On this date in 1835, four African slave rebels were shot at Salvador.
The Malê Revolt acquired its name from the local designation for Muslims … which was the predominant religion of the slaves harvested from West Africa* who were pouring into Brazil. (It’s also known as the Muslim Revolt, or simply the Great Revolt.) Ethnically, these were mostly Yoruba peoples, known in Brazil as Nagôs; Nagôs constituted the bulk of the slave sector whom the Portuguese had nicknamed “Minas” — Gold Coast imports who had embarked their slave ships at the notorious Elmina Castle.
Under whichever designation, this population was particularly thick in the agrarian Atlantic province of Bahia; there, “slaves constituted the majority of Bahia’s population in the 1820s and 1830s, [and] the maority of slaves were African-born.” And African-born slaves proved over the years to share a vigorous spirit of resistance. Slave risings and plots had emerged in Bahia in 1807, 1809, 1814, 1816, 1822, 1824, 1826 1827, 1828, 1830, and 1831, spanning the periods of Portuguese colonialism and Brazilian independence. Scottish botanist George Gardner, recalling his travels in Brazil in the late 1830s, opined that
The slaves of Bahia are more difficult to manage than those of any other part of Brazil, and more frequent attempts at revolt have taken place there than elsewhere. The cause of this is obvious. Nearly the whole of the slave population of that place is from the Gold coast. Both the men and the women are not only taller and more handsomely formed than those from Mozambique, Benguela, and the other parts of Africa, but have a much greater share of mental energy, arising, perhaps, from their near relationship to the Moor and the Arab. Among them there are many who both read and write Arabic. They are more united among themselves than the other nations, and hence are less liable to have their secrets divulged when they aim at a revolt.
Here, in secret madrassas and an underground tongue, these people cultivated a shared religion that naturally fused with the religious to the political and eventually germinated a revolutionary conspiracy. Two elderly, enslaved Muslim teachers seems to have been particular nodes in this community of resistance.**
On the night of January 24-25 of 1835, some 300 of these African-born slaves (with a few African-born freedmen) rebelled and attacked the city of Salvador. The fighting spanned only a few midnight hours; rumors of a rising had reached white ears on the 24th and as a result the masters stood halfway prepared and rallied quickly enough to crush the revolt — killing around 80 rebels in the process.
Nevertheless, it was perhaps the largest and most frightening servile rebellion in Brazil’s history. And although not all participants were Muslim, they very distinctively were all African-born: second-generation, Brazil-born blacks (whether slave or free) as well as mulattoes, who occupied a higher caste rank more in simpatico with whites, were deeply distrusted by African natives as liable to betray the plot — and rightly so. This turned out to be the very channel by which advance warning of the imminent rebellion reached white ears on the night of January 24. It was a great, if last-minute, victory for white Brazilians’ intentional stratification of the servile labor force: “The division among Africans is the strongest guarantee of peace in Brazil’s large cities,” the governor of Bahia had written in 1814.
Surprisingly, only four juridical executions are known to have resulted from this rising, although flogging sentences inflicted on others were so brutal that at least one person also died under the lash. Records, however, are patchy, and as João José Reis notes in his essential text on the Malê revolt (Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia) it is scarcely apparent why these particular men came in line for the law’s final extremity:
The president of the province, under pressure from influential members of Bahian society, felt that it was important to put on a public spectacle and hang prisoners as soon as possible so as to intimidate would-be rebels. With this in mind, on 6 March 1835 Francisco de Souza Martins wrote to the minister of justice:
It seems fitting, as has been suggested to me by many Citizens of this Capital, that the Government of His Majesty the Emperor, so as not to diminish the healthy effect of an execution as soon as possible after the crime, should have the sentences carried out on the two or three main leaders, at the same time declaring that these individuals should not have any recourse or appeal; that is, such a measure is thought to be both efficacious and necessary to the present circumstances.
In a decree dated 18 March 1835 the central government accepted this suggestion and ordered that the death sentences be “immediately carried out without being allowed to go before a Court of Appeal, after the remaining legal steps had been taken.” A month later, on 14 May, one day after the publication of the law on deportations, and without having taken “the remaining legal steps,” the government put four Africans to death.
