A cross in the center of Santo Antônio dos Pretos, at the edge of the Amazon.
A cross in the center of Santo Antônio dos Pretos, at the edge of the Amazon.

Where Slaves Ruled

Escaped slaves in Brazil created thousands of hidden societies, or quilombos, in the heart of the country. Today these communities are winning rights to their land—and helping protect it.

Imagine flying, impossibly, over the Earth in the 17th century—during the time described in American history books as the colonial period, when Europeans swarmed into the New World to dominate an almost empty wilderness. Instead, you would see tens of millions of native people already living in the Americas, joined by an extraordinary flow not of European colonists but of African slaves. Up until the early 19th century, almost four times as many Africans as Europeans came to the Americas. Looking down from above, you wouldn’t know that the tiny numbers of Europeans were supposed to be the stars of the story. Rather, your attention would focus on the two majority populations: Africans and Indians.

You’d have a lot to watch. By the tens of thousands, African slaves escaped the harsh conditions of the European plantations and mining operations and headed for the interior, into lands controlled by Indians. Up and down the Americas, ex-slaves and indigenous peoples fashioned hybrid settlements known as maroon communities, after the Spanish cimarrón, or runaway.

Largely conducted out of sight of Europeans, the complex interplay between black and red is a hidden drama that historians and archaeologists have only recently begun to unravel. Nowhere is the presence of this lost chapter more in evidence than in Brazil, where thousands of maroon communities are emerging from the shadows, reaffirming their mixed culture and pressing for legal title to the land they have occupied since the era of slavery. The stakes are high: New laws are giving Brazil’s maroon communities, called quilombos (the word for “settlement” in the Angolan language of Kimbundu), a key role in determining the future of the great Amazon forest.

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