Aqualtune was born a princess in Congo, and if her name is still invoked many an evening in the favelas, it is because she was crowned princess of another kingdom in the mountains of Sagrados. . . .





From one end of the Americas to the other, the Old Chroniclers recorded that slaves of princely origin were treated as such by their fellow captives. Captain Gabriel Stedman noted:


“Many dignitaries prefer death to degradation; and on repeated occasion, I have seen slaves fall to their knees and beg their master to permit them to carry out the task of a captive prince to whom they continued to show the same respect as if he were in his native country.”


One can count on ones fingers the great African dignitaries who were brought to America and who left future generations the memory of a name, the uncertain trace of a face, buried in the night. Aqualtune was born a princess in Congo, and if her name is still invoked many an evening in the favelas, it is because she was crowned princess of another kingdom in the mountains of Sagrados, in Palmares, Pernambuco. . . .


In 1665, Princess Aqualtune participated in the famous battle of Mbwila, after which the head of the king of the Mani–Kongo was forever displayed in the Church of Saint Paul in Luanda. She is said to have been in command of an army of 10,000 warriors.


She was defeated in one of many battles of attacks against her people, by the invading tribe the Wachagas. Aqualtune was captured, hands and feet shackled, and as a condition of her defeat, she was sold as a slave. With an iron collar around her neck, she was marched with many of her warriors towards the slave fort there to be put aboard one of the many slave ships that savaged the African coasts stealing away African men, women and children into a life of eternal servitude.


Aqualtune reached the fortress of Elmina Castle along with thousands of others. Elmina Castle was erected by the Portuguese in 1482 as São Jorge da Mina (St. George of the Mine) Castle, also known simply as Mina or Feitoria da Mina) in present-day Elmina, Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast).



View of Elmina Castle, 1668.



There, with one simple movement of his hand, a bishop on an ivory throne baptized an endless stream of slaves descending into the holds of slave ships. Before she boarded the ship, as proof of her baptism, a little flower was branded with a redhot iron above her right breast.


Aqualtune was thirty years old when she left Africa. She was a tall and statuesque woman with straight shoulders, her hair braided plainly, and her forehead and the corners of her eyes bore marks worthy of her people’s veneration.


After Aqualtune was forced aboard the slave ship, while on its living-death voyage to the New World, nothing pulled her out of the numbness she had settled into: not the screams, the darkness, the hunger, the sickness, nor the terror that flooded the ship, the mutual fear of blacks and whites condemned to living in the same wooden cage. Nor was she even affected by the insurrection that was brutally crushed on the eighth day of the crossing.


Once she arrived in Brazil, at Recife, Aqualtune jumped off the pier and rushed into the ocean, with the idea of returning to her native Congo at the other end of the horizon.


She was caught, oiled from head to toe, rubbed with lemon to make her presentable, and was then displayed in Recife’s covered slave market, where the other slaves from the Congo showered her with respect and admiration.


One of these slaves followed her to her new fate at a plantation in Puerto Calvo that specialized in breeding cattle and men. When the master, the fazendeiro, discovered that she was still venerated, he mocked the princess by tossing her into the hands of his most vile males.


She came out of her lethargy in her sixth month of pregnancy. As an old story recounted, “One day, she heard a throbbing in her womb and all her blood stirred.”


Aqualtune was then give the task of mooring cattle, and so she dragged her heavy belly across the fields and pastures of the large plantation, the fazenda. Night and day her mouth gaped, and her eyes expressed the astonishment of finding herself under the sky of a world that looked so different from her native Congo.



Congo maluku.jpg
The Congo River



Puerto Calvo is not far from the Kingdom of Palmares, of which she heard others talk at night in the stench of the slave quarters.

Burdened with her belly, Princess Aqualtune began to dream about that strange kingdom of slaves. She imagined it to be full of the feasts and the gold of her native Congo kingdom, and the more that she heard of Palmares, the more she became determined to find her way there and leave behind the stultifying cruelty of enslavement.


From the earliest time in which Africans were brought forcibly to the new world they resisted bondage by flight, or marronage. It seems that from the earliest arrival of Africans in the captaincies of Alagoas and Pernambuco in Portuguese America slaves had fled to the interior. By 1606 a trickle of runaway slaves had made their way to a mountainous, palm-covered region of Pernambuco and there established a mocambo, or maroon settlement, of some reputation. [1]


The area came to be known as Palmares due to the preponderance of wild palms there.


The Palmares region, straddling the Serra da Barriga, received a greater number of fugitive slaves in the 1630s thanks in part to the Dutch invasion of Northeastern Brazil. During the Dutch dominion and after the Portuguese reconquest of Pernambuco, completed in 1654, there were occasional incursions into Palmares, without great success. Of special interest are the expeditions of Bartholomeus Lintz (1640), Roelox Baro (1643), and Johan Blaer and Jürgens Reijmbach (1645).


