4.5b Dandara: A Slave in Brazil

This is a bonus blog post for the series “A Slave, but Now I’m Free.” It is a companion to episode 4.5 about Rosa Egipcíaca. I really wanted to do a whole episode on Dandara, but there were historical problems, which I explain below.

Brazil is an enormous country, and during the slave period, they imported almost 5 million slaves. Among so many, some were bound to escape. Enough escaped that they were able to set up their own communities in the hinterlands, and those communities were called quilombos. Here is the story that is told of Dandara:

Dandara was a slave, but she escaped to the Quilombo de Palmares near the westernmost tip of Brazil. Like all quilombos, Palmares was constantly in danger of discovery, attack, and reenslavement. Dandara became expert in the martial art of capoeira. She defended her community and fought alongside her husband Zumbi, the king of Palmares. In addition to being a warrior queen, she was also the mother of three children.

The community of Palmares was divided on whether to continue accepting new runaways. They could have made peace with the authorities if they had simply refused any newcomers. But Dandara and Zumbi refused to make this deal. Dandara was eventually caught and arrested. She killed herself in February 1694 rather than return to her enslavement.

This is the story that is told of Dandara. The unfortunate part is that there isn’t much in the way of historical corroboration. The records of the time do not say what I have written above. All this comes to us from more recent folk stories Dandara’s story has become a rallying point for black feminism in Brazil. She is the underdog heroine who fought back.

It is possible that she really existed and that the records omit her because the writers of the time did not consider the story of a black, female ex-slave worth writing down. But of course, it is also possible that she did not exist, and she has grown up in the popular legends because people wanted an underdog heroine who fought back. It is hard to imagine how we will ever really know, but if anyone ever really invents a time machine, she is definitely one of the millions of lost women worth investigating. And even it if turns out that Dandara never lived, there were certainly other women who worked and fought and died for the quilombos and the cause of freedom.

Selected Sources

If you search the Internet (in English) for Dandara, you mostly get information on a video game inspired by her story. But it is possible to read a little about her life from this Brazilian institute (it’s in Portuguese) and even from the video game makers themselves (in English). Wikipedia also has an article (in English) on her.

The feature image is the most famous image of Dandara, and I have seen it in so many places, I think it must be out of copyright. But I have been unsuccessful in finding the original source for it. If you own the copyright, please contact me, and I would be glad to give credit or remove the image, if that is your preference.

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