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Frontiers Beyond Abolition: Fugitive Slave Communities and Resistance in Maranhão and Pará, Brazil, 1860-1950


The quilombo – the name commonly used to describe fugitive slave settlements in Brazil – is firmly ensconced in Brazilian historical memory. My objective is to demonstrate the process by which quilombos in western Maranhão evaded and resisted the repression of the state in order to create autonomous cultural and geographical spaces in the state of Pará and defend those spaces well after abolition when faced with the exploitation of their labor and land for the benefit of a nascent mining economy.

Fugitive slave activity was a well-known and continuous phenomenon in western Maranhão, particularly in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Dense forests and abundant rivers offered a path to freedom for enslaved Africans. Quilombos profoundly shaped the land through various methods such as the creation of trails, the exploitation of rich alluvial gold deposits, and planting of various fruit trees. Quilombo inhabitants accumulated a knowledge of the land only matched by its indigenous inhabitants, establishing a territoriality recognized for decades thereafter.

This territoriality allowed quilombo descendants to bargain with state actors on the basis of their knowledge of gold deposits and geography along the Maranhão-Pará border region. Quilombo descendants formed permanent communities in this region and avoided capture, even while maintaining relationships with local judges, police officials, and representatives of the Brazilian Empire tasked with building a telegraph line in northern Brazil. With the advent of abolition, quilombo descendants were ignored as mining concessions delivered their lands to foreign capital. Their resistance took on many forms, but I will especially demonstrate how quilombo descendants used a deft understanding of major political events such as the Revolution of 1930 to defend their land and autonomy, fighting for freedom after abolition.

By demonstrating the complex nature of interactions between quilombolas and dominant political and economic structures and the nature of subaltern resistance therein, I will add new layers to historiographies of slave resistance as well as Afro-Brazilian political engagement following the abolition of slavery.

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