Millenarian Slaves?: Resistance to Early Slavery in the Americas

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Sat Oct 14 18:37:53 PDT 2000

Forms of slave resistance _changed over time_, as C. L. R. James argues; only during the Revolutionary Periods (in British, French, & Spanish colonies) did slave revolts & resistances gain possibilities of overthrowing slavery, because of the fact that by then slave labor on plantations had assumed the character of social labor due to production for the world market (instead of local consumption), increasing divisions of labor, etc.; and only when white & mulatto Jacobins joined black Jacobins against counter-revolutionaries & anti-Jacobin invaders, as in the process of the French & Haitian revolutions, were slaves able to overthrow their yoke completely.

Alida C. Metcalf says that a millenarian religious movement may have been one of the common forms of slave & indigenous resistances to _early slavery_ in the colonized Americas. Yoshie

***** AHR Forum

Millenarian Slaves? The Santidade de Jaguaripe and Slave Resistance in the Americas


Rumors of a new religion spread through the forests, parishes, and sugar plantations of the Bay of All Saints in the hinterland of Salvador da Bahia, capital of the Portuguese colony of Brazil, in the 1580s. By 1585, scores of Indians, many Africans, and virtually all of the mixed race Mamelucos (the offspring of Portuguese men and Indian women) had heard of a congregation in the wilderness where participants had constructed their own temple, practicing rituals through which they achieved a state of holiness known as santidade. Mamelucos who joined the sect later described baptisms, prayers, speaking in tongues, "drinking" the sacred smoke of tobacco, and falling into trances verging on delirium. Believers proclaimed that on earth their crops would grow of their own accord, their vegetables would be bigger than those of others, and they would not want for food or drink. Furthermore, they proclaimed that "God was coming now to free them from their captivity and to make them lords of the white people" and that they would "fly to the sky," while "those who did not believe . . . would be converted into birds and animals of the forest." When some of the believers came from the wilderness and built a village and a temple on a sugar plantation in Jaguaripe, on the southern fringes of the bay, Indians, Africans, and Mamelucos from all over the bay came to be baptized by its female leader, known as "Mother of God." From its center in Jaguaripe, the religious frenzy spread to other parishes along the bay where believers embraced the sect and created their own congregations. Faced with a labor crisis on the sugar plantations and a conversion crisis in the missions, the governor of Bahia, the Jesuits, the bishop, and the city council of Salvador joined forces to destroy the sect.1

This episode, which scholars named "the Santidade de Jaguaripe," is an almost classic example of a millenarian movement. Millenarianism tends to arise among peoples who live in a "bitter and painful present" and who hope for "a radiant future wherein all evil will be erased."2 During times of disaster, crises of subsistence, civil war, colonialism, the rapid spread of capitalism, or relative deprivation, millenarian ideas spread because "old myths about the meaning of humanity do not meet changing circumstances; they are no longer relevant."3 Millenarian movements create a new mythology for those in despair and provide hope for a new world where evil is eradicated, oppression ended, and wrongs avenged. Believers are prepared to sacrifice in order to be among those who will be saved in the next world, the world of peace, harmony, equality, and happiness. Because believers see the world as fundamentally evil, they desire intensely that those who have caused that evil should pay for their sins.4 Not infrequently, this leads to deep and potentially devastating conflicts with established authorities.5

The Santidade de Jaguaripe is classic except for one crucial point: the participation of slaves.6 Many of those who believed in the movement in Brazil were slaves, and the beliefs of the sect directly addressed the condition of slavery. It might be supposed that the condition of slavery would make a fertile sowing ground for millenarian movements, but in fact there are very few historical accounts of such movements among slaves. This silence in the historiography warrants closer examination. Logically, it would seem that millenarianism ought to be a common response to slavery. More than thirty years ago, Vittorio Lanternari wrote that, in the Caribbean, "where the Negro population of African descent has suffered centuries-old oppression at the hands of European and American slave traders, conditions of life have prepared the ground for any religious cult which promises freedom and independence to its followers."7 Yet the historiography of slavery reveals few times when slaves adopted millenarianism to address their situation. Eric Hobsbawm shows how the rapid spread of modern capitalism into peasant societies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries frequently created the context for millenarian movements,8 yet the slave trade, which is cited by many scholars as a foundation for the development of the Atlantic economy and which deeply affected African and Native American societies from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, apparently rarely caused similar responses among slaves.9 Disaster is seen as one causative factor of millennial movements;10 slaves certainly experienced disasters and famines, be they in the Americas, Africa, or in the transatlantic or transcontinental slave trade; yet we have no documented examples of disasters causing millenarian movements among slaves. Millenarian resistance to the colonial order is a common theme in scholarly writings but not, it appears, for slaves in the colonial societies of Africa and the Americas.11 Is this silence in historical writing due to the fact that few such movements actually occurred? Or did millenarian movements among slaves arise but leave no trace in written sources? Do written sources exist that historians have overlooked or have failed to read to their fullest potential?12

