Atlantic History Quilombos
Maria Helena P. T. Machado, Flávio dos S. Gomes, Marília B. A. Ariza
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0314


Between the 16th and 19th centuries, great numbers of men and women in the Americas escaped slavery by joining communities of fugitives. In Brazil, these communities were called mocambos, at first, and they were later referred to as quilombos, both of which were African terms that designated camps in several small societies in Central West Africa. It remains unclear to researchers what terms fugitives used to name themselves. As far as is known, the Portuguese colonial administration was responsible for disseminating the terms mocambos and quilombos. Colonial authorities moved around the Portuguese Empire and frequently took up posts in Africa and Asia prior to their arrival in South America. The term quilombo originally designated both Portuguese military strategies in precolonial Africa and forms of resistance to slavery in Portuguese America. Therefore, by using the term, colonial authorities could be referring to two different entities: war and prisoner camps in Central Africa or communities of runaway slaves in Brazil. Apart from that fact, several military officials who served in Africa had previous experiences in military campaigns against Dutch attacks in the 17th century in Portuguese America as well as in expeditions to dismantle mocambos and capture indigenous slaves. In any case, the term quilombo emerges only in the colony’s historical documentation by the end of the 17th century. Before that time, runaway communities were most commonly referred to by the name mocambos. Found in documents of colonial administration of the Captaincy of Bahia, the earliest reference to mocambos in Portuguese America dates from 1757. By the late 16th century, records point to the existence of Quilombo dos Palmares in the Captaincy of Pernambuco. Colonial authorities did not consider it completely destroyed until the beginning of the 18th century. Other large quilombos emerged during the 18th century in mining areas of Goiás, Mato Grosso, and Minas Gerais. Throughout the 19th century, quilombo communities proliferated in various locations: they could be found close to mining areas, plantations, or smaller farms; in vacant lands on economic frontiers and backlands inhabited by indigenous peoples; and in border areas such as those between Brazil and the Guianas. They also became part of urban landscapes, especially in the last decades of the 19th century. However, these communities were smaller, the modest dimensions of which enabled their longevity. Defined by specific cultural, social, and economic lifestyles and worldviews, quilombo communities survived post-abolition and they exist up to today.

General Overview: Concept and Transformations

Slave societies lived with several forms of slave resistance, which included communities of fugitive slaves. Contrary to traditional historiographical assumptions of rareness and isolation, in Brazil quilombos proliferated over time, integrating themselves into diverse social, economic, and geographic contexts. Although quilombos could be found of very large size, most of them were small communities, able to quickly migrate according to their needs. The existence of quilombos can be found mentioned in legislation of town councils from the mid-17th century. However, Lara 1988 notes that it was only in 1740 that the Overseas Council defined quilombos as “houses of more than five fugitive blacks, with or without huts and pestles, established in desert lands” (p. 301). Gomes 2005 affirms that these small runaway communities integrated themselves into local economies and established close ties with small-scale producers. The author coins the term campo negro (loosely translatable as “black field”) to describe these social networks involving quilombolas, slaves, and impoverished freed and free people. Subsistence crops, collective land use, and autonomy over production characterized both the economic organization of quilombos and the cultivation of slaves’ food plots, connecting slaves’ informal economy to the peasant mode of production. That is made clear in a document penned in 1789 by quilombolas who negotiated the terms of their return to work after fleeing from a sugar mill in the Captaincy of Bahia, as demonstrated in Schwartz 1977. Cardoso 1987 argues that the “peasant breach” connects the worldviews of enslaved people in plantations and in communities of fugitives, thus exposing the socioeconomic logics of quilombos. Connecting land donation, slaves’ autonomous economy, and quilombo communities, Guimarães 2009 addresses the concept of terras de preto (see Quilombolas and Indigenous People and Remnant Quilombo Communities for further discussion). Communities of slaves and freed people in donated lands were at times provisional, as explained in Machado 2010. Many of them, however, proved to be durable, emerging today as remnant quilombo communities, such as the Marambaia community considered in Yabeta and Gomes 2013. According to Mello 2012, other communities occupied land acquired by freed people. In the 1880s, constant movement of runaway slaves, freed individuals, and enslaved people in the process of acquiring freedom created conditions for the emergence of itinerant quilombo communities, as described in Gomes and Machado 2015. Gomes 2015 argues that in the decades following abolition, territorial movement of freed people and quilombolas expanded this itinerant black peasantry. To this day, kinship and peasant values are fundamental to the worldviews of those living in black rural communities, including quilombolas.

  • Cardoso, Ciro Flamarion. Escravo ou camponês? O protocampesinato negro nas Américas. São Paulo, Brazil: Brasiliense, 1987.

    Discusses the role played by the “peasant breach” in slave economies in the Americas from a Marxist point of view. The chapter “A brecha camponesa no Brasil: Realidade, interpretações e polêmicas” discusses interpretations of slaves’ autonomous economy in different scenarios of Brazilian slavery.

