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Portrait of An African Princess, by Floris Jespers

Aqualtune (1600s) was an African princess who became a slave in Brazil, the grandmother of Zumbi, who later died trying to free the slaves. She is the princess in the song “Zumbi” by Jorge Ben Jor.

She was from the Congo and some say she was Yoruba, as were many of the slaves who were brought to north-eastern Brazil.

In the Congo she led an army of 10,000 men to defend her father’s kingdom against the Chagas. But the Chagas won and she found herself on a slave ship crossing the sea to Brazil.

As the song puts it, she was standing in an ox cart with her subjects, being sold as a slave. That was in Recife, Brazil. She was sold to a planter from Porto Calvo in southern Pernambuco.

She was strong, but she was bought not to work the land but to give birth to future strong slaves. Like a prized race horse, she was not allowed to choose her mate.

In 1630, a few months before she was to give birth, she and others escaped. She had heard about a place in the mountains to the west called Palmares where people of all colours lived together in freedom.

Palmares was no dream: as she found out, it was true! It was a kingdom – some say a republic – set back from the coast near the “nose” of Brazil. It ran for 200 kilometres across what are now the states of Pernambuco and Alagoas. It had nine rivers and nine towns in the virgin forest. At its height in the 1670s it had 50,000 people: runaway black slaves, native Indians and whites on the run from the law. The largest town had 2000 houses.

Palmares supported itself, growing its own food. It sold enough cassava and sugar to buy salt, guns and gunpowder. It could work iron but it could not make guns. In the end that proved to be its downfall. Even so, it lasted nearly a hundred years, standing up to both the Portuguese and the Dutch.

Aqualtune became a leader in Palmares. Two of her sons, Gana Zona and Ganga Zumba, also did. She lived in Palmares till she died in old age, living long enough to see forces from Sao Paulo burn down her town.

In 1655, in the middle of the war with the Dutch, her oldest daughter, Sabina, gave birth to Zumbi. He would grow up to become the last ruler of Palmares and a hero to millions.

Zumbi fought against the Portuguese for 15 years. The king offered to make peace with him twice, but both times he refused. In the end he was betrayed. On November 20th 1695 the Portuguese cut off his head, a day that is still remembered in Brazil.

The picture I chose is not Aqualtune herself, but it is a picture of a princess from the Congo. She is strong and proud just like I imagine Aqualtune to be.

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