- Published on Amazon.com
I became an admirer of Cheney’s nonfiction after reading Promised Land, about the work of the activist nun Leonora Brunetto on behalf of landless farmers in Matto Grosso, Brazil, so I was very eager to read Quilombo dos Palmares: Brazil’s Lost Nation of Fugitive Slaves. Palmares flourished for almost 100 years in the 1600s, harrying colonial Brazil’s coastal sugar plantations from its hidden location in the vast hinterland forest, eluding expedition after expedition sent out by the colonial authorities to crush it, and living on in the imagination of Brazilians down to the present.
Very little scholarship has been done on Palmares. Cheney is familiar with what scholarship there is, and additionally has pored over colonial documents of the time—the records of the expeditions and correspondence related to the problem (from the authorities’ point of view) of Palmares. Unfortunately, no Palmarian records remain, and, to date, no archeological evidence.
This is a big problem: Palmares appeals for all kinds of reasons. It’s a powerful, rich symbol. And yet it’s almost impossible to get at its reality. As Cheney points out, the seventeenth-century records he relies on are written with an agenda: to simultaneously vilify the Palmarians, appeal to superiors for funds and support, and paint themselves in as good a light as possible. At times this could mean downplaying Palmarian successes; at other times it could mean exaggerating the threat. It has to have been something of a significant threat, or at least annoyance, because the Portuguese monarch himself sent letters addressing the leader of the Palmarians. But how numerous were the Palmarians, in actuality? Were they a unified state, or not? The expeditionary forces mainly described villages that they came upon after the inhabitants had fled; one vivid description of a flourishing town was written up by someone who’d never been there, with no mention of where the information came from.
For me, the most interesting portions of the book were the portions where Cheney talks about these problems and about the history of Palmares-of-the-imagination, Palmares as inherited through stories passed down for generations, Palmares as alive today in the struggles of the dispossessed. History is written by the conquerors, but a different story may still be told by survivors and their descendants and sympathizers, and in the chapters “Digging for Truth” and “Quilombo Forever,” Cheney reflects on this, and on the rights and merits of different types of histories.
The central portion of the book, chronicling the various unsuccessful campaigns against Palmares, was more frustrating for me than not, despite Cheney’s engaging writing style. So much of it can only be speculation, and the value of the sources themselves, as truthful accounts, is suspect: I think I would have preferred a shorter book that settled for an overview and summary. Cheney’s decision to cover each one is deliberate. In the preface he says,
"In my hope of writing the most comprehensive history of Palmares, I decided to retain this information. It will seem excessive to many, perhaps useful to a few."
Maybe so—but can it count as a comprehensive history when much of it is speculation? And yet, while falling in the camp that found the information excessive, I appreciated, after the fact, that I had ended up with much more sense of colonial dynamics and the various characters and personalities involved than I would have if Cheney had followed the advice of the editors he consulted.
In spite of my dissatisfaction with the central portion, I’d recommend Quilombo dos Palmares to anyone who’s interested in Brazilian history, colonialism, and the problems of historiography.