The Political Structure of Palmares

While the cultural, day-to-day aspects of life in Palmares had become increasingly creolized, the political structure of Palmares was very similar to that of an African state.[1] Those formerly enslaved Africans that formed the quilombo of Palmares carried with them the political experience they had developed in Africa and attempted to recreate such a state in the New World.[2] Palmares’ most important leader was Ganga Zumba, a title that reflected his significance in the society.[3]

Early seventeenth century painting by the Dutch painter Albert Eckhout, possibly meant to represent Ganga Zumba.

Early seventeenth-century painting by the Dutch painter Albert Eckhout, possibly meant to represent Ganga Zumba.[4]

Existing below Ganga Zumba was his council of advisors, made up of the chiefs of the other villages in Palmares, who met when it was necessary to discuss collective matters.[5] Beyond the leaders of the quilombo, a strict social hierarchy developed. Those at the top were elites – those with access to the outside world and who had the means to procure luxury items, such as fine pottery. [6] Those on the bottom were enslaved Africans captured from engenhos who were required to work in bondage until they were able to capture a replacement themselves. [7] This system of coerced labor was in some ways a replication of African forms of servitude.

While Palmares was operating under a political system that resembled an African state, as the seventeenth-century progressed, its population became increasingly domestically born and increasingly creolized. Those who grew up in the society that had syncretized cultural beliefs over the decades had lost the direct connection to the origins of their political system. Therefore, Palmares represented an Old World political system being put to use by a new, diverse population in the New World.[8]


[1] Lara, Silvia Hunold, “Palmares and Cucaú: Political Dimensions of a Maroon Community in Late Seventeenth-Century Brazil.” In conference ‘American Counterpoint: New Approaches to Slavery and Abolition in Brazil’, 12th Annual Gilder Lehrman Center, Yale University, New Haven, CT, pp. 18. 2010.

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] Anderson, Robert Nelson, “The Quilombo of Palmares: A New Overview of a Maroon State in Seventeenth-Century Brazil.” Journal of Latin American Studies 28, no. 3 (1996): 559.

[4] “Albert Eckhout.” Wikipedia. April 17, 2017. Accessed April 17, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Eckhout#/media/File:Albert_Eckhout_painting.jpg.

[5]  Weik, Terry, “The Archaeology of Maroon Societies in the Americas: Resistance, Cultural Continuity, and Transformation in the African Diaspora.” Historical Archaeology 31, no. 2 (1997): 87.

[6] Funari, Pedro Paulo A, “Conflict and the Interpretation of Palmares, a Brazilian Runaway Polity.” Historical Archaeology 37, no. 3 (2003): 87.

[7] Kent, R. K, “Palmares: An African State in Brazil.” The Journal of African History 6, no. 2 (1965): 169.

[8] Anderson, “The Quilombo of Palmares: A New Overview of a Maroon State in Seventeenth-Century Brazil,” 556-565.