Known as a hard-nosed resistance fighter, the African-Brazilian military leader Zumbi (1655–1695) spent his life safeguarding the fugitive slaves of Palmares, Brazil. Eventually, his community fell to a large-scale raid and Zumbi was beheaded. On the 300th anniversary of his death, his story re-emerged, a symbol of hope and determination for his modern-day, freedom-fighting counterparts.

Richard Wareham Fotografie/Alamy Stock Photo

Richard Wareham Fotografie/Alamy Stock Photo

Zumbi became a cause célèbre in 1995 as Afro-Brazilians looked for ways to commemorate the 300th anniversary of his passing. In the 21st century, Brazil was home to the largest population of black citizens outside of Africa, but this population felt that it lacked a voice in the nation. In their fight for recognition, Afro-Brazilians looked to Zumbi for inspiration. “Zumbi is marginalized because he fought against the powerful, the rich and the slave-owning system,” Zumbi enthusiast Marcelo Gentil told New York Times writer James Brooke. “Our goal is to transform Zumbi into a hero of the Americas, the earliest great black hero of the Americas.”

Born Free in Slave-Packed Brazil

The slaves who escaped Brazil's plantations gathered together in mountainside settlements known as quilombos. In these communities, which were ruled by a king, escaped slaves attempted to create a new society based on African traditions. Many of the quilombos did not last long; they faced frequent attacks from the Portuguese colonists who were threatened by their existence. As soon as a community was founded, the Portuguese sought to eliminate it. The Kingdom of Palmares was one of the most formidable, however, and it lasted for nearly a century, from 1605 to 1695.

A few years after Zumbi was born in Palmares, he was captured by the Portuguese and handed over to a Jesuit priest. For about a decade, he lived in a coastal monastery where he learned Portuguese, Latin, and the tenets of Catholicism. Zumbi escaped when he was approximately 15 and returned to Palmares. Zumbi's uncle, King Ganga-Zumba, then ruled the powerful quilombo and extended emancipation to any slave who made it to his kingdom's borders.

Became Military Leader

After the teenaged Zumbi returned home, King GangaZumba tapped him to become a military commander, an important post because Palmares was in a constant state of war with the Portuguese. The colonists hated the quilombos because their existence gave hope to slaves hoping to break free. Records indicate that the Portuguese attacked Palmares as early as 1612, but failed in the attempt. About every 15 months, Portuguese soldier launched a new raid, hoping to overthrow the settlement. In addition, the plantation owners organized their own raids, motivated by the desire to require their property.

The Portuguese were not the only ones conducting raids. In his position as military commander under King Ganga-Zumba, Zumbi led warriors in raids during which they intimidated the colonists and abduct slaves. Under the rules of Palmares, slaves who escaped and made it there were considered free, but slaves who were captured from the plantations and brought to Palmares were not, and they were required to work. These captives could earn their freedom, however, by “capturing” a replacement to take their spot. Slaves who fled Palmares were given severe punishments if recaptured by their fellow Africans. Through this structure, the quilombo of Palmares grew exponentially.

Palmares was located high in the mountains, which provided a natural defense. In addition to serving as home to former African slaves, it was inhabited by Brazilian Indians, the mixed-race offspring of European colonists and fugitive Portuguese soldiers attempting to escape military service. In its heyday, Palmares grew to cover an area of about 216 square miles and included several small villages, which were well-planned with grass-hut houses, worship centers, statues, and granaries. The surrounding land had plenty of fruit trees and good timber for building huts. With an agricultural background through their work on sugarcane plantations, the people living in Palmares were avid farmers: They grew corn, beans, and sugarcane and hunted and fished to supplement their food supply.

The Palmares people also bartered with traders who were more than willing to supply them with guns and ammunition in return for gold and silver. As a result, Zumbi and his soldiers were well-equipped to defend their land and their king, possessing both western weapons and a knowledge of guerrilla-style warfare. R.K. Kent, writing in the Journal of African History, cited an official Brazilian pronouncement from 1670 that criticized “those who possess firearms” and give them to the Palmares people “in disregard of God and local laws.”

King Ganga-Zumba lived in a well-fortified compound containing about 1,500 hut homes. Palmares compounds were often surrounded by moats filled with sharpened sticks. They also built walls and scattered caltrops, a crude form of anti-personnel weaponry. Caltrops were basically clumps of metal shaped with small metal burrs that had multiple points, so that no matter how the device was placed on the ground, one spike always faced up. The caltrops did not kill enemy soldiers; they slowed them down by puncturing the feet of both cavalry and infantry.

