Few people know that Brazil has the largest population of black people outside of the African continent. In fact, it is the second largest “black nation” after Nigeria, with over 100 million black people.
Yet, there is little information in the media outside of the country about this group, specifically, information about the history of Africans in the country that defined and continues to define the affairs of black people globally. For example, the country’s Malê Revolt in its province of Bahia in 1835 is not only considered the most important revolt in Brazillian history but it is believed to have been instrumental in bringing an end to the international slave trade in the country.
Historians say that on the night of January 24 to 25, 1835, African-born slaves and freed-people in the northeastern Brazilian city of Salvador da Bahia carried out a rebellion to liberate themselves from slavery and create an Islamic homeland. The group of some six hundred Yoruba, Nupe, Kanuri and Hausa people from present-day Nigeria were led by Muslim leaders, having heard of and being inspired by the Haitian Revolution (1791−1804).
The Malê, referring to the name of Muslims in Bahia at this time and a variant of the Yoruba word imale, organized the revolt on a Sunday during Ramadan. The day was also the feast day of Our Lady of Guidance, where many worshipers of the Bonfim faith traveled – slave owners – went to Bonfim to pray or celebrate. Authorities also went to Bonfim in order to keep order. This meant that with fewer people and authorities in the city, it would be easier for rebels to wage a rebellion.
Though one of a series of slave uprisings between 1807 and 1835 in the province, the malê rebellion is considered one of the most significant urban slave revolts in the Americas. Why?
Scholars say it signified that slavery was not social death as some historians would have us believe. Rather, “social and cultural institutions not only survived the middle passage but could be enhanced and reinterpreted in the context of slavery”.
In the case of Bahia, the Hausas and Yorubas who were staunch enemies in Africa overcame religious and ethnic differences to form an alliance to attempt to overthrow their masters. The Malê revolt, unlike uprisings before it, involved both Africans in the city and the countryside working to coordinate their resistance. As historian Paul E Lovejoy put it,
“The active transference of culture appears to have been the case in Bahia in the first half of the nineteenth century when two groups of Africans – Muslims from Central Sudan and Yoruba, some of whom were Muslims – endangered one of the oldest and most important slave societies in America.”
Though military and police forces eventually defeated the Malê rebels after hours of armed battle with some seventy Africans and nine white and mixed-race Bahian dead, historians say rumors of continued insurrection circulated for weeks, leaving white families terrified.
The Brazillian government dispatched military and police authorities into town who arrested peopled, raided homes, leading to death, imprisonment, flogging, and deportation of the enslaved. Lawmakers also passed an exceptional death penalty law that mandated death for any slave who killed or seriously injured his master, the overseer, or a member of either’s family. They also tightened restrictions on Africans cultural and religious expression, including erasing the affection and memory many felt towards Islam.
Although the slave trade would not be abolished for more than fifteen years following the Malê Revolt, it caused fear and unrest among the people of Brazil as they brought in more slaves. They fear it would cause such another such insurrection. Eventually, the trade was abolished altogether in 1851.