Latin American Civilization II
February 25, 2013 Realms of Rebellion
Throughout history, Latin American slaves have been thought of as rebellious groups with little, if any, power over their own destinies, much less the course of history. To imply that their rebellious behavior did not pave the way for incredible social, political, and economic changes all over Latin America, however, would be inaccurate. Evidence of “progress through revolt” can be seen in Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia by Joao Jose Reis. Another document that provides similar evidence is James E Sanders’ “Citizens of a Free People: Popular Liberalism and Race in Nineteenth-Century Southwestern Colombia”. Both of these texts provide insight into slave rebellions in the nineteenth century, and evaluate the successes and failures of those rebellions. Although there is a tendency to romanticize the oppressed when discussing slavery, and slave rebellion in particular, Reis and Sanders present balanced evidence to ensure they do not overstate the importance of the Afro-Colombian or Malê slave rebellions. Though neither group ever achieved their intended goals with their insurrections, they did all make progress toward their objectives, which is successful rebellion.
In order to properly discuss rebellion, it is necessary to define the term, particularly with regard to nineteenth-century Latin American society. Meriam-Webster defines rebellion as “open, armed, and usually unsuccessful defiance of or resistance to an established government.” Rebellion, however, can take many forms other than just “open and armed defiance.” Historian John H. Coastworth more accurately describes these movements “to include any collective behavior that has as its motive or unintended effect an alteration (or preservation under assault) in the material conditions, social organization or political position of the participants.” The latter definition more accurately describes Latin American slave rebellions by pointing out that although a desire for change is always inherent in rebellion, not all rebellion seeks to garner the same change. Reis, for example, describes the Malê uprising of Brazil, which was fueled by religious oppression. Conversely, Sanders describes a rebellion targeted at political change in Colombia. While these two historical events can be defined as religious and social rebellions respectively, what they have in common is that they both challenge the social status quo—the unifying quality found in all rebellion.
Religious oppression has played a role in generating several uprisings over the course of history. Little recognition, however, has been given to the fact that religious expression in nineteenth-century Latin America was innately rebellious. In nineteenth-century Brazil, slave owners and elites made it very difficult, if not impossible, for the slave population to maintain any cultural identity, including religious indentity. Brazilian leaders maintained the ideology that keeping slaves separated and uneducated would assist in maintaining order in the streets. The widespread practice of Islam in nineteenth-century Bahia, however, provided the Malê community with a sense of unity and identity, as well as educating its practitioners, thereby making religious expression extremely rebellious. Reis discusses the rebellious nature of religious expression, stating that “Malês who knew how to read and write Arabic passed their learning on to others...while they waited for customers they concerned themselves with their religion and their rebellion.” Islam gave the slaves of Brazil an identity worth defending, and on January 25, 1835, they did just that. Groups of “Allah’s children” had plotted to overthrow their oppressors on a Christian day of worship, using the Qur’an as their inspiration: “Allah desires no...
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