The archaeological research of slavery in Brazil began late, not until the late 20th century. This was due to the prevalence of interpretive models from the United States, in particular those models referring to the predominance of middle-class lifestyles. Archaeological study of slavery took a secondary position. Under these circumstances, and from the point of view of Anglo research, the slave was seen as subjected, humiliated and submissive

This form of archeology did not consider the aristocratic nature of the Brazilian elite and did not take into account the resistance by the slaves. Thanks to other researches, focused more on social theories that recognize the contradictions and the specifics of patriarchal relationships under slavery, archaeological studies of Brazilian slavery turned their focus to a study of resistance, or the study of escaped slaves.

Within research on this topic, the escaped slaves of the 17th century in Palmares soon came to be considered as one of the most important groups among the many because the community survived for so long. The majority of these escaped slaves came from Africa, particularly the Bantu areas of Angola and the Congo. Portugal had a long history of involvement in Africa. By 1491, a Portuguese mission had arrived at the court of King Nzinga Nkuwu, who along with many of his companions was baptized as Christian.

The Portuguese slave trading interests were concentrated in southern Africa, mainly Angola. During the 16th century, the slave traders sought slaves on the southern coasts, and in the following centuries Angola was condemned to producing slave labor. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, in Brazil, the Portuguese developed sugar cane plantations. By the 1570s, there were already fifty mills in the colony and by 1548 some 15,000 slaves were working there. It should be remembered that the indigenous people were also enslaved. Some 350,000 indigenous people were enslaved in the 16th and 17th centuries. Thus the sugar plantations combined African and native slave labor.

The escaped slaves settled in the jungles of Brazil, some 75 kilometers from the coast, in the early 16th century. This trend continued until the 1640s, when the Dutch considered Palmares (the region where the escaped slaves settled) to be a “serious danger.” Bartholomeus Lintz described Palmares as a region consisting of two main areas: the capital, in the Barriga Mountains, and a smaller settlement on the left bank of the Gurumgumba River. Modern studies depict the site as a community consisting of immigrants, where Africans, Indians, Europeans and other outcasts lived together.

After the Dutch abandoned Brazil, the Portuguese sent many expeditions to try to attack Palmares between 1654 and 1667. Beginning in 1670, the authorities launched a systematic attack on the region. Nearly annual assaults tried to put an end to Palmares from 1679 to 1692, but all of these efforts failed. Nothing could effectively end Palmares’ independence. In 1685, the mercenary Domingos Jorge Velho was hired by the Portuguese authorities to attack the community. In February, 1694, after 42 days of fighting, Palmares was destroyed, with 400 escaped slaves killed and 500 captured and sold outside the region. Many of the rebels were able to flee, but on November 20, 1695, their king was captured and killed and the slaves were forced to surrender and end their defiance of the system.

In these unfortunate times for the slaves, in the 1670s, the sugar industry, and therefore the Brazilian economy, began to have problems. The sugar industry entered a period of stagnation and decline with low prices for sugar and high prices for slaves.

Historical documents refer to the existence of homes, streets, statues, warehouses and palaces in the communities that were identified as outcasts during the era of slavery and escaped slaves. There are also inventories of crops, including corn, beans, potatoes, sugar cane and plantains. In 1671, Fernão Coutinho also documented the existence of blacksmith shops and the production of pottery and lumber.

Thanks to researchers and historical documents, it is also known that indigenous people played a big role in the daily survival of the escaped slaves. By living together, they had the chance to share knowledge and learn from each other. They became companions in misery and pain, but also business partners. The former slaves adopted the technology and tools of the indigenous people.

Archaeological studies of Palmares have been useful in gathering evidence about the slaves’ resistance and struggle for freedom. Historical archaeology is the branch applied to the study of Palmares and its findings can help to understand unknown parts of the escaped slaves’ cultural and social lives. In 1991, the Palmares Archaeological Project was created by Charles E. Orser, Jr. and Pedro Paulo Funari to study the escaped slaves. The project’s field work was centered in the Barriga Mountains. In 1992 and 1993, 2,488 artifacts were collected from 14 sites, with 19% of them simple pottery, 4.5% elaborate pottery, 1.3% stone, 0.6% glass, 0.1% metal and 9.1% of other materials.

Through this research, we now know that the interior of Brazil was populated by various ethnic groups, most of which spoke the Tupi language, while in the coastal plantations the owners mixed “negros de la tierra” (Amerindians) and “negros de Guinea” (Africans), leading to a mixture of languages and communications problems. The majority of the inhabitants of Palmares, however, were presumably of African origin. It can also be deduced from this research —thanks to the presence of Amerindian style pottery and references in documents to the natives maintaining good relationships with the escaped slaves, and the fact that three settlements had indigenous names— that the natives also allied with the colonial expeditionary forces and contributed to the capture and deaths of the escaped slaves.

Palmares was not a refuge, but it owed its growth, survival and final destruction to the important role it played in trade between the coast and the interior, resulting in a constant flow of people from various regions and nationalities. The traders and Palmares opposed the efforts by the nobility and the pre-capitalist landowners to rule society, though in the end the latter won control, both over Portugal and over Brazil.

According to an interpretation by a scholar named Rowlands, Palmares can be seen as a place where continuity was emphasized over change, because the society was not tied just to contemporary ethnic groups, such as the colonists, the Amerindians and Africans, but was also tied to practices that dated to the Roman Empire (colonialism and Eurocentrism). Palmares and its situation were more of the same.

Social archaeology, in the case of Palmares, shows that a people’s search for a specific identity leads to questioning the usual structuralist approach that does not take into account that social practices are structured by cultural meanings. Isolated characteristics are not enough to explain Palmares’ identity because its community was the product of interaction, like all social practices. It could be said that Palmares was a microcosm of the Caribbean, built on and within the differences that eventually were synthesized into something in common.

Archaeological studies would offer many opportunities for reconstructing the history of slavery in Brazil if they were not affected by the limited documentary sources available. The problem mainly rests on the lack of documentation of various aspects, such as the slaves’ way of life, their daily lives in the community, on the plantation, and in their homes. These facts are of great importance when archaeology tries to offer a critical interpretation about history or an specific era.

Author: Grupo Editorial 
Published: May 10, 2012.

Related Entries

This post is also available in: Español


The Puerto Rico Endowment for the Humanities welcomes the constructive comments that the readers of the Encyclopedia of Puerto Rico want to make us. Of course, these comments are entirely the responsibility of their respective authors.