The Malê Uprising was a major event in the history of Brazil, Muslims in the Americas, and the story of the enslaved peoples of Africa. It took place in 1835, in the city of Salvador – the first capital of Brazil – during the holy month of Ramadan.
A religious and racial revolt against slavery and the tyranny of the Catholic religion led by African Muslims in the province of Bahía, Brazil, the rebellion was organised and led by enslaved African Muslim clerics in Salvador, primarily Hausa and Yoruba Muslims.
The rebellion was rooted in not just physical liberation, but also spiritual fortification cultivated in Bahían madrasas, and a spiritual struggle to preserve Islamic education and reunite with exiled spiritual leaders. However, non-Muslim Africans from various backgrounds also participated in the rebellion.
All in all, the rebels numbered around a thousand. The primary targets were white slavers, mulattos, and native-born black Brazilian enablers, with an express desire to upend the Brazilian slave society status quo.
This rebellion is considered one of the best recorded slave rebellions in the Americas, and is considered the most important enslaved uprising in Brazilian history.
The history of Muslim rebellion against enslavement in the Americas dates back to 1522 in Santo Domingo. The 1835 uprising in Bahía was the last major slave rebellion in Brazilian history.
At the time, the population of Bahía was mostly of African origin, whether free or enslaved, which made up the lowest rung of society. This was also a period of Islamic conversion among the enslaved and free Africans of Bahía.
Salvador, the capital of Bahía and one of the earliest cities founded in the Americas, had a population of 65,000 inhabitants: 40 per cent of whom were enslaved or freedmen. The black population was composed of varied African cultures and origins, including that of Islam.
Muslims were known as Malê, from a Yoruba word, which led to the name “Malê Rebellion” for the uprising that they would lead. The rebellion took place during a chaotic period of frequent revolt, economic downturn, rising poverty, military and federalist rebellion, and strong anti-colonial sentiment.
Leaders & rebels
The Malê Uprising was planned and led by the enslaved African Muslim clerics in Salvador. The leaders included Ahuna, Pacífico Licutan, Nicobé, Dassalu, Gustard, and Luís Sanin, who had raised money to buy weapons, and wrote plans in Arabic.
The preparations for the rebellion occurred in various places in Salvador, including workplaces. The participation in the revolt was complicated by the tensions within the enslaved population between those born in Africa and those born in Brazil.
The blacks born in Brazil, called creoles, did not participate in the revolt, although it was supported by non-Muslim Africans. A small number of former slaves were also known to have participated, all of whom were African- born.
The uprising was scheduled to begin during the month of Ramadan, the most sacred month of the Muslims. The leaders chose January 25th, Laylat al-Qadr (Night of the Power) – which commemorates the revelation of the Qur’ān to Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) – for the inception of their rebellion. The planned date also coincided with the Catholic celebration of Nossa Senhora da Guia.
The betrayal of the 1835 Malê Revolt led to its failure before it could even begin.
A freed Nagô woman, Sabina da Cruz, discovered the plans for the rebellion and informed local white Brazilian authorities.
In the middle of the night on January 24, the leaders of the rebellion were ambushed by military forces. And precisely one hour before midnight, a district judge ordered guards to surround all borders of the district in order to form a siege.
Word spread quickly around slave owners of Salvador, who made every effort to make sure that their slaves did not take part in the rebellion. Armed troops inspected the homes of several freed Africans and finally came upon the house of a mulatto tailor named Domingos Marinho de Sá, whose tenant was Manoel Calafate.
Forced to unleash their uprising prematurely following betrayal, around sixty armed Africans charged against the officers when they attempted to force their way into the house. This was the starting point of the rebellion, which saw a couple of other groups leave the house through other doorways, spreading the news of the rebellion to nearby houses.
One of the first groups to leave Calafate’s home rushed to the prison in an effort to liberate their teachers like Pacífico Licutan, along with other imprisoned Africans, but this plan failed. Many of the rebels were killed before Fajr prayers.
Even though they were outnumbered and outgunned, the Malê warriors, numbering around 600, took to the streets of Salvador, managing to attack the barracks that controlled the city.
Unfortunately, the rebellion – suffering from inferior weaponry – was eventually put down by the National Guard, police, and armed white civilians. This resulted in the deaths of nine government troops and about seventy of the rebels.
The rebels’ Islamic faith
The enslaved Africans’ faith and culture did not perish during the ‘Middle Passage’.
Instead, an intellectual society rooted in West African practices of learning, schooling, and the embodiment of knowledge was built by Muslims.
The presence of Qur’ānic ayāt and prayers on the bodies of fallen rebels explicitly linked Islamic spirituality to the struggle for freedom, thus providing enslaved Muslims with the spiritual fortitude necessary for the struggle for freedom.
The very presence of Qur’ānic ayāt and prayers on the bodies of the fallen also indicates that they were tangible products of Islamic education in Bahía, whether written by teachers or by students in a continuation of West African pedagogical strategies.
These documents are testimony to the pedagogical roots of the rebellion and the strong role played by the ulamā.
Aftermath and fate of the rebellion
The fate of the rebels was severe after the Malê Uprising of 1835.
The leaders were whipped, killed, or deported, and any formal or informal congregation of Africans became incredibly suspect. The mere presence of Arabic pages on the dead bodies of the Muslims who took part in the revolt linked Islamic spirituality to the struggle for freedom.
The aftermath of the Malê Uprising was also severe for the wider African Muslim community.
Following the rebellion, every Muslim activity or items, including Arabic documents, were criminalised and associated with the rebellion. Security forces in Bahía and elsewhere seized any items associated with Islam.
In addition, witnesses, especially Brazilian-born slaves and blacks, came out en-masse to report instances of Muslim activity that had been observed before the rebellion, further distancing the social relations between Africans and Brazilians.
In the aftermath of the rebellion, 200 slaves were taken to court, where they received different types of sentences such as prison, prison with work, flogging, death, or deportation to Africa.
They were savagely tortured, some even to death. More than 500 Muslim Africans were expelled from Brazil and returned to African countries; many suspects were deported with no definitive evidence of their participation in the uprising.
The strict measures taken against the 1835 rebels ultimately proved successful; it would be the last organised slave uprising in Brazil.
Legacy of the Malê Uprising
The Malê Rebellion of 1835 had a lasting impact on the country despite being the last organised slave uprising.
The insecurity and panic that gripped Bahía’s ruling class after the rebellion spread to other parts of the country. Over time, the event gained prominence in newspapers across Brazil, and its legacy continues to be felt today.
The rebellion contributed to the legal cessation of the importation of slaves from Africa in 1850, and to the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888. It demonstrated to authorities and elites, the potential for contestation and rebellion against the slave regime, and it served as a mirror for the rest of the country’s enslaved population, triggering other conflicts.
The rebellion certainly threatened Brazil’s social structure, and thus, their legacy lives on.