Ganga Zumba is remembered by historians as the warrior, Black hero and freedom fighter who was central to the history and modern-day struggle of the Brazilian Black Movement, having led an alliance of “independent settlements”– Quilombo dos Palmares. Located between the states of Alagoas and Pernambuco, in northeastern Brazil, Quilombo dos Palmares was founded by early Brazilian Africans in the late 16th century as resistance to European colonizers and enslavers.
It is one of the first places, in the Americas, where Black people, who were brought to the New World enslaved, found freedom. For almost a hundred years, Black people in Quilombo fought against their enslavers, particularly the Portuguese who attempted to colonize Brazil.
Zumba, as king of Quilombo in the 1670s, led these attacks against the enslavers, and despite repeated threats from the colonial authorities, Quilombo thrived as fugitive slaves set up a collective economy based upon subsistence agriculture, trade, and communal land ownership, according to accounts. And all these were largely thanks to the leadership of Zumba.
Believed to have been a Kongo royal, Zumba was the son of Princess Aqualtune Ezgondidu Mahamud da Silva Santos (daughter of a king of Kongo) and was likely captured following the Battle of Mbwila when Portugal defeated the Kingdom of Kongo. The Portuguese sold Zumba, his siblings and many other nobles captured following the battle to Santa Rita Plantation in Portugal’s colony of Pernambuco (Northeast Brazil).
But being an African royal, Zumba, after a few years, rejected being made a slave and escaped to Palmares with his family. Palmares, which was then a mocambo (village-sized communities of runaway slaves in colonial Brazil) grew in size alongside other mocambos as slaves continued to escape. These mocambos then formed what has been described as “a confederation of settlements” which became known as Quilombo dos Palmares. Zumba was then made king over the alliance and given the title of “Ganga Zumba” which means “Great Lord” in Kimbundu, a Bantu language.
Based in Cerro dos Macacos, with his men as chiefs of other settlements, Zumba made Macaco a hub for the governance of the alliance that was formed. According to sources, Macaco, by the 1670s, had a palace and 1,500 houses which provided accommodation for Zumba’s armed guards, ministers, devoted subjects and family, including his three wives.
In subsequent years, Zumba and his armies would help rescue other enslaved Africans from the plantations and bring them to Palmares territory all the while fighting off attacks from the Europeans.
But in 1677, during one such battle, two of Zumba’s children were taken prisoner while another was killed. Zumba himself was wounded in the attack and was therefore compelled to accept a peace treaty offered by the governor of Pernambuco. That peace treaty included relocating his Palmares alliance to the Cucaú Valley.
Moving to Cucaú Valley meant Zumba and his people were going to be close to the colonial government, and though he favored the proposal, Zumbi, his nephew, rejected it and staged a coup against him in 1678. Later that year, Zumba was poisoned, likely by Zumbi’s people who were against his treaty with the Portuguese.
After the death of Zumba, Zumbi became the new leader of the Palmares alliance and continued in leading the fight against slavery and Portuguese oppression. Meanwhile, those who sided with Zumba moved to the Cucaú Valley where sadly, they were captured and put back into slavery.