In 1835, thousands of destitute indigenous and mixed race inhabitants of the Amazon left their ramshackle cabanas on the outskirts of Belém and stormed the city’s center. They attacked merchants and landowners and installed a short-lived commune in which slavery was abolished and wealth and food were redistributed. Only with the help of a British naval blockade did the Brazilian government finally manage to retake Belém. The erstwhile revolutionaries fled into the surrounding forest, where, for the next few years, federal troops hunted them down and slaughtered them—perhaps by the tens of thousands. The Cabanagem remains the bloodiest civil conflict in Brazil’s long history. While the outlines of the episode are well known to specialists, much about the lives, aspirations, and survival strategies of these subaltern subjects is not.

Tales of natives seeking refuge in the forest constitute something of a trope...

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