For any or all of these reasons, the slaves who joined and led the congregations within the Santidade movement in Brazil stand out in the historical record as participants in a kind of experience as yet poorly documented or only vaguely understood by historians.13 In this article, I explore this example of slave millenarianism and suggest that it may represent a form of slave resistance possibly characteristic of early slavery elsewhere in the Americas. In making this assertion, I go a step beyond the usual characterization of the 1585 Santidade de Jaguaripe as a movement of Indians that emerged out of an indigenous Messianic tradition. I maintain that the Santidade de Jaguaripe is more fully understood as the impulse of the dominated in an alien colonial environment to create a new world and new identities for themselves, appropriating not only their own cultural traditions but also syncretic beliefs, language, and rituals drawn from their immediate experience in colonial society.14...

Alida C. Metcalf is a professor of history at Trinity University. She received her BA from Smith College in 1976 and her PhD in 1983 from the University of Texas at Austin, where she studied with Richard Graham. A specialist in Brazilian history, she is the author of Family and Frontier in Colonial Brazil: Santana de Parnaíba, 1580-1822 (1992), which was awarded the Harvey Johnson Book Award in 1993 and honorable mention for the Bolton Prize in 1994. Metcalf's current research focuses on Jesuit and Mameluco go-betweens in sixteenth-century Brazil.


1 This description of the Santidade de Jaguaripe is drawn from the denunciation of Álvaro Rodrigues in the trial of Domingos Fernandes Nobre, Inquisição de Lisboa, hereafter, IL, 10,776, Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo (Lisbon), hereafter, ANTT; and the confession of Gonçalo Fernandes, in his trial, IL 17,762, ANTT. There may have been two loosely linked (or recently separated) congregations in the wilderness; locating exactly where they were is difficult. References are to the Serra do Rios Grande, the Serra das Palmeiras, a place known as palmeiras compridas (tall palms), a place known in the Indian language as rioguasu, which the informant translated as "great cold." José Calasans believes it to have been in the Serra do Orobo; see Fernão Cabral de Ataíde e a santidade de Jaguaripe (Bahia, 1952), 11-12.

2 Vittorio Lanternari, The Religions of the Oppressed: A Study of Modern Messianic Cults, Lisa Sergio, trans. (New York, 1963), xii.

3 Ted Daniels, Millennialism: An International Bibliography (New York, 1992), xxv.

4 Sacrifice may take the form of moving to a new holy city, sharing one's possessions, failing to plant the crops needed for survival, or passively withdrawing from the world to await the dawn of a new age. Retribution can be violent or nonviolent, but believers expect a superhuman agent to defeat the evil loose in the world; see G. W. Trompf, "Introduction," in Trompf, ed., Cargo Cults and Millenarian Movements: Transoceanic Comparisons of New Religious Movements (Berlin, 1990), 7.

5 Although millenarian movements are religious in tone, they invariably become political, and thus conflict escalates when sects challenge the right and authenticity of extant political authorities. Daniels, Millennialism, xxi-xxiv. There are numerous historical examples of this conflict, for instance, that between the Sioux and the federal government, documented by James Mooney, The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 (Lincoln, Neb., 1991); the 1896-1897 campaign of the Brazilian government against the millenarian movement lead by Antonio Conselheiro at Canudos, epically described by Euclides da Cunha, Rebellion in the Backlands, Samuel Putnam, trans. (Chicago, 1944); or the more recent conflict between federal agents and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, in 1993, described by Philip Lamy, Millennium Rage: Survivalists, White Supremacists, and the Doomsday Prophecy (New York, 1996), 159-91.

6 The extensive bibliography compiled by Ted Daniels, which annotates 787 studies and lists 3,762 titles, does not address slavery as a category for analysis. In the index, "slave" brings up only two titles; see Daniels, Millennialism. The exception is the studied presence of millennial themes in the slave religions of the U.S. South; see below.

7 Lanternari, Religions of the Oppressed, 158. Besides Jamaica, home to the Rastafarians, whose religion has millennial overtones, and the U.S. South (see below), no indication of a possible association between slavery and millennialism has surfaced in historical writing.

8 As articulated in E. J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries (New York, 1959), 57-92, the arrival of modern capitalism into a traditional peasant society brings cataclysmic effects as church estates are secularized, land enclosed, and customary rights taken away. Hobsbawm's remote Italian and Spanish villages find parallels elsewhere, when the old ways no longer work and the old understanding of the meaning of life fails to explain the present. For example, the Contestado Rebellion of Brazil (1912-1916) is characterized as a peasant rebellion against the encroachment of capitalism. Traditional patron-client relationships broke down as some members of the local elite cooperated with the capitalization of this once isolated region of southern Brazil, to the detriment of peasants. The millenarian movement promised to recreate an idealized past for peasants whose lives had been disrupted and worsened by the arrival of the railroad, lumber companies, and the loss of traditional land rights; see Todd Diacon, Millenarian Vision, Capitalist Reality: Brazil's Contestado Rebellion, 1912-1916 (Durham, N.C., 1991).

