Tag Archives: palmares

1635: Domingos Fernandes Calabar, traitor?

On this date in 1635, Domingos Fernandes Calabar was garroted at Porto Calvo.

A mulatto plantation owner, Calabar (Portuguese Wikipedia page) did his patriotic duty according to the dictates of Brazil’s Portuguese colonizers when an expansionist Netherlands showed up hungry for a bite of Brazil.

But after rounding up a volunteer militia and helping repel Dutch incursions in 1630 and 1632, Calabar switched sides and joined Holland.

Why he switched sides remains permanently obscure. Popular explanations include: the seductions of Netherlander lucre (Calabar’s detractors like this one); a politically mature calculation that the Dutch would make more progressive colonizers than the Portuguese (this was Calabar’s own defense: “I spilled my blood for … the slavery of my homeland … With its actions, the Dutch have proven better than the Portuguese and Spanish”);* or … somewhere in between

He was rewarded for his devotion [to the Portuguese] by the contempt of his countrymen, who were envious of his prowess. Wounded by this conduct, he left the Portuguese and joined the Dutch.

Whatever the reason(s) for it, Calabar’s switch was efficacious: he knew the lay of the land, and he was vigorous in helping the Dutch foothold of “New Holland” expand. The Dutch commissioned him a Major, and he gained a reputation for his ambushes.

I never met a man so well-adapted to our purposes … the greatest damage he could cause to his countrymen, was his greatest joy.

-English mercenary in the Dutch service

The Portuguese official Matias de Albuquerque eventually turned the tables and captured Calabar in a Portuguese ambush. He not only had the disloyal subject strangled, but quartered the body for public display.

This gruesome warning against collaboration did not prevent New Holland from growing to around half the Brazilian territory … but since Brazilians don’t speak Dutch today, you might have an idea how this is going to end.

After “New Holland” was re-conquered and re-re-conquered, the Dutch Republic under Johan de Witt — preferring a commercial empire to a territorial one — gave up its untenable position in exchange for 63 tons of gold.

As the (eventual) winners of this imperial affray, the Portuguese wrote a distinctly unflattering history of Domingos Fernandes Calabar, the disreputable traitor. He’s a sort of Benedict Arnold character synonymous with disloyalty for any Brazilian schoolchild.

But other interpretations are available.

During Brazil’s Cold War military dictatorship, when traitorousness might seem downright reputable after all, the “official version” was slyly subverted in several different stage productions, the best-known of which is a musical called Calabar: In Praise of Treason.**

Most of the information about Calabar online is in Portuguese; for instance, biographies here and here.

* Let it not be implied that the Dutch were out for anything other than the plunder of empire themselves: Calabar’s own home region of Pernambuco was desirable precisely because of its sugar cane cultivation.

Incidentally, the vicissitudes of war enabled many African slaves to escape to Maroon communities like Palmares — just a few miles away from Porto Calvo.

** See Severino JaĆ£o Albuquerque, “In Praise of Treason: Three Contemporary Versions of Calabar,” Hispania, Sept. 1991. “Less interested in settling the issue of Calabar’s martyrdom than in provoking serious debate about the meaning of loyalty and national identity in times of political repression and in the context of a dependent culture, these plays … bring to the fore the manifold ambiguities the colonized face reacting to the hegemonic rule of the colonizer.”

1695: Zumbi dos Palmares

On this date in 1695, Zumbi dos Palmares, the last leader of Brazil’s most famous free colony of fugitive slaves, was captured by the Portuguese and summarily beheaded.

From the very beginning of European settlement in the New Wold, Maroon communities of escaped slaves, free-born blacks, Indians, poor whites, and mixed-race outcasts formed at the fringes of slave states.

Colonial power did not welcome their presence.

Consequently, the community of Palmares faced repeated harassment from the Portuguese and the Dutch West Indies Company from the time of its establishment around 1600 — even as it burgeoned into a kingdom of over 30,000 inhabitants.

Zumbi, a black free-born in Palmares, was kidnapped by such a sortie and raised with a missionary priest who taught him Portuguese and Latin. At 15, he escaped and returned to Palmares, quickly rising to prominence and in 1678 overthrowing his adoptive uncle King Ganga Zumba when the latter attempted to accept peace under Portuguese rule.

Zumbi’s skepticism was vindicated when the followers of Zumba who had defected to Portugal were re-enslaved, but free Palmares soon faced intensified Portuguese pressure. In 1694, artillery finally battered its largest settlement into submission — forcing its ruler into the bush, where he long eluded capture.

In Zumbi’s honor, November 20 is a Brazilian celebration of national pride and especially pride for those of African descent … while the king who would not be a slave has lent his name, somewhat paradoxically, to an international airport.