Welcome to Slave Country

Women Against Bolsonaro protest. São Paulo, September 2018.

African slavery provided the foundation for modern Brazil, even more so than in the United States.  Ten times as many enslaved Africans were trafficked to Brazil as to the United States. Today over just over half of Brazil’s population is either black or of African descent. 

Brazil’s abolition movement was late-developing in comparison with Europe and the United States, generating political pressure only a relative few years before slavery’s abolition in 1888. 

What Brazil had far more of than North America was organized self-liberation and organized rebellion by slaves themselves.  Only Haiti exceeded Brazil in the violent success of its revolt against slavery.

North Americans tend to know little of the history of mocambos (also known by the later term quilombos), the autonomous villages established by Africans who rebelled against slavery and held their ground for a century against attempts at military re-conquest. 

When studied in US high schools, slavery becomes sui generis to the US national experience with possibly the brief reference to Haiti or the Caribbean. 

Marcelo D’Salete’s work to create a visualization of slavery in Brazil is especially important towards widening public comprehension of slavery as a pan-American history. 

D’Salete’s epic new 427-page graphic novel, Angola Janga: Kingdom of Runaway Slaves (Fantagraphics), attempts a reconstruction of life and resistance in mocambos

The original Portuguese edition (Veneta) appeared two years ago. This follows D’Salete’s compelling Run for It: Stories of Slaves who Fought for their Freedom (Fantagraphics 2017) that told stories of fugitive slaves and Bantu culture in Brazil.   

This is a complex narrative that intermixes known and imagined histories.  The skeleton is actual history; the flesh is fictional re-creation.  D’Salete includes a historical timeline and maps as an appendix so that readers can follow the historical elements more easily.

The volume’s black-and-white artwork is extraordinary and sustains its strength throughout.  D’Salete’s work with lusona – central African geometric line drawings – creates a motif that he uses to create a visual continuity. The lusona both hold reader interest and suggest a shared secret language between Africans. 

The story of African resistance to slavery in Brazil is not well known.  The initial mocambos emerged at the end of the sixteenth century in the Pernambucco hills and the first Portuguese military campaign against them took place in 1602-1603. 

This was the beginning of the Palmares War that lasted intermittently for generations.  Despite attacks, escaped slaves built a communal society on western and central African lines, established an agricultural and barter economy, and formed an autonomous government.   

After a Dutch interregnum lasting from 1630-1654, the resurgent Portuguese empire launched fresh campaigns against a much-expanded Palmares that contained as many as 30,000 residents. 

In the 41 years from 1655-1694, the Portuguese and local colonials launched dozens of campaigns against the Palmaristas, killing thousands and taking many slaves.  African fighters were able to use thick jungle to hide their villages and conduct guerilla warfare.  In 1694 the colonists were able to use cannon to break through the defenses of Macaco, the main Palmares village.  That brought an effective end to the war, although low-level conflict continued for nearly twenty years. 

Zumbi, the last king of Palmares before it fell, is a Brazilian hero about whom there is little detailed knowledge.  D’Salete undertakes the task of giving substance to the foggy myths surrounding this Afro-Brazilian folk hero.  The Zumbi that D’Salete creates becomes defined by his relations with his uncle, Ganga Zumba, his warrior-wife Dandara, and the Iago-like figure of Soares. 

Zumbi’s salt-preserved head ended up on public exhibit in Recife, but he came to embody a persistent spirit of rebellion.  This is the spirit that D’Salete invokes, as have other Brazilian graphic artists who have treated Zumbi.  Given the long-standing discrimination that Afro-Brazilians have faced, Zumbi has served modern audiences as a figure of resistance to racism in Brazilian society. 

Just as Kyle Baker’s graphic narrative Nat Turner is about much more than the historical figure of Nat Turner, so too is D’Salete’s rendition of Zumbi.  Figures such as Zumbi and Nat Turner pose the question of how much violence is necessary to achieve freedom and equality? 

When Frances Ellen Watkins Harper wrote a short dramatic monologue, “Death of Zombi” (1857), it was an answer to the Fugitive Slave Law:

Cruel in vengeance, reckless in wrath,

The hunters of men bore down on our path;

Inhuman and fierce, the offer they gave

Was freedom in death or the life of a slave.

Like D’Salete, Harper wrote of heroism in a death resisting enslavement and the strength necessary for this confrontation when freedom is more valuable than life itself.  Harper’s conclusion – “A free man he’d lived and a free man he would die” – modeled in Zumbi a willingness for self-sacrifice. 

In a final section, “Footsteps in the Night,” D’Salete undertakes to establish a connection between the seventeenth-century story of Angola Janga and contemporary Brazil.  A series of images finds us in a contemporary urban setting where a dejected, impoverished young woman sits in a trash-strewn alley. 

The ground opens beneath her and she falls into blackness, one where sugar mill wheels still crush cane and human life.  Imagery of capital and factory production dominates.  The abject young woman, transformed into a mill slave, rises in revolt aided by Zumbi’s widow Dandara (in D’Salete’s version she does not commit suicide upon defeat). 

The plantation slaves escape once again and the revolt is never-ending.  Panels with multiplying leaf patterns and stars above suggest that nature itself embodies this spreading revolt.  Brazil indeed witnessed slave revolts throughout the eighteenth and well into the nineteenth century, leading up to the Malê Revolt of 1835.

D’Salete has written and illustrated a grand story that uses both African elements and a western Romantic idea of rebellion against unjust government. 

His narrative rejects the claims of European colonisation and the Christian civilising mission, embracing instead animism and the meanings of the icon sculpture Chibinda Ilunga

Angola Janga is, in the end, a story of triumphant spirit, one that will not remain defeated. 

Photograph courtesy of Renato Gizzi. Published under a Creative Commons license.