9 See Barbara L. Solow, ed., Slavery and the Rise of the Atlantic System (Cambridge, Mass., 1991); Joseph E. Inikori and Stanley L. Engerman, eds., The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economies, Societies, and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe (Durham, N.C., 1992); and John K. Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1680 (Cambridge, 1992).

10 Michael Barkun, Disaster and the Millennium (New Haven, Conn., 1974).

11 Michael Adas, Prophets of Rebellion: Millenarian Protest Movements against the European Colonial Order (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1979), uses a comparative approach to investigate millenarian movements, sparked by the displacement of local elites, who sought to revive tradition and expel the foreigners.

12 See Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston, 1995), 26-30, on the four moments where silences enter historical production.

13 Slave resistance is of major interest to Brazilian history due to the importance of slavery in Brazilian development, but this literature has never explored whether slave resistance could have taken millenarian forms. See, for example, Maria Januária Vilela Santos, Balaiada e a insurreição de escravos no Maranhão (São Paulo, 1983); Clóvis Moura, Rebeliões da senzala: Quilombos, insurreições, guerrilhas, 3d edn. (São Paulo, 1981); Moura, Quilombos: Resistência ao escravismo (São Paulo, 1987); Waldemar de Almeida Barbosa, Negros e quilombos em Minas Gerais (Belo Horizonte, 1972); Vicente Salles, O negro no Pará: Sob o regime da escravidão (Rio de Janeiro, 1971); Julio José Chiavenato, O negro no Brasil: Da senzala à Guerra do Paraguai (São Paulo, 1980); Lana Lage da Gama Lima, Rebeldia negra e abolicionismo (Rio de Janeiro, 1981); João José Reis and Eduardo Silva, Negociação e conflito: A resistência negra no Brasil escravista (São Paulo, 1989); Pedro Tomás Pedreira, Os quilombos brasileiros (Salvador, 1973); and Maria Amélia Freitas Mendes de Oliveira, A Balaiada no Piauí (Teresina, 1985). Stuart B. Schwartz's review of the literature on slave resistance, Slaves, Peasants, and Rebels: Reconsidering Brazilian Slavery (Chicago, 1992), similarly reveals no discussion of millenarianism among slaves. Even the most recent scholarship contains no analysis of millenarianism; see João José Reis and Flávio dos Santos Gomes, Liberdade por um fio: História dos quilombos no Brasil (São Paulo, 1996). A few scholars consider the possibility of millenarianism in the 1835 malê (Muslim) uprising in Bahia; see Howard Prince, "Slave Rebellion in Bahia, 1807-1835" (PhD dissertation, Columbia University, 1972); and Viania Alvim, "Movimentos proféticos, pré-políticos e contra-culturais dos negros islamizados na Bahia do século XIX: A Revolta dos Malês" (Tese de Mestrado, Universidade Federal da Bahia, 1975). João José Reis rejects this approach by stating that millenarians destroy the world and wait for divine reconstruction, while the malês wanted to reconstruct their world with their own hands. See "Um balanço dos estudos sobre as revoltas escravas da Bahia," in Escravidão e invenção da liberdade: Estudos sobre o negro no Brasil, Reis, ed. (São Paulo, 1988), 119. In his outstanding study of the revolt, Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia, Arthur Brakel, trans. (Baltimore, 1993), however, Reis inadvertently describes millennial overtones to the revolt. The rebellion was planned to coincide with Ramadan, the "night of destiny"; this celebration "was to be the first act of a new era" (p. 119, emphasis mine). The rebels believed that "the serious defenders of and participators in the white slave society were on the side of evil, whereas the apocalyptic Islamic militants were on the side of good, and were joyous because they were working for a just transformation of the world" (p. 120, emphasis mine). Reis describes how the rebels wore amulets inscribed with religious texts, which they believed would protect them in the fray: "'Victory comes from Allah. Victory is near. Glad tidings for all believers,' promised the millennial text in one amulet confiscated by the police," writes Reis (p. 120, emphasis mine). It is entirely possible that the malê revolt did have millenarian influences, given that Islam has its own tradition of millenarianism, which revolves around the coming of a savior, or Mahdi, who will deliver the believers into the new age, a time of universal justice and well-being before the end of the world. See Saïd Amir Arjomand, "Islamic Apocalypticism in the Classical Period," in The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism, Bernard McGinn, John J. Collins, and Stephen J. Stein, eds. (New York, 1999), 2: 238-83.

14 See, for example, how critics describe the process of creating a postcolonial literature in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London, 1989), 195.

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