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Questions are often asked as to what is the more correct ethnic identity of a people in a certain region? Well, some will argue that they should have a right to enjoy freely their own identities meaning that there is no ethnicity that is exclusively right, but others believe that they should be unified in just one identity. They feel that all people in a nation should share the same religious convictions, same language, among many other customs that form an ethnic identity. It is these contradicting ideas of those who want a single identity and those who want to have their own identity imposed on others, which bring about conflicts. One kind of such a conflict is the Bahia Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Brazil that is adequately described in Joao Jose Reis book “Slave Rebellion in Brazil”.
The African born slaves and freed men in Brazil decided to riot in the streets of Bahia on the night of January 24th 1835. The revolt was aimed at countering the wealthy dominating class of the white people that had enslaved them for many years during the time when slave trade was a boom. They also wanted to be granted the freedom to celebrate without fear their own ethnicity that was unique. The revolt that only lasted for three hours may look insignificant to some people, but in reality, it was the most effective revolt by slaves in an urban area that has ever occurred in the American continent. The did not just happen as an abrupt outburst, but as something that had been ongoing because of the long and many years that these people had suffered social and religious disturbances meted on them by the slave masters. This revolt changed the lives of the African communities, those who were involved and those who were not involved.
Religion played a vital role in this revolt although it was not a holy war or jihad as some may think because most wars are taken to be holy wars when a particular religion sides with the oppressed as was the case here, but in this revolt, both non-males and males (title given to African Muslims) took part in the war. Both groups wore Islamic amulets, rings and robes. The Islamic religion was therefore only used as a unifying factor, which gave the oppressed slaves a chance to comfort each other and at the same time conspire with one another. This was a major strength to the Bahia revolt; it showed a group of a people who were united for one goal, to fight for their rights, to remove themselves from the yokes of slavery (Walker, 2001).
The diversity of the people staying in Bahia was also a big determining factor of the rebellion. This diversity provoked far reaching consequences making it the backbone of slaves’ rebellion. The existence of different social classes and the inequality that existed between them brought about fierce tensions that culminated in the violent events that occurred. The black people and the white people overwhelmingly made up the majority of the Bahia population. The might seem a very simple separation that can exist in any population anywhere, but in the case of Bahia, this was quite complex. To begin with, the black people were divided among themselves, the males and the non-males were already separated by religion. The Africans born in Brazil, the so called second generation Africans, remained generally loyal to their masters. The white population on the other hand was divided on the question of dealing with the many uprising formed by the Africans. To maintain and keep the divisions amongst them, many people decided to put their lives and livelihood at risk and lost in the end (Gomez 2005).
Another factor that contributed to the African resistance was the Candomble, a term used to denote religions of African extraction in Bahia. It involved a wide scope of religious practices that were performed privately by ritual specialists to a hierarchically organized group of initiates around a cult head in a temple where they lived and observed a convent-like life, held private and public ceremonies like spirit possession rituals using the sound of drums and performing dances. Here practices such as healing, divination, carrying out procedures of witchcraft and counter witchcraft, making of amulets, this was the main and widespread Candomble practice. It is argued that the many slave uprising and conspiracies that occurred during the Candomble period were majorly inspire3d by the traditional warrior divinities. For instance, it was claimed that Ogun, the god of iron and war, could help people gain victories over their enemies. This “god” became popular in the land of the Yoruba people during the time of the most intense phase of the Bahian slave trade. Evidence shows that Candomble was involved with an uprising by slaves, the Urubu revolt in year 1826. This factor did not employ collective armed resistance, but resorted to peaceful individual slave flight. Many of the African slaves saw this as their only refuge and therefore any communications from the Candomble was taken sacredly a fact that played to advantage of their leaders as they saw this as a good recruiting agent for people to revolt against the white oppressors (Mann & Bay 2001).
The repression that followed the revolt was brutal and largely disrupted and dispersed the community of Muslim slaves. There was violence, hysteria, beatings and murder mostly directed against innocent Africans. It saw many free people deported to Africa and others voluntarily left on their own to avoid the continued discrimination and violence from the police. Many of the rebel slaves were sold to the prosperous coffee plantations in the south. In many parts of Brazil, any African found with any Arabic writings was taken to be a suspect. There developed a situation of hostile mistrust by the authorities over the Muslims. The Islam religion was unable to penetrate the Afro-Brazilian community which majorly consisted of Catholics and other African religions. The Brazilian authorities started watching over the males in the years that followed for fear that an example of the revolt might be followed again. Forced conversions to Catholicism were enforced to make sure that the memory of Islam was completely erased.
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This Bahia slave rebellion served to show how a threatened ethnic identity of a people holds over them. The degree of concentration of slaves in the total population of Brazil especially in Bahia played a major role in the emergence of the revolt. These many slaves, made to believe that Islam was the only religion that could remove them from the bondage of slavery, organized themselves in groups with the help of the Candomble, to fight against their slave master. Their diversity in terms of religion brought about divisions among themselves, the social classes that existed drawing lines between the rich slave master and the poor slaves, all added up to the animosity and hatred that existed and eventually culminated into the violent eruptions that were experienced in Bahia. This period marked a turning point in the lives of many Bahians.