Often times when students hear me lecture about the famed Brazilian quilombo (runaway settlement) of Palmares, they want to know where it was. Where could a republic of runaways have existed for almost 100 years without being defeated by Portuguese forces? What was the landscape like where they lived and how did it change over the course of a century? These are some of the questions that have been posed to me over the last few years. And while I can point out the state of Alagoas (where Palmares was) on a map of Brazil, it also is not lost on me that I rarely think about such questions until prompted by my students.

Yet I fear I am not the only one who too seldom thinks about the specific geographical location of runaway settlements and the degree to which they could often be erected in public sight. For far too many historians have engaged in discussions of maroonage where the symbolic importance or the mere existence of runaway communities is privileged over a serious interrogation of their physical location. Many are the papers and texts about the pride and influence imparted to other enslaved Africans by the example of Palmares. Very little, on the other hand, seems to get written about where those inspired by Palmares were geographically in relation to the famous quilombo, or how and for what reasons those who ran away were compelled to think about and map a geography that was either similar to or different from Palmares. This focus on the symbolic, while opening up and enriching discussions regarding political ideologies and political cultures of both masters and enslaved persons, often does the work of emptying out the geographic and material referents of political discourse. Thus when talking about how Palmares served as a “constant and strong point of reference” for both black and white Brazilians, the notion of a “point” on a map is merely metaphorical and the geographic visibility, the “out-of-placeness” of Palmares gradually fades further and further from our critical optic. 1.

The physical “out-of-placeness” of runaways and of quilombo structures was indeed a very real concern to all officials, as well as to metropolitan and colonial slave owners. This was most evident in the way that slave owners described fugitives who had become unenslaved. 2 Ads offering rewards for maroons described everything from their faces (“pitted with small-pox” or “all her teeth broken by fighting”) to their injuries (“the mark of a wound from a lance on each side below his ribs”) to their supposed arts of dissemblance (“remarkable large belly… may pass herself as being with child”). 3 However, while attention to struggles over corporal geography is a necessary first step to addressing the issue of visibility, this critical intervention alone remains incomplete. In order to get a better understanding of the importance that the geographic visibility of marronage held for officials and slave owners we need to consider how controlling the corporal geography of unenslaved persons was perhaps part of a larger project of trying to control the landscape and material grounds of civilization.

Over the last thirty years the study of slavery and freedom has been significantly altered due to an emphasis on defining freedom through access to physical mobility as opposed to defining freedom solely according to legal manumission or emancipation. 4 And while we have learned much about “alternative geographies,” within much of the literature that admits to the physicality of social mobility (and not just to the metaphorical significance of “social mobility” in the black experience of freedom) these alternative geographies remain unseen because they exist in unmapped and supposedly unmappable areas. They are absented presences that existed in the hinterland or off beaten paths and trails, locations whose place in the world was only discoverable to other enslaved persons through word of mouth or through some innate, but ultimately unexplainable, affiliation with the natural landscape. Runaways and runaway communities are always in the “bush” or the countryside or the scrubs or the marshes, terms that in their very enunciation signal not only the natural world but also concepts such as backwards, harsh, irrational, unreasonable. And yet also unspoiled.

In all fairness to historians who have taken this position in their either implicit or explicit discussions of black geographies, the insistence on seeing un-enslaved fugitives in the confusing and contradictory space of the “bush” stems from a similar insistence that spills out from the documentation of runaway communities. In the context of the Portuguese empire, for example, by the 1650s those who were employed as slave catchers were known as “capitães do mato” a term that is often literally rendered in English as “bush captain”. 5 The name itself was not employed consistently across the Portuguese empire and thus other names for the slave catchers emerged as well by the 1680s. Yet, these names also locked runaway communities into a geographical wilderness. Thus the “capitães das entradas dos matos” were “captains of the entryway into the bush,” a phrase that seemed to consider the “entryway into the bush” to be the very the boundary between rational civilization and uncharted wilderness. Thus by locating black subjects in undeveloped, unmapped areas, black subjects are themselves naturalized as irrational and underdeveloped by archival sources.

Yet these very same sources, precisely because of their lack of uniformity, also reveal that officials and slave owners themselves got caught up in their own inconsistencies and revealed the inherent contradiction in the idea of a natural, harsh, but unspoiled backlands. Sometimes the term ”capitães das entradas dos matos” were used interchangeably with the term “capitães das entradas e assaltos,” or the “captains of the entryway and assault.” Such a phrase gestured to a certainty that there was a black wildnerness beyond settled areas (the “entryway” to the unstated “bush”), a certain expectation that un-enslaved fugitives headed for the woods as soon as they escaped. However it is a string of words that also reveals that the rugged yet pristine lands of the countryside could only be kept in their natural state through the use of violent aggression against the unenslaved. In other words, the black presence in the wilderness is to be naturally expected, but it is also an unnatural abomination that must be destroyed. Certain elements of the natural world needed to be protected from other elements of the natural world. Thus, all pretense of a natural, transparent, and organically ordered landscape are called into question

It is even more telling, however, that by the middle of the eighteenth century the Portuguese turn their attention to trying to define the meaning of quilombo. In 1722 that definition stipulated that a quilombo was a group of more than four black fugitives from slavery who lived in fortified hills or open fields. 6 A 1733 definition continued to abide by this understanding of quilombos as communities formed by more than four black fugitives who lived together in the bushes and committed robberies and murders against the people. By 1757, however, quilombos were being defined as “any inhabitation of black fugitives in unpopulated places.” 7 Only sixty years after the final destruction of Palmares, the definition of a quilombo had shifted from focusing on un-enslaved fugitives living in large numbers in fortified hills and woods to a focus on smaller numbers of men and women fugitives living together in a much more ambiguous and visible types of spaces.

