The 18 articles in this book (including a valuable introductory essay by the editors) focus on quilombos, or runaway-slave settlements, an all but omnipresent feature of slave resistance that challenged Brazil’s ruling classes for more than three hundred years. Five authors, each with his or her own distinct approach, deal with the renowned seventeenth-century quilombos of Palmares. One of these essays includes a report on archaeological excavations of quilombo sites in the Palmares region that reveals, among other facts, a significant indigenous presence among quilombolas (quilombo residents). Another compares the modern testimony of descendants of runaway slaves in the former Dutch colony of Surinam with Luso-Brazilian accounts of Palmares, and seems to challenge the accuracy of the latter. A third essay of this group examines writings by prominent Jesuits, including Padre Antônio Vieira, who were alarmed by the expectation of a catastrophic slave rebellion and determined to eliminate Palmares. Of the two remaining essays, one portrays the persecutors of quilombolas, including professional slave hunters, and the other offers an intriguing account of the remarkable transformation that took place in Brazil of the pious Saint Anthony of Padua into a fierce hunter of runaway slaves and destroyer of runaway settlements. Another five authors analyze or describe eighteenth-century quilombos in the mining captaincies of Minas Gerais, Goiás, and Mato Grosso, areas in which the favorable geography and the relative autonomy of slaves engaged in gold and diamond prospecting favored the formation of numerous quilombos. Finally, seven authors analyze quilombos in the captaincies or provinces of Rio Grande do Sul, Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, Pernambuco, and the lightly populated northern regions of Maranhão and the Amazon basin.
The research presented in Liberdade por um fio offers abundant information on quilombos. For example, throughout Brazil runaway-slave settlements appeared in quite dissimilar environments. Many were set up on the outskirts of cities and towns, others in almost inaccessible localities in the nation’s backlands. Runaways naturally sought refuge in familiar places, but their choices were also the result of other considerations, including geographic conditions as well as opportunities that runaways had available to survive and maintain their freedom in a hostile environment. Members of suburban quilombos, for example, could provide for their personal needs by preying on travelers and outlying residents, by selling products or goods to local populations, by gaining employment and support from free blacks or sympathetic whites, or by simply “disappearing” into large black urban populations. Backcountry quilombos, on the other hand, possessed other means of maintaining their freedom, particularly the asylum offered by mountains and forests located beyond the reach of the authorities, where runaways and their families might achieve temporary or even permanent freedom.
“Where there was slavery there was resistance,” (p. 9) write the editors of this volume. For runaways the struggle took the form of intermittent war with the dominant classes, a series of episodes that normally began with the organization of an expedition intended to eliminate a specific site. Many contributors describe such expeditions in detail, revealing the hardships and perils faced by organized oppressors, who are characterized by their opportunism and brutality. The authors also describe the nature and organization of quilombos, basing their accounts largely on contemporary reports.
Particularly intriguing is an article on settlements in Pará by Eurípides Funes, who uses written sources and the testimony of descendants of nineteenth-century quilombolas that are based on “stories told by their grandparents” (p. 467). From these documents and oral histories we learn why and when the slaves fled their masters and how they chose the ideal place for their settlements. We also learn about the way they worshipped, married, and established families; how they extracted food, medicinal remedies, and health itself from their “mother forest” (p. 481); and how quilombolas, contrary to the experience of persons held in slavery, bore numerous children, many of whom survived.
This important volume is greatly enriched by some thirty-four prints and drawings, several tables, five photographs, and seventeen maps that indicate the locations of quilombos in various regions of Brazil.