Archaeology: South America's Lost African Kingdom

By Keys, David | The Independent (London, England), October 19, 1993 | Go to article overview
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Archaeology: South America's Lost African Kingdom

Keys, David, The Independent (London, England)

BRAZILIAN, American and British archaeologists are searching in a remote corner of South America for the remains of a long-forgotten African kingdom.

It is hoped that excavations in north-east Brazil will shed light on the history, economy and religion of an extraordinary black state established in around 1590 by runaway African slaves.

With a population of some 20,000 and an area of around 3,000 square miles, it succeeded in remaining independent for just over 100 years. Now archaeologists - including a team from University College, London - are excavating the long-deserted site of the kingdom's capital, Quilombo dos Palmares. The dig is becoming a major focus for the political and cultural aspirations of Brazil's 75 million black and mixed-race citizens.

So far the site has produced quantities of locally made and imported pottery, and this summer the archaeologists succeeded in locating the remains of a section of the ditch and palisade which once ran for a full three miles around the capital.

Defence was essential because virtually every year from 1640 to 1694 the Dutch and then the Portuguese attacked the tiny black state.

The excavations should reveal much about life in the beleaguered kingdom. History only records the names of two of Palmares' rulers - King Ganga Zumba and King Zumbi - and only the briefest detail of the Dutch and Portuguese attacks on it.

The kingdom's founders were Angolan slaves who had escaped from sugar plantations in what is now the Brazilian state of Pernambuco. They were first brought from Angola to Brazil in the 1550s, when they were used alongside local Amerindian slaves. The importation of Angolan slaves then increased substantially in the 1570s so that in the last decades of the 16th century some 4,000 Africans were being imported per year.

Then in around 1590 it seems that there was some sort of slave revolt in Pernambuco, and substantial numbers succeeded in escaping and forming the Kingdom of Angola Janga (little Angola) known to the Portguese and Dutch as the Kingdom of Palmares.

Ten major settlements, including two towns, were established by the escapees.

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