There was only one freedman among those executed: Jorge da Cruz Barbosa, a hod carrier (carregador de cal) whose African name was Ajahi. Ajahi had been arrested on the day after the uprising, in the house of some fellow Nagô acquaintances, Faustina and Tito. Tito was also involved in the rebellion and had left home some days before the twenty-fifth, never to return. On the morning of the twenty-fifth, Ajahi showed up wounded and hid under a bedframe (estrado). Faustina turned him in to inspectors Leonardo Joaquim dos Reis Velloso and Manoel Eustaquio de Figueiredo, who arrested him. Under questioning Ajahi declared that he lived on Rua de Oracao and was a neighbor of Belchior and Gaspar da Cunha, whom he used to visit regularly. Concerning the meetings they had there, he claimed: “Everybody prattled on and on or just stopped in to say hello.” He denied being a Malê and having participated in the revolt. He tried to convince the judge and jury that the bayonet wound in his right leg “had been inflicted by soldiers … while he was at the window, [and] not because he was outside fighting with anybody.” Ajahi was apparently just an ordinary rebel. Indeed none of the Africans questioned in 1835 suggested he had played an important part in the Malê organization. Even so, on 2 March 1835 he was sentenced to death, along with other important prisoners. His sentence had been set by Francisco Goncalves Martins, the chief of police, now presiding over the jury as a judge: “In light of the previous declaration … on behalf of the Sentencing Jury I sentence prisoners: Belchior da Silva Cunha, Gaspar da Silva Cunha, and Jorge da Cruz Barbosa (all freedmen), as well as Luis Sanim, a slave of Pedro Ricardo da Silva, to natural death on the gallows.” With the exception of Jorge Barbosa (Ajahi), all those listed by Martins had their sentences commuted. Ajahi appears to have escaped from prison, but he was quickly recaptured. Perhaps the maintenance of his sentence comes from his being considered an incorrigible rebel.
Little is known about the others sentences to death. They were all Nago slaves. One of them was Pedro, a slave of Joseph Mellors Russell, the English merchant. It seems that all of this man’s slavees took part either in the rebellion or, at least, in the Malê conspiracy. On his own Russell had turned over to the justice of the peace a crate containing a great number of Malê objects belonging to his slaves — Necio, Joao, Joaozinho “the urchin,” Tome, Miguel, and Pedro. Of all these men Joao was the most militant, and his final sentence is not known. No one knows why Pedro was singled out for the death penalty. I could not find the records for his particular trial.
The other two slaves executed were Goncalo, whose owner appears in the records as Lourenco so-and-so, and Joaquim, who belonged to Pedro Luis Mefre. About them all that is known is that they were among the thirteen rebels wounded and taken prisoner during the confrontation at Agua de Meninos. It may be that they were both abandoned by their masters, since nothing suggests that they might have been leaders and none of the other eleven taken prisoner in the same circumstances received similar punishment.
These were, then, the four Africans put to death in 1835. Rodrigues began a tradition claiming that five Africans were executed, but there is no evidence for it. He names a freedman by the name of Jose Francisco Goncalves as the fifth victim. This African actually existed. He was a Hausa and lived in the Maciel de Baixo neighborhood. According to his testimony, he earned his living “bringing out samples of sugar from the warehouses for Merchants.” His name appears on the Roll of the Guilty with this observation: “sentenced and acquitted on 4 June 1835.” On that same roll the names of Jorge da Cruz Barbosa, Joaquim, Pedro, and Goncalo appear, with the following observation after each one: “sentenced to death and executed on 14 May 1835.”
Like all public executions, this one had its share of pomp and ceremony. The victims were paraded through the streets of Salvador in handcuffs. At Campo da Polvora new gallows had been constructed to replace the old ones, which had rotted from lack of use. At the head of the cortege marched the council “doorman,” Jose joaquim de Mendonca, who cried the sentence out to the ringing of bells. After him came Joao Pinto Barreto, the execution scribe, and Caetano Vicente de Almeida, a municipal judge. On both sides of the prisoners marched a column of armed Municipal Guardsmen. The Santa Casa da Misericordia was also presente, since the bylaws of that important philanthropic institution obliged its members, who were recruited from the local elite, to march along with people condemned to death as an act of Christian piety. The execution itself was to be witnessed by the interim chief of police (Martins had already gone to Rio de Janeiro as a congressional deputy), Judge Antonio Simoes da Silva, and by the commandant of the Municipal Guard, Manoel Coelho de Almeida Tander.
