(from Ch. 9: Forest Fugitives, pp. 329-330)
Christian de Jesus Santana could see the secret city from his window. Known as Calabar, it was at the edge of Salvador da Bahia, in northeast Brazil, on the inland side of a ridge, invisible from Calabar, was the great Bay of All Saints, the second-biggest slave harbor in the world, the first glimpse of the Americas for more than 1.5million captive Africans. The slaves were supposed to spend the rest of their days in Brazil’s sugar plantations and mills. Most did, but countless thousands escaped their bondage, and many of these established fugitive communities – quilombos, as Brazilians called them – in the nation’s forests. Almost always they were joined by Indians, who were also targeted by European slavers. Protected by steep terrain, thickly packed trees, treacherous rivers, and lethal booby traps, these illicit hybrid settlements endured for decades, even centuries. The great majority were small, but some grew to amazing size.
In Liberdade I met a local historian who told me the city actually originated … when slaves had escaped from Salvador down a native path in the forest. The Bay of All Saints is bordered by high, forested bluffs; escapees climbed the bluffs and took over land on the other side, creating a ring of encampments between the colonial port and the indigenous interior. Sometimes their homes were just a few hundred yards away from European farms as the crow flies, but the forest and hills were impenetrable enough to conceal their location. The Portuguese constantly hunted the runaways, but they also traded with them—Calabar’s residents, four miles from the center of Salvador, exchanged dried fish, manioc (cassava), rice, and palm oil for knives, guns, and cloth. In 1888 Brazil finally abolished slavery, yet life in its quilombos showed little improvement. They were still regarded as illegal squatters’ settlements. But the government was too weak to do much about them.
In the 1950s and 1960s Salvador grew enormously. Urban pseudopods reached over the ridges, engulfing Calabar, Liberdade, and half a dozen other quilombos. But these fugitive settlements never fully became part of the city—nobody had legal title to the land. Few roads entered Calabar. Sewer lines were routed around its borders. People had to steal electric power with jury-rigged hookups. By 1985, when Christian was born, the former hideaway was completely surrounded by high-rise apartments.