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Fleeing into Slavery: The Insurgent Geographies of Brazilian Quilombolas (Maroons), 1880-1881
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Fleeing into Slavery:
The Insurgent Geographies of Brazilian Quilombolas (Maroons), 1880-1881

On July 26, 1880, Benedito, the most notorious quilombola, or maroon, in São Mateus, the northern region of Espírito Santo province, Brazil, disappeared from the public prison in a flamboyant escape.1 After his drunken guards fell asleep, Benedito placed a cleaning bucket on top of his cot and employed it as a stepping-stone in tandem with a rope made from his bed-sheet to scale the back wall enclosing the cell. He leapt to the other side, opened the back door, and slipped out noiselessly. Rendering the situation even more preposterous to those who discovered him gone were the handcuffs that lay on the floor smeared with sheep fat, which he had used to slip his hands out without forcing the locks. The slave of a local female landowner, the 24-year-old had fled from his mistress's family years before, becoming a quilombola with a [End Page 495] growing list of well-publicized activities under his belt, including homicide.2 The police delegate investigating the incident grimly acknowledged that re-arrest would be difficult. Not only was there a chronic lack of officers, but the quilombolas rarely acted alone. He was certain that Benedito would be impossible to capture because he was likely protected by a local quilombo (maroon settlement) in the city district—and possibly by many others.3

The story of Benedito offers a glimpse into the complex world of marronage, slavery, and freedom in the last years of slavery and the Brazilian empire.4 This article reexamines the practice of marronage by way of the quilombolas' claims on the spatial and social geography of late nineteenth-century Brazil. The primary goal is to investigate why and how enslaved women and men chose to flee and create quilombos in the last decade of slavery in Brazil, and how their choices expressed their evolving identities as free people in the new nation. Although it was long considered to be an "African," largely colonial-era form of slave resistance that eroded with the creolization of the enslaved population, marronage as practiced by the São Mateus quilombolas was by no means a "restorationist" effort to preserve or re-create an African-based community separate from slave society. Rather, it was one in which the quilombolas sought to live as free agents while deeply enmeshed in that society's midst.5 [End Page 496]

Through these avenues of inquiry, the article also examines how marronage was intertwined with a key phenomenon of nineteenth-century Brazilian nation-building that has received little attention: internal colonization. Though far removed from the indigenous territories of the Amazon, São Mateus and its surrounding hinterland had been a refuge for the indigenous and for small groups of African-descended people during much of the colonial period.6 Circumstances changed in the postcolonial era when the region became the locus of aggressive development spearheaded by government agents and individual fortune-seekers. The national elite blamed the region's largely black and indigenous population for its alleged backwardness and justified its colonization in the name of progress. Its economy, however, remained highly dependent on slave labor late into the nineteenth century owing to a chronic labor shortage, and slaveholders steadfastly opposed abolition even as the rest of the nation was forced to acknowledge its impending reality. Amid intense conflicts over the control of Brazil's fast-vanishing hinterlands, the enslaved fled their masters and created quilombos. Government-authorized expeditions targeted quilombos and "hostile" Indian groups repeatedly throughout the nineteenth century, and fleeing slaves had to contend with masters, Indians, missionaries, and settlers. At the heart of these clashes was the question of who had a claim on the Brazilian nation, and on what terms.

The São Mateus quilombolas confronted the exclusion from citizenship experienced by enslaved people throughout postcolonial Brazil, and they had little opportunity to escape legally from slavery even late into the century, given the staunch proslavery interests in the region and the diminishing hinterland into which to disappear. They thus decided to flee into São Mateus, rather than away from it...