The Malê Revolt was one of the most significant Maafa (slavery) rebellion in Brazil. On a Sunday during Ramadan in January 1835, in the city of Salvador da Bahia, a small group of enslaved Blacks and freedmen, rose up against the government. The revolt was planned and led entirely by Muslims.
In Bahia the Hausas were primarily identified with practicing Islam because they adopted Islam before coming over to Brazil. Over time however, the Nâgo–the local designation for ethnic Yoruba–made up a majority of Muslims in Bahia due to the rise of Islam in Yoruba kingdoms. Thus many Muslims were called malê, from Yoruba imale that designated a Yoruba Muslim. By 1835, many of the “Malês” were Nagos, who had been soldiers and captives in the wars between Oyo, Ilorin and other Yoruba city-states in the early part of the 19th Century. Furthermore, many of the key figures important in planning the uprising were Nâgos includin, Malam Bubakar Ahuna.
In 1814 and 1816, the Muslims of Bahia attempted to organize a revolt against the Portuguese. They wanted to overthrow the local law enforcement, free all the enslaved people, and commandeer ships back to Africa. Unfortunately, the revolts were crushed before they even started, with the rebel leaders being killed. Over the next 20 years, intermittent minor revolts by Muslims and non-Muslims alike were met with no success in bringing freedom to Bahia’s enslaved community.
Another major revolt was planned for January 25, 1835.
Six months before the revolt, the authorities had received some information that a rebellion was brewing. Malam Bubakar Ahuna, a leading Muslim scholar throughout Bahia, who organized Muslim community events, was exile. Despite this, the plans for the revolt were already finalized and distributed to Muslims throughout Bahia.
The revolt was to take place after the fajr (dawn) prayer on January 25th, 1835, which was the 27th of Ramadan, 1250 in the Muslim calendar. Some Muslims consider the 27th to be the most probable date for Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Power, when the Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad. The Muslims of Bahia chose this date in the hopes that the heightened spiritual state of the community would lead to greater chances for success.
However, due to various incidents, it was forced to start before the planned time. On Saturday the 24th, enslaved Blacks began to hear rumors of an upcoming rebellion. While there are multiple accounts of freed Blacks telling their previous enslavers about the revolts, only one was reported to the proper authorities. A man named Domingos Fortunato overheard rumors and told his wife, Guilhermina Rosa de Souza, of the rebellion. Guilhermina then proceeded to tell her whyte neighbor, André Pinto da Silveira. Several of Pinto de Silveira’s friends were present, including Antônio de Souza Guimarães and Francisco Antônio Malheiros, who took it upon themselves to relay the information to the local authorities. All of these events occurred between the hours of 9:30 and 10:30 PM on Saturday the 24th.
The justice of the peace, José Mendes de Costa Coelho, took the necessary precautions; he reinforced the palace guard, alerted the barracks, doubled the night patrol, and ordered boats to watch the bay, all by 11:00 PM. At around 1:00 AM on Sunday, justices of the peace searched the home of Domingos Marinho de Sa. Fortunato had reported that there were Africans meeting in his house due to fear for his life. Sensing Fortunato’s fear, the justices asked to see for themselves. They went down into his basement and found the ringleaders, discussing last minute details. However, the Africans were able to overpowered the justice of the peace and a police lieutenant. Throughout the night approximately six hundred rebels ran through the streets fighting and vandalizing a number of municipal buildings. Several people were injured and at least one killed. After securing the area, the rebels split up to go in different directions throughout the city. Most of the groups did very little fighting because they were recruiters, calling the enslaved community to war.
However, the largest group traveled up the hill toward Palace Square (Praça Municipal today), and continued to fight. The rebels decided to first attack the city palace of the jail, attempting to free a Muslim leader, Pacifico Licutan. The prison guards proved too much for the rebels, who perhaps were looking to supplement their weak supply of arms with the jailers’. Under heavy fire, they withdrew from the prison and retreated to the Largo de Teatro. When reinforcements arrived, they attacked a nearby post of soldiers in order to take their weapons. They marched toward the officer’s barracks, and put up a good fight, however, the soldiers were able to pull the gate guarding the barracks shut. After failing to take several more key positions, the rebels decided to head through the city, toward Cabrito, the designated meeting spot.
However, in between Cabrito and Salvador da Bahia was the Brazilian cavalry. And when they met in Água de Meninos, the most decisive battle of the revolt took place.
At about 3:00 AM, the rebels reached Água de Meninos. The footsoldiers immediately retreated inside the confines of the barracks while the men on horseback stayed outside. The rebels, who now only numbered about 50–60, did not attempt to attack the barracks. Instead, they sought a way around it. However, they were met with fire from the barracks, followed by a cavalry charge, which proved too powerful for the rebels. After the rebels were completely devastated, more arrived. After assessing the situation, they decided that their only hope would be to attack and take the barracks. However, this desperate attempt proved futile, and the rebels quickly decided to flee. The cavalry mounted one last charge that finished them off.
Fearful that the whole state of Bahia would follow the example of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) and rise up and revolt, the authorities quickly sentenced four of the rebels to death, sixteen to prison, eight to forced labour, and forty-five to flogging. The remainder of surviving leaders of the revolt were then deported back to Africa by the authorities; it is believed that some members of the Brazilian community in Lagos, Nigeria, Tabom People of Ghana are descended from this deportation, although descendants of these Afro-Brazilian repatriates are reputed to be widespread throughout West Africa (such as Sylvanus Olympio, the first president of Togo).
The remaining Malês were watched by the Brazilian authorities very carefully and in subsequent years intensive efforts were made to force conversions to Catholicism. However, the African Muslim community was not erased overnight, and as late as 1910 it is estimated there were still some 100,000 African Muslims living in Brazil.