The Malê Revolt was one of the many slave uprisings in Brazil between 1807 and 1835. It was perhaps, the most significant slave rebellion in the history of Brazil.
The Malê revolt featured black slaves who were mostly Hausa, Kanuri and Yoruba people from present day Nigeria and freedmen attempting to usurp the powers of the white authorities of the Brazilian province of Bahia and establish a settlement dominated by freedmen and Islam.
The name given to revolt, Malê, was a parody of the word ‘imale‘ which is a Yoruba term for muslim clerics.
According to reliable data, Brazil is the only non-African country with a population of blacks reaching over 100 million. In fact, blacks take half of Brazil’s estimated population of 200 million and above.
In the early years of slave trade in Brazil, thousands of slaves were shipped in from Africa, most especially, from the Bight of Benin. Slaves brought from the Bight of Benin were mostly the Hausa, Nupe, Tiv and Yoruba People of present-day Nigeria. This brought a heavy concentration of Hausas, Yorubas and other Nigerian ethnic groups, called Nagô, to Bahia in no time.
In Bahia, as at then, the slave system in practice was the Brazil’s urban system which gave slaves the freedom to walk freely on the streets and to even engage in petty trades after working for their masters. They work as ganhadores (slaves-for-hire) who sold their labor on the street of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil.
Some Hausa and Yoruba slaves hauled goods for merchants, sold tobacco and also worked as tailors and carpenters. This made it easier for them to plan their attacks without the knowledge of the Brazilian authorities. They met before and after praying in the mosque, in their homes and briefly at the market.
Trial records show that slave and freed female street vendors also took part in the conspiracy. The Muslim cleric, Dandará, who sold tobacco at Bahia local market, was one of several holy men involved in the movement.
The revolt conspirators, the Malê, planned to execute the attack on the the last Sunday of the Muslim’s month of Ramadan which was also the day set aside to celebrate Our Lady of Bonfim, a Catholic holiday commemorated at a church located eight miles from the city center.
The Malês calculated that authorities would be away at Bonifim, keeping order and that would be a perfect time for them to strike.
Execution of the Malê Revolt
According to Thomson Gale, “the Malê rebellion was set to begin on January 25, 1835 at 5:00am, an hour when Africans fetched water at public fountains.”
Their plans, however, were betrayed. Two African freedwomen, Guilhermina Rosa de Souza and Sabina da Cruz, wife of a Nagô leader, pieced together details of the conspiracy. On the night of January, Guilhermina told a white neighbor about the rebels’ plans.
Upon knowing about the plot, Provincial President Francisco de Souza Martins ordered police forces to search the homes of Africans whom Sabina da Cruz had identified as central to the conspiracy.
Within two hours, forces led by police chief Francisco Gonçalves Martins entered into battle with African rebels in the streets of the upper city, amid the government buildings, theater, and churches frequented by the white slaveholding elite.
However, the Malê rebels were defeated by the Bahian authorities after the death of over seventy Malês and nine white and mixed race Brazilians. Several people were injured. Slaves found guilty were sentenced to hard labour and flogging which ranged between fifty and one thousand; none of them were jailed in order not to put slave owners at loss.
On the other hand, the freedmen found guilty of involvement in the Malê uprising were sentenced to prison, death and deportation to African coast.
For several months, Brazilians live in fear. It was reported that some white families even left their homes to sleep offshore in canoes for the fear of another revolt by the slaves and their cohorts.
The Bahians won but the Hausa and Yoruba slaves left a big impact on the slave life in Brazil. Fifteen years after the Malê revolt, slave trade was eventually abolished.
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- Goody, Jack. “Writing, Religion, and Revolt in Bahia.” Visible Language 20 (1986): 318–343.
- Lovejoy, Paul. “Background to Rebellion: The Origins of Muslim Slaves in Bahia.” Slavery and Abolition 15 (1994): 151–180.
- “Malê Rebellion.” Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Retrieved August 10, 2018