The Malê Revolt (also known as The Great Revolt) is perhaps the most significant slave rebellion in Brazil. On a Sunday during Ramadan in January 1835, in the city of Salvador da Bahia, a small group of black slaves and freedmen, inspired by Muslim teachers, rose up against the government. (Muslims were called malê in Bahia at this time, from Yoruba imale that designated a Yoruba Muslim, which originally meant “a Malian”, and bearing talismans containing texts from the Quran.)
Brazilian slaves knew about the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) and wore necklaces bearing the image of President Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who had declared Haitian independence.
The history of Muslims in Brazil begins with the importation of African slave labor to the country. Brazil obtained 37% of all African slaves traded, and more than 3 million slaves were sent to this one country. Starting around 1550, the Portuguese began to trade African slaves to work the sugar plantations once the native Tupi people deteriorated Scholars claim that Brazil received more enslaved Muslims than anywhere else in the Americas,
The Muslim uprising of 1835 in Bahia illustrates the condition and legacy of resistance among the community of Malês, as African Muslims were known in 19th century Bahia. Muslim African tribes are Ful, Mandinka, Yao, and Makonde.
Beginning on the night of January 24, 1835, and continuing the following morning, a group of African born slaves occupied the streets of Salvador and for more than three hours they confronted soldiers and armed civilians. Even though it was short lived, the revolt was the largest slave revolt in Brazil and the largest urban slave revolt in the Americas. About 300 Africans took part and the estimated death toll ranges from fifty to a hundred, although exact numbers are unknown. This number increases even more if the wounded who died in prisons or hospitals are included. Many participants were sentenced to death, prison, whippings, or deportation.
The rebellion had nationwide repercussions. 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 labor, 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 such ethnicities as the Aguda people of 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). Fearing the example might be followed, the Brazilian authorities began to watch the Malês very carefully and in subsequent years intensive efforts were made to force conversions to Catholicism and erase the popular memory and affection towards Islam. 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.
Many consider this rebellion to be the turning point of slavery in Brazil. While slavery existed for more than fifty years following the Malê Revolt, the slave trade was abolished in 1851. Slaves continued to pour into Brazil immediately following the rebellion, which caused fear and unrest among the people of Brazil. They feared that bringing in more slaves would just fuel another rebel army. Although it took a little over fifteen years to happen, the slave trade was abolished in Brazil, due in part to the 1835 rebellion.