Malê Rebellion

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MalÊ Rebellion

On the night of January 24 to 25, 1835, African-born slaves and freed-people in the northeastern Brazilian city of Salvador da Bahia carried out a rebellion intended to liberate themselves from slavery and create an Islamic homeland. The revolt of the Malês, a nineteenth-century Brazilian term for Muslims, involved an estimated six hundred Yoruba and Hausa from present-day Nigeria. After hours of armed battle for control of the city, military and police forces defeated the rebels and left some seventy Africans dead. Though short-lived, the 1835 rebellion stands as one of the most significant urban slave revolts in the Americas.


The Malê Rebellion was one of a series of slave uprisings between 1807 and 1835 in the province of Bahia. Historians attribute this insurrectionist wave to an influx in slave imports from the Bight of Benin that brought a heavy concentration of Hausa and Yoruba, also known as Nagô, to Bahia within a few decades. Foes in Africa, the two groups overcame religious and ethnic differences to form alliances that would ultimately prove dangerous for masters. Most of these rebellions erupted in the Recôncavo, the fertile sugar area surrounding the Bay of All Saints and home to Brazil's wealthiest slave owners. The 1835 revolt differed from previous uprisings in that rebels from both the city and countryside worked to coordinate their resistance.

The structure of Brazil's urban slave system provided opportunities for conspirators to plan their attack. For urban slavery to function, slaves required a degree of autonomy to move through city streets. Many Hausa and Yoruba worked as ganhadores, slaves-for-hire who sold their labor on the streets of Salvador. Some maintained their own residences and saw their masters only weekly, while others turned over their wages each evening. Ganhadores hauled goods to and from the port or carried sedan chairs that Bahians hailed like cabs. Others worked as tailors, masons, or carpenters. The Hausa freedman Caetano Ribeiro traveled to the city to sell tobacco and other goods he purchased in the Recôncavo. Trial records indicate that female street vendors also took part in the conspiracy. The Muslim cleric Dandará, who earned his living trading tobacco at the local market, was one of several holy men involved in the movement. Through instruction in the Qur'an, clerics won converts to Islam and persuaded followers to join the movement. Slaves and freedpeople thus planned their movement in the midst of Bahia's thriving urban slave system.

The Uprising

The Muslim conspirators planned their attack to coordinate with the celebration of Our Lady of Bonfim, a Catholic holiday commemorated at a church located eight miles from the city center. The rebellion also corresponded with the end of the Muslim holiday Ramadan. The rebellion was set to begin on January 25 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 24 Guilhermina told a white neighbor about the rebels' plans. Upon learning of 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. For several hours the Muslim rebels engaged in armed resistance in a determined effort to overturn Bahia's white slaveholding society and replace it with an Islamic homeland. At approximately 3:00am on January 25, Gonçalves Martins's forces met the African rebels in what would be the final battle of the uprisingin Agua de Meninos, located north of Salvador's central port along the Bay of All Saints. Some two hundred Africans fought in this last battle for control of the city, but it was Bahia's police forces that emerged victorious after killing nineteen Africans and wounding another thirteen. During the entire revolt, over seventy Africans lost their lives.


The Malê insurgents killed nine white and mixed-race Bahians, but the panic that gripped the city far exceeded those casualties. Rumors of continued insurrection circulated for weeks. Terrified, some white families left their homes to sleep offshore in canoes. Provincial President Martins dispatched military and police authorities to route out possible conspirators. In the two days following the insurrection, police arrested at least forty-five slaves and fifty freedpeople. Raids continued for months; hundreds of Africans eventually found themselves in police custody. Trials resulted in harsh punishment: death, imprisonment, flogging, and deportation. The sentences handed down conformed to masters' property interests. Slaves did not face prison terms but were instead subjected to forced labor and flogging, ensuring that owners did not lose the monetary value slave labor provided. Freedmen, on the other hand, found themselves sentenced to prison terms and, more commonly, deportation to the African coast. Floggings ranged from fifty to twelve hundred lashes. The court sentenced Pácifico Lucitan to one thousand lashes, despite the fact he had been in jail when the rebellion began. Among those sentenced to death were Belchoir and Gaspar da Silva Cunha, who had hosted meetings where conspirators planned their attack.

In the months following the trials, many masters sold Nagô slaves out of the provinceeven if there was no evidence they had been involved in the conspiracyrather than run the risk of future violence. National lawmakers responded to the Malês' revolt by passing an exceptional death penalty law that mandated death without ordinary recourse to appeal for any slave who killed or seriously injured his master, the overseer, or a member of either's family. Widespread repression of African cultural and religious expression and tightened restrictions on urban slaves ensured that the 1835 rebellion would be Bahia's last major slave insurrection.

See also Muslims in the Americas; Palmares


Goody, Jack. "Writing, Religion, and Revolt in Bahia." Visible Language 20 (1986): 318343.

Lovejoy, Paul. "Background to Rebellion: The Origins of Muslim Slaves in Bahia." Slavery and Abolition 15 (1994): 151180.

Reis, João José. Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1935. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

alexandra k. brown (2005)