At the time of the Lintz expedition, there were two large mocambos and any number of smaller ones. By the time of the Blaer-Reijmbach expedition there was at least one large mocambo; another large mocambo had been abandoned three years earlier. The diary of the expedition describes the large “Palmares”: It was surrounded by a double palisade with a spike-lined trough inside. This settlement was half a mile long, its street six feet wide. There was a swamp on the north side and large felled trees on the south. We might guess that the clearing was for cultivation or for defensive reasons.


“Jogar Capoëra – Danse de la guerre”, Paint from Johann Moritz Rugendas, 1835


There were 220 buildings in the middle of which stood a church, four smithies, and a council house. The population was around 1,500. The ruler of that place, according to the diary, was severely just, punishing sorcerers, as well as those who would flee the mocambo. The king had a house and farms outside the settlement. The narrative also includes description of cultivation and foodstuffs, uses made of the palm, and crafts such as work in straw, gourds, and ceramic.

The overwhelming majority of slaves in the Portuguese colonies were male. This majority was also seen in the quilombos. For this reason Palmaristas were often sent on raiding missions in order to procure female citizens.

The smaller female population (Black, White, Amerindian), and perhaps Amerindian cultural mores, gave rise to a system of polyandry. These polygamous wives ran their household and designated tasks for their husbands. The central importance of females in the quilombos stands in stark contrast to the patriarchal society experienced in the coastal colonies by their Portuguese counterparts.

It is also important to note that the desire amongst the citizens of the quilombos for women was such that race had no bearing in their selection – all women were candidates. This inspired a great deal of miscegenation, and contributed to the very diverse community and culture that the Palmares fostered.[2]


As was so often the case in the long history of wars against Palmares, the soldiers found the settlement virtually abandoned when they arrived; the Palmarinos would receive advance word of expeditions from their spies in the colonial towns and sugar plantations or engenhos.


Aqualtune wanted to escape and join with the people of Palmares. She plotted with some of the enslaves to destroy the Casa Grande and its hosts, that night.


Then, following an ever growing group, tearing down and burning everything in her path, she finally reached the Kingdom of Palmares: she was once more Princess Aqualtune.


Accompanied by two hundred enslaves, Aqualtune became the leader of the quilombo—a community of runaway enslaves—of Subupuira, northeast of Macoco, the royal city and capital of the kingdom of Palmares.[3]


Princess Aqualtune gave birth to two sons:


Ganga Zumba


-Gana Zona


both of whom would be just as powerful and courageous in their leadership of Palmares.


Her grandson, Zumbi, from her daughter Sabina, would be the last great leader of Palmares. Betrayed by a fellow enslave, he would be beheaded by the Portuguese.


For the historical space of the blink of an eye, Aqualtune again enjoyed the life of an African princess, until her mysterious death around 1675. Here, once again, we have to lend an ear to History with a capital H, which stands by the doors of all women, and men, whose stature has grown with legends.


According to some stories, Aqualtune fell during an assault by the troops of Manuel Lopez Galvao, who brought two thousand pairs of ears back to Bahia. According to other stories, she died a natural death, perhaps from an illness, or simply of old age—a thing very rare at that time for millions of enslaved blacks.


Finally, as is said of other rebels—in Surinam, Jamaica, or Santo Domingo—the gods of Africa decided to make her immortal. The gods made her an Orisha, that is, an ancestral spirit that appeared to warriors as a royal eagle, and she led them in battle until the fall of the Kingdom of Palmares, which had stood for 100 years, in its final and irrevocable defeat in 1694.









1.”The Slave King: The Epic of Palmares”, by Robert Nelson Anderson, III, Brazzil Connection, October, 1995.  ( )

2.  Irene Diggs: “Zumbi and the Republic of Os Palmares”. Phylon. 1953. Atlantic Clark University. Vol.2 p.62


 3. “In Praise of Black Women: Heroines of the Slavery Era,” by Simone Schwartz-Bart, 2002.

In Praise of Black Women, Volume 2: Heroines of the Slavery Era by Simone Schwarz-Bart, Andre Schwarz-Bart, Rose-Myriam Rejouis, Stephanie Daval, and Val Vinokurov (Hardcover – Dec 2002)
5.0 out of 5 stars (1)


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  1. Julio Casoy

    Thank you for this summary. Excellent synthesis of such a complex life. Thank you for keeping Aqualtune alive.
    Aqualtune is now an Egum, an ancestor. An ancestor to be venerated, to receive gifts and to be kept alive by perpetuating her history. She is an Imolê, not an Orisha.


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