  • Gomes, Flávio dos Santos. A Hydra e os pantânos: Mocambos, quilombos e comunidades de fugitivos no Brasil escravista (sécs. XVII–XIX). São Paulo, Brazil: Polis/UNESP, 2005.

    Drawing on the metaphor of the Lernean Hydra—an indestructible many-headed monster—the author analyzes negotiations, conflicts, attempts to destroy quilombos and their strategies to avoid acts of repression in different areas of Brazilian over the 18th and 19th centuries. The author highlights the articulation of quilombos and slaves’ quarters in a socioeconomic network (“campo negro”) established in several parts of the colonial and imperial territory.

  • Gomes, Flávio dos Santos. Mocambos e quilombos: Uma história do campesinato negro no Brasil. São Paulo, Brazil: Claro Enigma, 2015.

    A comprehensive overview of the emergence of quilombo communities in Brazil, highlighting the emergence of runaway communities and black families’ migratory movements. Analyzes forms of black peasantry existing since the 17th century. Based on data from INCRA (Colonization and Agrarian Reform Institute) and nongovernmental organizations as well as scholarly research on quilombola social movements, the author lists nearly five hundred black rural remnant quilombo communities in the country.

  • Gomes, Flávio dos Santos, and Maria Helena P. T. Machado. “Migrations dans l’arrière-pays, formes d’occupation des territoires et quilombos itinérants à São Paulo (XVIIIe–XIXe siècles).” Brésil(s): Sciences Humaines et Sociales 7.5 (2015): 173–210.

    DOI: 10.4000/bresils.1533

    Analyzes the emergence of quilombo communities in São Paulo from the beginning of the Captaincy to the final years of slavery. Focuses on the rise of itinerant communities, small-scale migrant communities composed of runaways, freed people, and impoverished free people who moved around the province during the last years of slavery.

  • Guimarães, Elione Terras de Preto. Terra de preto: Usos e ocupação da terra por escravos e libertos (Vale do Paraíba, 1850–1920). Niterói, Brazil: Editora da UFF, 2009.

    Based on extensive research in registers of office documents and criminal and civil records regarding two cases of land donated to slaves, the book expands the concept of terras de preto connecting slaves’ informal economy to the occurrence of black rural economies, thus delving into the socioeconomic logic behind the emergence of a black peasantry in Brazil.

  • Lara, Silvia Hunold. “Capitães-do-mato.” In Campos da violência: Escravos e Senhores na Capitania do Rio de Janeiro, 1750–1808. Edited by Silvia Hunold Lara, 295–322. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1988.

    Focusing on the colonial period, the author examines patterns of slave criminality in the area of Campos dos Goitacazes in what is now the northeastern region of the state of Rio de Janeiro. Masters’ quotidian practices of violence, power relations, and slave culture are highlighted. In this chapter, the author analyzes extensive documentation on slave flights, definitions, and repression of quilombos.

  • Machado, Maria Helena Pereira Toledo. O plano e o pânico: Movimentos sociais na década da abolição. 2d ed. São Paulo: Editora da Universidade de São Paulo, 2010.

    The chapter “Senhores e escravos na construção do sonho da terra” presents a lengthy discussion on the worldviews and expectations of enslaved people, focusing on those who had access to land and enjoyed autonomous work relations as a result of abandonment by masters, donation, or occupation of deserted land formally belonging to masters in the final decade of slavery. Originally published in 1994.

  • Mello, Marcelo Moura. Reminiscências dos quilombos: Territórios da memória em uma comunidade negra rural. São Paulo, Brazil: Terceiro Nome, 2012.

    Based on oral history and textual sources, the book examines the history of the black community Cambará, in Rio Grande do Sul, southern Brazil. The author analyzes the register office documents and in the chapter “A formação de um território negro” delves into the origins of the community, which established itself on land purchased by two freedmen and that progressively incorporated other freed people, organizing itself through kinship.

  • Schwartz, Stuart. “Resistance and Accommodation in 18th Century Brazil: The Slave’s View of Slavery.” Hispanic American Historical Review 57.1 (1977): 69–81.

    DOI: 10.2307/2513543

    Based on a document written between 1789 and 1790 by fugitive slaves who fled from Santana Sugar Mill (Engenho de Santana) and gathered in surrounding woods, the author analyzes runaways’ demands for the preservation of slaves’ informal economy, which included cultivation of food crops, extractivism, and participation in local trade. Claims to free time and the possibility of choosing overseers highlight the search by slaves for autonomy.

  • Yabeta, Daniela, and Flávio Gomes. “Memória, cidadania e direitos de comunidades remanescentes (em torno de um documento da história dos quilombolas da Marambaia).” Afro-Ásia 47 (2013): 79–117.

    DOI: 10.1590/S0002-05912013000100003

    Focuses on the origins and development of a remnant quilombo community in Marambaia Island (Ilha de Marambaia, territory of the state of Rio de Janeiro) from the mid-19th century to today. Established on land informally donated by plantation master Joaquim Breve to his slaves, and later incorporating other black families in search of land, the community resisted several attacks by private interests and public authorities.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.