The Other Black History: The Maroons and Zumbi dos Palmares

A Black Agenda Radio commentary by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

African slaves in the US, the Caribbean and Brazil ran away whenever they could. In favorable situations, escaped slaves called maroons were able to form villages and settlements and defend themselves against their former masters. The most successful maroon settlement was Brazil's Palmares, which held out for a hundred years ending in 1695

The Other Black History: The Maroons and Zumbi dos Palmares

A Black Agenda Radio commentary by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

Informed and aware citizens, especially black ones, are not what the US empire wants or needs. So the history most of us are taught in school and the media amounts to a truncated stub of active disinformation, often with more gaps and distortions than truth. Even black Americans know little about the slave trade or slavery in the rest of the Americas.

The transAtlantic slave trade was conducted more than 300 years with wind-powered ships sailing between Europe, Africa and the Americas. The shortest hop along the prevailing winds from Angola and West Africa was to Brazil, and that's where almost half the millions of Africans who survived the Middle Passage are thought to have landed. Slavery in Brazil and the Caribbean wasn't like slavery in North America. Africans in North America were cruelly treated, but were so expensive to import that masters had to ensure they survived and reproduced in captivity. But in the Caribbean and Brazil slaves were so cheap and plentiful masters worked entire populations to death every few years and imported new ones.

North America also had free whites in the back country, along with a dense network of roads, and by the 19th century, railroads. The troops that put down John Brown's rebellion in the 1850s were dispatched by rail and received orders by telegraph. In Jamaica, St. Kitts, Cuba, Suriname, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Trinidad. Spanish Florida and the vast interior of Brazil there were few free whites, even fewer roads and never any railroads at all, and thus greater opportunities for Africans who managed to run away. Maroons, as the runaways were called often eluded capture long enough to establish farms, villages and settlements. In Colombia, Spanish Florida, Brazil and elsewhere they made common cause with Native Americans. The most famous and long lived maroon settlement was the quilombo of Palmares in northeastern Brazil, which successfully repelled Dutch and Portuguese military expeditions for about a hundred years.

Eighty years along in 1678, the Portuguese governor offered to leave Palmares alone if they would relocate, and also apprehend and return future runaways, a deal often extended to troublesome maroon settlements. Some of the leaders of Palmares took the deal and those who followed them were soon re-enslaved. The faction that continued to resist was led by a young man named Zumbi.

Born free in Palmares in 1655, Zumbi was captured by the Portuguese at the age of 6. After learning Portuguese and Latin he escaped returning to Palmares at 15, and in a few years later was a respected warrior and leader. Zumbi led the fight against the Portuguese till 1693 when he was severely wounded, and survived another two years on the run until he was betrayed, captured and beheaded on November 20, 1695. His severed head was publicly displayed in Recife, to prove to slaves that he was mortal and really dead.

But the memories of Palmares and of Zumbi never died. They've been celebrated by Brazilians and Africans around the world ever since. November 20 is a now a national holiday in Brazil.

For Black Agenda Radio, I'm Bruce Dixon. Find us on the web at

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and a state committee member of the Georgia Green Party. He lives and works in Marietta GA and can be reached via this site's contact page, or at bruce.dixon(at)




Cudjoe of Jamaica

Milton McFarlane writes of Cudjoe, the Jamaican Maroon military leader: "As the British economy grew in Jamaica and the need for slaves increased, the Maroons began to experience more frequent and severe raids.  But, thanks to Cudjoe's organization and distribution of the population, the British was unable to deal really effective blows...  Cudjoe and his special forces moved one night on to certain plantations, near localities that were considered most favorable for Maroon victory.  These men plundered quietly but recklessly. They set fire to barns and storage buildings, then retreated to pre-arranged positions...Discontented planters protested to the governor and demanded that something concrete be done to crush "that villainous Cudjoe" and bring the Maroons under control" (pgs. 34,36, 57 of "Cudjoe of Jamaica").  McFarlane writes that Cudjoe would sneak onto plantations or had his army leaders disguised as slaves sneak onto plantations to learn their inner workings in order ultimately to plot ways to sabotage them.  The wealth that the Africans' labor in Jamaica produced for the English empire is too ubiquitous to measure.  It engineered the industrial revolution and has helped leave nations in postcolonial crises that can only be addressed and resolved by the understanding that Zumbi and Cudjoe had about Western economies.  -RF. 

John Brown

I was just reading a great book about John Brown by David S Reynolds and it mentions that John Brown was inspired by the maroon communities and he planned to start a similar community for runaway slaves in the Virginia mountains.