped slaves, but even went and raided plantations to liberate more. This was not entirely a quixotic venture: those who did not come willingly were kidnapped and made slaves in the quilombos, until such time as they brought another captive to the settlement to take their place.

The people in these quilombos were experts in capoeira, the martial art developed in Brazil by African slaves a century before. Fighting skills were strictly forbidden by the white overlords, so the Africans would do it to music, disguising it as dancing. When whites approached the musicians would introduce a special beat into the music that would signal the dancers to change their style into something innocuous-looking. You can check out capoeira on YouTube.

The man known as Zumbi was born free in Quilombo dos Palmares, a self-sustaining republic the size of Portugal with a population of about 30,000. He was captured by the Portuguese at the age of 6 and given to a missionary, who tried to "civilize" him by teaching him Portuguese and Latin and converting him to Christianity. Zumbi escaped in 1670 and returned to his home, a boy of 15. He became strong and famous for his intelligence in battle strategy.

In 1678 the Portuguese governor offered a peace treaty to the leader of Palmares, including freedom to all runaway slaves. The leader wanted to agree, but Zumbi didn't trust the whites and talked the other Africans into refusing. He became the new leader. When the Portuguese finally attacked fifteen years later, they were able to destroy the republic's main settlement with artillery. Zumbi was wounded in the leg but managed to escape and elude the Portuguese for a further two years.

Eventually he was betrayed by a comrade who helped the Portuguese ambush and kill him. Zumbi was first stabbed in the stomach by his betrayer, then stabbed and shot many times before he died. His head was cut off and taken to Recife wrapped in salt to be displayed on a stick in a public place.

Source: Wikipedia, 300 Years of Zumbi, The Slave King

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