Such a shift in language can certainly be attributed in part to the fact that by the middle to late eighteenth century several of Brazil’s most important cities contained runaway communities and unenslaved fugitives that did not live in the countryside but lived instead in nebulous regions between country and city, or may have lived in the country but were frequently seen in the city. 8 In the 1780s and 1790s, for example, when soldiers deserted the military in the city of Salvador da Bahia they were often spotted living on settlements on the periphery of the city, or sometimes even on the periphery of other cities in the Northeast of the country like Pernambuco. In such settlements, they often cohabited with a mixed group of fugitives, other deserters, and drifters who preferred petty thievery or sometimes full scale highway robbery to working in cities and markets. 9

Yet it may also be quite possible that such a shift in both colonial and metropolitan language regarding both the appellation given to slave catchers and the definition of a quilombo may also owe something to the visibility of unenslaved blacks in the landscape. Grappling with and trying to map the geographic contours of quilombos and maroon communities in the Americas is thus not just about providing a spatial referent for our histories or to promote the growth of digital humanities (though such work can and perhaps should serve those purposes as well); it is also about recognizing that far from being sequestered from slave societies quilombos were often very visible and contributed mightily to the social production of urban and rural space. Writing them off as simply being in the “bush” may have been easier to deal with for colonial officials and planters than this more bold reality.

  1. Silvia Hunold Lara, “Do singular ao plural: Palmares, captães do mato e o governo dos escravos,” and Luiz Mott, “Santo Antônio, o divino capitão-do-mato,” in Joõ José Reis and Flavio dos Santos Gomes, eds., Liberdade por um fio: história dos quilombos no Brasil, (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1996), 100
  2. I use the term “un-enslaved” to suggest that maroons and members of quilombo communities were often untethered from slavery, if not completely and indisputably free.
  3. All cited in Kamau Brathwaite, The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica: 1770-1820, (Miami: Ian Randle Publishers, 2005), 202-03.
  4. See, among others, Frederick Cooper, From Slaves to Squaters: Plantation Labor and Agriculture in Zanzibar and Coastal Kenya, 1890-1925, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981); Rebecca Scott, Slave Emancipation in Cuba; Cooper, Scott, and Thomas Holt, Beyond Slavery: Explorations of Race, Labor, and Postemancipation Societies, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Ada Ferrer, Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, (Chapel Hill: Univeristy of North Carolina Press, 1999); Stephanie M.H. Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).
  5. Hunold Lara, 88.
  6. Ibid., 92.
  7. Ibid., 97.
  8. For an excellent discussion and example of fugitives setting up runaway communities in proximity to or sometimes even in the midst of a plantation, see Yuko Miki, “Fleeing into Slavery: The Insurgent Geography of Brazilian Quilombolas (Maroons), 1880-1881, The Americas 68, No. 4 (2012), 495-528
  9. “Letra H: Huma carta escrita pelo reo Luiz Gonzaga das Virgens, ao Cadete Francisco Leonardo Carneiro, e o rascunho de hum requerimento do mesmo reo, dirigido a Sua Alteza,” Autos da Devassa do Conspiração dos Alfaiates (ADCA), Arquivo Publico do Estado da Bahia (APEB), vol. 1, 224-7; 226.
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Greg Childs

Greg Childs is Assistant Professor of History at Brandeis University. He is currently completing a book entitled Seditious Spaces, Public Politics: The Tailor’s Conspiracy of Bahia, Brazil and the Politics of Freedom in the Revolutionary Atlantic.

Comments on “Visible Fugitives

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    This was really a fantastic and important post. It struck me that, in addition to its importance for understanding the past, more carefully locating quilombos (and palenques elsewhere in South America) has direct modern policy relevance as well. Throughout South America (though I am thinking specifically about Colombia), I know the descendants of these communities have had to engage protracted legal battles to gain recognition of their land rights. I can’t help but think about the kind of impact historians might have by thinking more carefully about the geographic location of these communities.

    As a side note, I was wondering if you knew the answer to a question I’ve pondered for some time. That is, do you have any insight on the etymology of ‘quilombo’ as it’s used in Argentina? From my time in Buenos Aires, I was struck by their use of ‘quilombo’ as synonymous with “disorganized disaster.” I’m curious where that comes from and how far back it stretches, especially given Argentina’s attitudes about race (and about Brazil).

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