Expats: Promised Lands

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Drawing from Johann Moritz Rugendas.

Named by Portuguese settlers for the perennial palm trees that foliate the state of Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil, Palmares was a massive self-sustaining settlement of escaped slaves that survived for the entirety of the 17th century. With strong roots in Central African sociopolitical models, the society functioned like a kingdom made up of smaller consolidated entities, all overseen by a ganga zumba. Though Palmares was made up of a majority black Portuguese-Angolan population, it also provided shelter for other marginalized groups in colonial times like native Brazilians, Jews, Arabs and poor whites. At the height of the kingdom, Palmares was home to around 30,000 people.

No other country in the Americas bought more slaves from Africa than Brazil in the time between the 16th and 19th centuries, and in 1889, it became the very last nation in the Western hemisphere to outlaw the institution. So common was it that Portuguese settlers complained to the government that their slaves were running away that some slave owners considered the first attempt to be a part of the “breaking in” process. Runaways who were caught had iron collars hung around their necks and were sent to slave prison, or sold.

In the mid-1530s, the first quilombos — communities of escaped and free-born African slaves — began arising around Brazil and grew as slavery expanded. Its name was derived from the native Angolan kimbolo, a diverse front of varied tribes that assembled as a military force to fight colonization. Quimbolo dos Palmares was the largest and longest-standing quilombo, as 7 in 10 quilombos were terminated within 2 years of formation. After six Portuguese expeditions to conquer the Palmares failed, Pernambuco governor Pedro Almeida organized an army eventually defeated the palmarista force in 1694, ending the republic’s reign.

Today, due to a change in the constitution that was made after 20 years of dictatorship, the descendants of the quilombas have come forward to declare land as a part of a reparations program ratified in Brazil nearly three decades ago. The law, which guarantees the permanent and non-transferable title to land to descendants of runaway slave settlements, was expanded in 2003 by President Lula to include any community of blacks whose majority decides to apply. Since then, the number of certified quilombos has skyrocketed from fewer than three dozen to over 2,400, with over a million Brazilians in the process of applying for recognition. Yet securing land titles remains elusive: 217 land titles (out of hundreds more/0 have been issued by the government, with only six granted in the past two years. In response, quilombos across the country are beginning to move in and occupy patches of promised lands, invading drought-stricken plots far from cities in groups of hundreds all across the country. Their hope is to grow food in order to be as self-sustaining as their forbearer’s were, but most have just ignited disputes with authorities and wealthy landowners, who often win, just as their ancestors did centuries ago.

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