An untold story of Black liberation in the Amazon
The New World, as started by Spanish and Portuguese authorities followed by the Dutch and the English, was built on the amputated bodies of countless indigenous and Black people. Just as there was oppression, there was insurrection, led by prophetic voices of liberation. One such real life story took place in modern day Brazil, which until its official abolishment of slavery in the late 1800s harboured more than 5.5 million slaves, far outweighing the number in North America.
Released in 2019 by Fantagraphics, author-artist Marcelo D'Salete fleshes out an important episode of Black resistance to slavery in the heart of the Amazon in the galloping 424-page graphic novel, Angola Janga: Kingdom of Runaway Slaves.
D'Salete conducted his research over a long span of 11 years to bring to life this history of a community of runaway slaves in 17th century Brazil, who lived in a collection of slave-run settlements known as Palmares, which, the author admits, numbered at least 20,000 people at its peak. Drawing across a plethora of sources including colonial-era documents, and testimonies, D'Salete takes us deep into the heart of their conflicts with slave owners.
Angola Janga or "Little Angola" was the name given to these autonomous settlements, named after Angola, from where many of Brazil's modern day Afro-Brazilians originate. The leader of Palmares, Zumbi, has a fascinating backstory, having been raised by a loving Franciscan monk, who turns his back on his imposed identity and Christianity and joins the slaves in fighting off their masters. Along the way, Zumbi and his loyal yet confused companion, Soares, band with fellow slaves and members of indigenous communities to ward off the Portuguese and Dutch colonisers.
The author vividly depicts the history of this precarious kingdom, including the heartbreaking tales of fugitives, brutal raids by colonial forces, and tense power struggles among the people. Drawn in black and white ink, the art showcases glimpses of life in colonial Brazil with images of forests, wildlife, native Bantu culture, and Christian motifs—all of which saturate the book in depth. Black and white ink criss-cross between flashbacks and realities of the slaves, the elders, the slave owners, priests, and the white settlers.
The only shortcoming lies in the construction of the historical episodes—D'Salete leaves a lot of empty space in regards to character development, especially for the women who he admits had a large presence in the Palmares. The graphic novel, while proving to be an energetic read, carries too little dialogue and packs too much emotive energy in the images, particularly of the fights, skirmishes, and moments of retribution, neglecting some of the cerebral happenings of the story.
Regardless, D'Salete has still been able to delve into an unknown fragment of the wider Black freedom struggle to create a new story seldom heard.
Israr Hasan is a contributor.