In the 16th century, slavery was becoming common across the Americas, particularly in Brazil. Slaves were shipped overseas from Africa via a massive Atlantic slave trade network. In Brazil, most worked at sugar plantations and mines, and were brutally tortured. However, some lucky slaves started to escape. According to legend, among them was Aqualtune, a former Angolan princess and general enslaved during a Congolese war. Shortly after reaching Brazil, the pregnant Aqualtune escaped with some of her soldiers and fled to the Serra da Bariga region. It is believed that here, Aqualtune founded a quilombo, or a colony of Quilombolas, called Palmares. Palmares was one of the largest quilombos in Brazil. In the 1630s, palmares was inherited by Aqualtune's son, Ganga Zumba, who ruled the city from a palace. The inhabitants used African style forges to make metal plows and scythes to harvest fields of corn, rice and manioc and created agricultural forests of palm and breadfruit. Palmares and other quilombos during the Quilombola's glory days were surrounded by palisades, camouflaged pits filled with deadly stakes, and paths lined with lacerating caltrops. Palmares was behind many raids of Portuguese ports and towns. Lisbon, seeing Palmares as a direct challenge to its colonial status, declared war on the Quilombolas. Twenty attacks on Palmares failed. But the constant attacks wore down Ganga Zumba, and in 1678 he agreed to stop accepting new slaves and move out of the mountains to safety. However, Ganga Zumba's nephew, Zumbi, saw this as betrayal and poisoned his uncle before tearing up the treaty with the Portuguese. Colonial forces continued the relentless attacks, and in the end Zumbi was unable to cope. In 1694, the Portuguese finally destroyed Palmares and killed hundreds of its citizens, ending the glory days of the Quilombolas. Zumbi and Palmares survived only as symbols of resistance.
Other quilombos had emerged during the age of Palmares and the Aqualtune Dynasty. The fleeing slaves had befriended and allied with Brazilian natives. They interbred, and today most of the Quilombola population is part African-Brazilian, part Indian. Quilombos were mainly located deep in the jungles, far from European influence, and after the fall of Palmares, all the quilombos either went into hiding or were wiped out by Europeans. Most of the Quilombolas remained hidden so successfully it was assumed they had been destroyed or died out. They dropped farming at the risk of being discovered and continued the agricultural forest practice. The Quilombolas adopted a lifestyle that was a cross of Portuguese and Indian culture, as well as their traditional African culture, to make a colourful cultural blend. Until the 1970s, the Quilombolas were a totally unknown race and assumed extinct. However, in the 70s, deforestation reached their lands. Loggers, assuming them to be squatters trying to steal property, forced them off their land at gunpoint and unwittingly stole their land. Nobody believed they were really surviving Quilombolas until the 80s. Enraged ranchers claimed they were squatters pretending to be Quilombolas to get land and make a quick buck. Eventually, they were accepted as Quilombolas, but ranchers still kept stealing their land. The most avid supporter of the Quilombolas was Chico Mendes, who argued for the preservation of the jungle and its native people, including the Quilombolas. Between 1988 and 2003, 51 quilombos finally received land rights. By 2008, 1,700 quilombos were recognized. The Quilombolas are currently the victors of the land wars and recovering from poverty, but ranchers, loggers, miners and others are angry that the Quilombolas are getting some of the most valuable land in the Amazon and the brewing land war is definitely far from over. Meanwhile, environmentalists are still establishing national parks in Quilombola territory and kicking them out to preserve the very forests that they were responsible for planting and preserving from deforestation.