The Power and Influence of the Male Revolt in Salvador de Bahia

Governments around the world are in a constant state of fear from the uprising of their citizens. Not because they think they will be disposed, although that does happen, but because the people will demand transparency.

With almost every successful uprising, there comes an often too short period where the bright light of justice shines enough for the world to witness the reason every day people choose to rise up against tyranny.

This sentiment is only multiplied when that same tyranny is applied to those with the least rights, or in the case of the Male Revolt, Muslim slaves.

The Spark of Revolution
 

Of the 12.5 million men, women, and children taken captive in Africa, about 44% were sent to Brazil. The wealth produced by enslaved people built the foundation of Brazil’s vast export empire, including exploiting slavery for sugar cane, coffee, gold, and diamonds. This made Brazil one of the primary staging areas to hold and trade human life.

During the 19th century, new revolutionary ideologies such as equality and freedom began to arise, and many such notions were rooted in the teaching of Islam. Little by little, these ideas become actions. In this same century, Brazil began to experience rebellion after rebellion, the largest of which was the Male Revolt in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, in 1835.

A Conflict of Race & Religion
 

At the time, Bahia was the most prominent province in Brazil, with Salvador as its capital. It was founded by Portuguese noblemen a few hundred years earlier. It was populated by over 65,000 inhabitants of which, 40% were enslaved or “freedmen.” This made Brazil one of the largest centers of the slave trade in the world. 

The dominant religion was Catholicism which did not always have a favorable view of the Muslim faith. It is important to note that many in the Muslim population were educated beyond reading and writing. They were craft workers, blacksmiths, and others skilled in incredible works of art that are still valued today. That meant that some among them were allowed to earn salaries and could move around the city but would still face the harsh realities of racism and violence. Some of these few were able to purchase their freedom. Muslims during this time were known as imale, from a Yoruba word, which is where the Male Rebellion gets its name.

Preparing for Revolution
 

All around Salvador, Muslim leaders like Ahuna, Pacifico Licutan, Nicobe, Dassalu, Gustard, and Luis Sanin began holding meetings. Much like other oppressed people from world history, they were not allowed to carry martial weapons and were forced to steal, make, or illegally purchase weaponry. This revolt was not for peace. This was a battle for freedom.

The goal was to launch the rebellion at the end of Ramadan. This is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar that begins and ends with the appearance of the crescent moon. It typically is accompanied by fasting during daylight hours as a symbol of faith and commitment. The first attacks were to begin on Lailat al-Qadr, or the “Night of Glory,” commemorating the day the Qur’an was revealed to Mohammed – Peace and hail be upon him. Again, the goal was simple – freedom.

Betrayal and Death
 

In the middle of the night, on January 24, 1835, the leaders of the Male Rebellion were betrayed. Local Brazilian military forces ambushed the leaders sparking all participants to engage with fire and battle across the city. More than 600 Male warriors erupted onto the streets attacking barracks and trying to subdue the authorities. It did not work.

The battle resulted in the massacre of 70 recorded Male fighters and only 9 government troops. After this, 200 slaves were taken to court and given sentences of prison, hard labor, flogging, death, and deportation to Africa. All were tortured. More than 500 Muslim Africans were expelled from Brazil, many without definitive evidence of their participation in the uprising.

The Mirror of Humanity
 

Violence speaks volumes. In almost every significant social movement globally, the second violence becomes viewable by the general public, change begins to creep in. While the Male Rebellion failed, the repercussions lasted. Local government officials and public outcry began to echo all over Brazil. More rebellions followed the Male and were often inspired by the injustice of the entire situation.

All of this social pressure and fear associated with slave revolts eventually led to the legal cessation of the importation of slaves from Africa in 1850 and eventually to abolition in Brazil in 1888.

History has not forgotten these events. The Afro-Bahian group Male Debale still exists and thrives in Brazil. They are inspired by the Male Rebellion and are constantly featured during Carnival using music and dance to denounce the treatment of black people and political inequalities. However, the local government almost always schedules their particular part of Carnival on the most remote side of the event during the latest hour possible. Nearly two hundred years later and the government still fear the name Male.

Why This Matters
 

There are many reasons to review our treatment of other races throughout history. For this particular instance, it is a matter of knowledge and culture. The Bahian Muslim community had a deep intellectual formation that aided and supported those Africans trying to free themselves from being enslaved. 

Many in the Male Rebellion sought more than their personal freedom. They also were attempting to protect and free certain leaders. They were seeking to preserve a new society of Muslim traditions and knowledge that was being systematically torn down by an oppressive government. In fact, in the hours leading up to the ambush by National Guard and police, not a single citizen who was not a part of the rebellion or armed forces was harmed. There was no looting, or unfettered violence, with the exception of one house set fire by the slaves escaping it, and even then, nothing was damaged.

It wasn’t until the two opposing sides met that violence, beatings, rape, murder, hysteria, and torture settled into the general public. 34 Male participants were ordered whipped at the post after the battle ended. The average amount of lashes ranged from 250-1,250 at a rate of 50 per day until the total was met. Imagine the sorry of witnessing your brother or sister be stripped from the waist up and lashed to within a breath of their life.

The Hope of Tomorrow
 

We study instances of deep oppression like the Male Revolt in Brazil not because of the savage atrocities but because of their lessons. Here was a culture seeking freedom, equality, and a chance to practice their ideas and traditions without restriction, and, like so many other times, they were met with extreme violence and racism.

At the end of the day, we weep for the loss of culture. The beautiful knowledge and stories that could have been passed down forever burned in the ash of unforgiving hatred. That is exactly what inspires the craftwork of Sweetlena. The endless pursuit of Africa’s contribution to contemporary civilization can be immortalized by using the same colors, designs, and fabrics relevant to the culture at the time. The lessons of hate can be taught and fostered so that the power of change, hope, and love of your fellow human being can thrive. 

The bold and colorful geometric shapes of the unique Samakaka fabric tell the story of the Bahia revolt that eventually led to the abolition of slavery in Brazil. It is a stunning reminder that the resilience of a people can be measured in their capacity to toil as they strive for the colorful and vibrant life of freedom. A lesson worth repeating to many in today’s world seeking equal treatment and the simple pleasure of walking the land without fear of malice.

 

 

 

References:

The Malê Revolt in Brazil occurs. African American Registry. (2021, August 12). 

The Malê Rebellion in Bahia: Brazil’s African Muslim uprising. Smithsonian Folklife Festival. 

Malê Uprising, the. Religion and Public Life at Harvard Divinity School. (n.d.).

Reis Joao José. (1993). Slave rebellion in Brazil the Muslim uprising of 1835 in Bahia. Johns Hopkins University Press.