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Remembering escaped victims of slavery in Brazil

March 2014

Brazil imported the most slaves in the world - about 40% of the men, women and children taken from Africa to the Americas ended up in Brazil, some 4 million people. 

For International Day of Remembrance of Slavery (25 March), we go to the depths of the Amazon rainforest to speak to Domingos Printes, descendant of escaped slaves, activist and campaigner.

Domingo Printes, Brazil

How did your ancestors come here to this community in the remote Amazon rainforest?

We [the quilombolas] are the descendants of escaped slaves.  Our ancestors worked in the cotton plantations and they ran away from the farmers. They paddled by boat up river until they came to a set of waterfalls and then they ran into the forest. The waterfalls provided protection as the forest is so impenetrable that nearly all travel is by boat, so they went beyond the waterfalls where it was hard to follow – to chase – them.

The name of the quilombola association in this area is Mother Domingas, after a woman who organised escape routes for the slaves. 

How did the first escaped slaves learn how to survive in the forest?

The original indigenous people here helped the quilombolas and showed them the ways of the forest. Many people here are actually a mix of slave and indigenous backgrounds.

How long ago was this?

I don’t know exactly.  My mother was born in 1925, and she told me these stories from her grandmother.

  • The slaves did not possess their own hands, let alone land.'

Do you pass the stories on to the next generation?

We hold events about our history and we talk a lot about this so that the children learn. 

The young people learn African dances like ‘Morena Angola’ and ‘Lundum’, the old slave dances that the old people knew. We didn’t learn them when I was a child, but we have started thinking more about our heritage now.  And I also tell my own children the stories my mother told me.

Brazil was the last country in the western world to make slavery illegal, in 1888.  A hundred years later the government gave the quilombolas the right to apply for the collective title to the rainforest lands you have been living on for generations. 

For you, is there a relationship between your slave heritage, and winning the collective title to your lands?

First the slaves suffered because of the general experience of slavery and the labour they were subjected to, but they also suffered because they were deprived of everything they had and were taken to a country that was not theirs.

So we have this past of not possessing anything.  The slaves did not possess their own hands, let alone land. 

So we decided that we had to defend the right of the quilombolas to have their own land, and formed the Mother Domingas Association.  The first effort of this association was to fight for the title.

About half of the quilombolas’ land in this region has been titled, and many communities are continuing the fight to get their collective land ownership claims recognised. 

Find out more

Through our In Their Lifetime programme and with and our local partner, the Pro-Indigenous Commission (CPI), we are supporting the quilombolas in their struggle for land rights. 

Find out more about a David and Goliath struggle between Domingos’ community, and a mining giant threatening their lands

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