Respected Enough to Be Made King

Zumbi gained renown among the people of Palmares in 1675, when he was wounded in the leg during battle but declined to leave the fight. As Zumbi's authority increased, rumors suggested that he was immortal. In fact, the name Zumbi was likely a nickname he received during his years as commander-in-chief of the Palmares people because one historical text translated the word to roughly mean “God of War.” Derivations of the name Zumbi are also found in African society. For instance, the Bantu people of Angola used the term “Zambi a Mpungu” to refer to their supreme God, or creator. In her essay on Zumbi for Clark Atlanta University's Phylon, Irene Diggs described Zumbi as a formidable and respected warrior. “Even Zumbi's enemies admitted he was a man of singular valor, of great fortitude and constancy, a model for others because of his diligence, wisdom and courage,” according to Diggs.

In 1678, Portuguese governor Pedro Almedia took control of Pernambuco and King Ganga-Zumba negotiated a peace treaty with him. Ganga-Zumba agreed to turn over some of the slaves who had been captured from the colonists in return for permission to found a sovereign state that would be free from Portuguese rule and attack. The treaty included a stipulation that the people of Palmares would relocate. Zumbi was angry at his uncle for striking this deal with the Portuguese and initiated a revolt. In the aftermath, Ganga-Zumba was poisoned and Zumbi became king. He took over Palmares and continued his resistance against the Portuguese.

Fought to the Death

In 1687, a new Portuguese governor came to Pernambuco. Joâo de Cunha Sotto-Mayor was determined to get rid of Palmares. Because the Portuguese troops and colonists had been unable to do the job, Sotto-Mayor called in outside help: He hired the Paulistas to dismantle the settlement. Known for their wilderness and tactical skills, the Paulistas were slave-hunters who traveled the Brazilian interior, capturing indigenous tribes and selling them to owners of coffee plantations. The plan was to capture the residents of Palmares and sell them in either Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires. After traveling north across Brazil for 1,000 miles, the Paulistas reached Pernambuco and planned their attack. They moved into the mountainsides and burned the land. The Palmares fugitives who survived this initial onslaught went into hiding and later re-established their community under Zumbi's command.

After two more years of fighting, the Paulistas had reduced Zumbi's kingdom to one well-barricaded site. They now advanced again, but Zumbi and his men held them off for 20 days. Sensing that a victory was close, the Paulistas went to Pernambuco for reinforcements and brought back 3,000 soldiers the final advance. Fighting in this wave lasted 22 days and included hand-to-hand combat. Some 500 Palmarians—males and females of all ages—were captured and sold. Most fought to the death and some even committed suicide rather than return to slavery.

Captured by the Paulistas, Zumbi was decapitated on November 20, 1695. His head was placed on a pole and displayed prominently to quash the hopes of his people that he would return to liberate them. It was also meant to deter other resistance fighters from taking up arms against the Portuguese. The celebration marking the end of Zumbi—and Palmares—lasted six days.

For decades, stories about Zumbi were passed down in the oral traditions of his Afro-Brazilian descendants. In 1840, the Brazilian Historical Institute took an interest in Zumbi and Palmares and by 1851 was searching primary sources mentioning his history. In 1992, U.S. archaeologist Charles Orser opened excavations in Palmares. His team found glazed potshards, African-style clay pipes, and other artifacts suggesting large-scale trade interactions with Europeans. In 1994, interest in Zumbi intensified as the 300th anniversary of his death drew near. His story was used to introduce seminars on race-relations in Brazil. “For we blacks, the example of Zumbi inspires our fight for justice and the right to be full-fledged citizens without fear and shame of our blackness,” Palmares Foundation president Joel Rufino told Christian Science Monitor writer Jack Epstein.

In 1995, the “Zumbi March against Racism” was held in Brasília—the capital of Brazil—to encourage AfroBrazilian mobilization and spur the government into action with regards to racial issues. To date, the march represented the largest civil-rights protest in Brazilian history. In 2000, the Universidade Zumbi dos Palmares was established in Sâo Paulo to pay homage to the black freedom fighter. The university was given a mission: To serve the disadvantaged, just as Zumbi had done during his lifetime. Its motto read: “There is no freedom without education.”


Majewski, Teresita, and David Gaimster, editors, International Handbook of Historical Archaeology, Springer Verlag, 2009.


Christian Science Monitor, November 24, 1995, Jack Epstein, “Brazil's Slave Hero Finally Wins Acclaim,” p. 1.

Journal of African History, Volume 6, number 2 (1965), R.K. Kent, “Palmares: An African State in Brazil,” pp. 161–175.

New York Times, November 30, 1994, James Brooke, “From Brazil's Misty Past, a Black Hero Emerges,” p. A4.

Phylon, Volume 14, number 1 (1953), Irene Diggs, “Zumbi and the Republic of Os Palmares,” pp. 62–70.


BBC News website, http://news.bbc.co.uk/ (September 22, 2006), “Legacy of Brazil's Slave Leader.”❑

(MLA 8th Edition)