Black Consciousness Day – 20th November – Brazil

Zumbi, the heroic figure of Black Consciousness Day – 2oth November – Brazil

Today, 20th November, is a public holiday in Rio state and in some other parts of Brazil. It is now called “Black Consciousness Day” and is particularly celebrated by Brazilians with a genetic inheritance from the African continent, but it is now widely held as a bank holiday anyway.

The date recollects the day that Zumbi, King of the Quilombo of Palmares was captured and killed by Portuguese colonists in Brazil.


Zumbi, believed to be descended from Imbangala warriors from Angola who had been brought over to Brazil as slaves, was born free in Palmares, which was located in what is now the state of Alagoas, a little bit to the south of Recife. When he was just six years old he was captured by the Portuguese and “given” to a missionary, who tended to his education and baptised him into the Catholic church. He learned the sacraments, Portuguese and Latin and served in the church, helping with the daily Mass. Clearly he did not like life as a slave, however, and at about the age of 15 he escaped and returned to his home in Palmares.

A Quilombo is a fugitive settlement for runaway slaves (Kimbundu word: “kilombo,” of the North Mbundu Bantu language in Angola, meaning “warrior village or settlement” ) and there appear to have been many equivalents in other South American countries, the USA and in the West Indies. The Quilombo of Palmares was one of the biggest – approximately the size of Portugal – with a population of freed slaves at one point estimated at around 30,000 (although the figure may be much lower, one estimate putting it at 11,000 – but still the largest in Brazil). It was self-sustaining but was constantly being attacked by Portuguese colonists, trying to return the people there to slavery. In their turn the residents of the Quilombo would raid plantations and towns to try and persuade their fellow Africans to escape with them and come back to the Quilombo.

The King of the Quilombo of Palmares at this time was Zumbi`s uncle, Ganga Zumba ( )and young Zumbi became well known for his physical prowess and also his cunningness in battle. By the time he was in his early twenties he was also known to be an excellent strategist.

According to the Wikipedia article above Ganga Zumba .. “… is said to be the son of princess Aqualtune; daughter of an unknown King of Kongo. She led a battalion at the Battle of Mbwila. But the Portuguese won the battle eventually killing 5,000 men and captured the King, his two sons, his two nephews, four governors, various court officials, 95 title holders and 400 other nobles. who were put on ships and sold as slaves in the Americas. is very probable that Ganga was among the nobles. The whereabouts of the rest of them is unknown, but Ganga Zumba his Brother Zona and his sister Sabina (mother of Zumbi dos Palmares his nephew and successor) were made slaves at the plantation of Santa Rita. From there they escaped to Palmares.”

The article goes on to say “In 1678 Zumba accepted a peace treaty offered by the Portuguese Governor of Pernambuco, which required that the Palmarinos relocate to Cucaú Valley. The treaty was challenged by Zumbi, one of Ganga Zumba’s nephews, who led a revolt against him. In the confusion that followed, Ganga Zumba was poisoned, mostly likely by one of his own relatives for entering into a treaty with the Portuguese.”
From that point on Zumbi continued to harass the Portuguese colonists of Recife and surrounding areas and there were six attempts between 1680 and 1686 to “conquer” Palmares which all ended in failure. In 1694 the Governor of Pernambuco organised an army under Domingos Jorge Velho to suppress Palmares which this time was successful but Zumbi escaped, only to be betrayed the following year, when Velho went back to finish the job.

Zumbi was executed on 20th November 1695 but he has become a symbol of slave freedom and is regarded as something of an heroic figure from a black African perspective in Brazil.

One of the cultural traditions of Brazil which was part of the Quilombo experience, is the form of martial arts called Capoeira, treated these days as a dance form. But I wouldn`t want to get in the way of one of those flying feet.


About Keith Melton - Green Lib Dem

Retired English liberal environmentalist living in Nottinghamshire; spent six years in Brazil. Author of Historical Novel - Captain Cobbler: the Lincolnshire Uprising 1536. Active member of the Green Liberal Democrats - (pressure group in Liberal Democrats) - was Founding Chair of GLD in 1988
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