Much to the authorities’ disappointment, the new gallows could not be used to hang the prisoners. No one would act as executioner. On 13 May, one day before the execution, the vice-president of the province, Manoel Antonio Galvao, in response to a request from the chief of police, offered 20-30 milreis to any ordinary prisoner in Bahia’s many jails to act as executioner. Even though that was four months’ earnings for the average urban slave, no one came forward. The chief warden, Antonio Pereira de Almeida, expressed his disappointment in a communique to the chief of police that afternoon: “I have offered the job to the inmates, and no one will take it. I did the same thing today at the Barbalho and Ribeira dos Gales jails, and no one will take it for any amount of money; not even the other blacks will take it — in spite of the measures and promises I have offered in addition to the money.” Either because of prisoners’ solidarity or out of fear of retaliation from the African Muslims, an executioner could not be found. For this reason, still on 13 May, the president of the province had a firing squad formed to carry out the sentences. Then, on the fourteenth at Campo da Polvora, the four men were executed by a squad of policemen and immediately buried in a common grave in a cemetery run by the Santa Casa, next to the gallows. Without the hangings, the didactic value Bahian leaders envisaged in the spectacle was lost.
Less pomp surrounded floggings, although they too were public. Here, as well, the chief of police insisted (20 March 1835) that the “punishment should immediately follow the crime.” He argued that haste was necessary “so that the prisoners would not overflow,” a practical more than a political reason. The scenes of torture oculd not have been more degrading. The victims were undressed, tied, and whipped on their backs and buttocks. Floggings were held at two different sites: the Campo da Polvora and the cavalry garrison at Agua de Meninos, where the last battle of the uprising had been fought. At times the authorities worried that these public spectacles would themselves disturb the peace. Alufa Licutan’s sentence to one thousand lashes would be carried out in public, “but not on the street of the city.”
Illustration of a slave being publicly flogged in Brazil, by Johann Moritz Rugendas.
Prisoners received fifty lashes per day, “for as many days as it took to undergo the entire sentence … provided there was no risk to a prisoner’s life.” The victims’ suffering was closely watched by armed guards and carefully supervised by officers of the law, as well as by a court scribe who on a daily basis recorded the date, names, and numbers of lashes. From time to time, doctors visited the victims to check on their health and to advise whether the whipping should be continued or suspended for a while. These doctors’ reports are shocking testimony to the physical state of the tortured individuals. On 2 May 1835 Dr. Jose Souza Brito Cotegipe told Caetano Vicente de Almeida, the municipal criminal judge: “I have only found two who are well enough to continue serving their sentences. The rest cannot because of the enormous open wounds on their buttocks.” In a report on 19 September he said: “Having proceeded in the examination … of the Africans being flogged, I can inform Your Grace that the blacks [named] Carlos, Belchior, Cornelio, Joaquim, Carlos, Thomas, Lino, and Luiz (at the Relacao Jail) are in such a state that if they continue to be flogged, they may die.”
On that very day Luiz was admitted to the Santa Casa da Misericordia Hospital, where he stayed for two months. On 3 November he went back to the stocks, and two weeks later he completed his sentence of eight hundred lashes. Narciso, another slave, was less fortunate. He was caught red-handed during the uprising and did not survive the twelve hundred lashes of his sentence. He is the only African known to have died from that terrible punishment, but there may have been more.
After the Malê Rebellion, the signs and practices of Islam came under harsher surveillance than ever before. Brazil did not abolish slavery until May 13, 1888 — the very last nation in the western hemisphere to do so.
** Neither teacher was directly involved in the rebellion: one, Ahuna, had alredy been exiled to another locale and the other, Bilal, languished in prison for debts. We have particularly poignant word of the latter’s devastation upon hearing word of what had transpired.
After the rebellion, Bilal, still in jail, received news of the fate of the rebellion. One of his cell companions said in a gripping testimony that Bilal lowered his head to weep and that he never saw him raise it again. Bilal wept as many of his cherished students were brought into the jail. When one of the surviving rebels, who was being incarcerated, passed Bilal a piece of paper with a message written on it, he read it and swiftly began to weep. The devastating fate of his students had brought Bilal to a perpetual trail of tears. His fate, however, was to be amongst the most devastating. Although he could not be charged with participation in the physical uprising that took place, it was clear to authorities that he had participated in the spiritual cultivation of the uprising. Bilal “was sentenced to 1,200 lashes of the whip, to be carried out in public, though not in the streets where everyone could see. The sentence was divided up into 50 lashes a day until completed.” We can imagine that this is how Bilal died.