Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 18, 2008

Quilombo Country

Filed under: Africa,african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 1:46 pm

Some of you might remember the 1984 “Quilombo”, a Brazilian film that dramatized the struggles of slaves who successfully resisted their slave-masters in the 18th century and created free settlements (quilombo in Portuguese) in the north of the country. The opening paragraphs of Vincent Canby’s review of that film would serve as a good introduction to the brand-new documentary titled “Quilombo Country” now showing at the Pioneer Theater in New York:

Toward the end of the 17th century, a sizable number of slaves from Brazil’s great sugar plantations escaped to the northeast where, in Pernambuco, they formed a legendary community (or quilombo), the Republic of Palmares.

For a brief time, Palmares became the haven not only for runaway slaves but also for Brazil’s Jews, poor white farmers and all others for whom life elsewhere was hopeless. Until it was finally crushed by the armies of the Portuguese king, Palmares was, according to the Brazilian film director Carlos Diegues, ”the first democratic society we know of in the Western hemisphere.”

First time director Leonard Abrams began working on a project to document the daily lives of the contemporary descendants of these rebels in 2001 and the film is clearly a labor of love. He basically allows Afro-Brazilians from a number of quilombos to tell their story, which revolves around a number of overlapping themes:

  • the desire of the people to retain their African identity, which includes religious observances that are a syncretic mixture of Catholicism and African pantheism that the believers have no trouble reconciling.
  • a willingness to confront racism in Brazil, which in the words of one interviewee manifested itself as a refusal to call the quilombolos by their proper name. He was frequently addressed as “moreno”, the word for “darkie,” even though people knew his name. He bitterly observes that even the barnyard animals are given names.
  • the persistence of a communal mode of production using the kinds of food production technologies that their ancestors used, including fishing and hunting with very rudimentary devices. A typical meal might consist of armadillo roasted over an open fire. While this life does offer a certain sense of freedom being outside the cash economy, it comes at great costs. One quilombolo who moved to the city said that she would never go back because of the hardships, including the need to walk great distances every day for the basics of life. Only recently has electricity and fresh water been introduced into the quilombo village, thus attenuating these hardships to some extent.
  • the conflict between the quilombos and large land-owners who have used their economic power and their privileged relationship to the courts and legislatures to encroach on traditional communal land-holdings of the descendants of slaves. (Including one landlord who had the audacity to use the stolen land for an eco-tourism park.) As frequently occurs with American Indians, a quilombolo is suckered into selling his or her land at a pittance.

Although the movie is focused on the social struggles of the people, there are joyous moments of singing and dance that reveal the African roots of much of popular Brazilian music today.

Finally, I would recommend (in addition to seeing the movie itself) downloading the very scholarly article on quilombo life written by the director from the movie’s website. It includes the following observation that strikes me as eminently reasonable and one that I drew myself after several trips to Sandinista Nicaragua in the late 1980s and early 90s:

The absence of financial means and human misery are firmly paired in the First World mind, to such an extent that even among those most open to other social systems, to suggest otherwise can constitute a taboo. The people discussed in this study are, in terms of monetary income, remarkably poor. Yet this society of quilombos appears to be quite functional, in some ways more so than certain subsets of people in the First World who are materially far richer.


  1. > He was frequently addressed as “moreno”, the word for “darkie,” even >though people knew his name.

    Just a slight nitpick from my part. I am not sure of the usage of “moreno” in Brazil, but it doesn’t mean “darkie”, at least not in Mexico. “Moreno” is usually preferred over “negro.” Negro of course is literal for black whereas “moreno” usually tends to mean anyone who is of a darkerer skin tone. Negro is a double edge sword since its a proper word (black), but also objectifies and points out the “social tatus” of the person being labelled. It’s been now a custom, in Mexico at least, to use the word “moreno.” Your overall point stands, of course, but just wanted to add more cultural info.

    Comment by Erik Carlos Toren — September 18, 2008 @ 2:41 pm

  2. Thanks for the headsup on this film, Louis. I’ve long been a friend of Lucumi societies on both coasts due to a couple of decades in Afro-Cuban percussion studies and Latin music, and have found in such company community comradeship that goes way beyond most of the acquaintances I’ve had on the left. It’s important history and culture to know about and patient work through such organizations has led me to higher quality work in black community schools and organizations. I think socialists owe it to ourselves to try to grapple with quilombos and the communitarian ethos that surives in most Orisha worship communities, at least with the same respect and fortitude Maya Deren showed in the stuff she compiled on Haiti with her “Divine Horsemen” project. I believe this stuff, an understanding of the rural grange movement and a steady dose of Mariatequi are going to play a big part in how we can break down the contradiction between town and country in the Americas as time wears on. (Assuming we have time, that is.)

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — September 18, 2008 @ 5:27 pm

  3. Really interesting review. I can’t wait to see it.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — September 19, 2008 @ 4:42 am

  4. Ha Ha, thanks for posting this Louis. I now finally know where the word quilombo really comes from which in the spanish slang from Argentina (which we call lunfardo – it’s sort of the official language of Tango) means ‘riot’ or ‘mess’.

    Comment by BOLCHEJO — September 20, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

  5. On a more serious note. The rebellion of Palmares (I’m taking this from the book by Eduardo Galeano, ‘The open veins of Latin America’) lasted the whole 17th century, making the longest slave rebellion in history, Spartacus’ lasting only 18 months. Unlike the monoculture dominated regions by the Portuguese (i.e. the sugar plantations), a variety of crops could be found in Palmares, corn, beans, bananas, tapioca, etc. which had much more to offer for slaves than the misery of the plantations even in times of ample prosperity. It was of course the main purpose of colonization to destroy the system of policulture. To defeat Palmares the Portuguese had to mobilize their largest army, no less than ten thousands people died defending it.

    Comment by BOLCHEJO — September 20, 2008 @ 3:02 pm

  6. FYI Bolchejo: Haiti’s revolution, the only successful slave rebellion in history, began in 1791 and was completed in 1804, despite multiple invasions by French, English and Spanish forces. The imperialists have made Haiti’s people pay the price ever since.

    Sadly, Frederick Douglass’s 1893 description of the U.S. stance towards Haiti still holds today:

    “To their shame be it spoken, men in high American quarters have boasted to me of their ability to start a revolution in Haiti at pleasure. They have only to raise sufficient money, they say, with which to arm and otherwise equip the malcontents, of either faction, to effect their object. Men who have old munitions of war or old ships to sell; ships that will go down in the first storm, have an interest in stirring up strife in Haiti. It gives them a market for their worthless wares. Others of a speculative turn of mind and who have money to lend at high rates of interest are glad to conspire with revolutionary chiefs of either faction, to enable them to start a bloody insurrection. To them, the welfare of Haiti is nothing; the shedding of human blood is nothing; the success of free institutions is nothing, and the ruin of neighboring country is nothing. They are sharks, pirates and Shylocks, greedy for money, no matter at what cost of life and misery to mankind.”


    Comment by Nik Barry-Shaw — September 22, 2008 @ 5:12 am

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