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In Colombia, a village preserves the memory of its African ancestors

By Elodie Descamps, in Cartagena, Colombia
Posted on Tuesday, 19 May 2020 09:44

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The statue of Benkos Biohó, in the centre of village San Basilio de Palenque, in Colombia © Elodie Descamps for JA

Located 10,000 kilometres away from the African coast, the Colombian village of Palenque de San Basilio advertises itself as “a little piece of Africa in Latin America”. Its inhabitants are descended from a line of Africans forced into slavery who would go on to make the village the first free African territory in the Americas.

70 kilometres south of Cartagena, Colombia, followed by a two hour bus ride on the only paved road, and then a stretch in a moto-taxi, one eventually arrives to the legendary village of Palenque de San Basilio.

“Bienvenidos to Palenque,” greets Jesus Palomino, an anthropologist. “There’s not much to see here, but there is much to tell.” He no longer lives in the village but continues to take part in community life and comes back whenever he gets the chance. “Palenque”, as the villagers call it, has a population of 3,500 and a diaspora of around 40,000 people.

Palenqueros consider themselves African first and Colombian second. Africa, their lost continent, at once foreign and familiar, remains alive in their day-to-day lives and their imaginations. These Afro-Colombians have preserved the spirituality, traditional medicine and even the music of their ancestors, not to mention their history, of course.

Strategic port along the slave trade route

Located in northern South America and flanked by the Caribbean Sea, the city of Cartagena, established in 1533, was rapidly converted into a strategic port along the slave trade route for colonial powers, first occupied by the Portuguese and later on the Spanish.

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“Given its geographic location, it became specialised in the arrival and distribution of slaves on the continent,” explains historian Javier Ortiz Cassiani. “The life of the entire city was shaped by the arrival of new ships loaded with Africans. Tradesmen, notaries, doctors, foremen, etc. The professions of those living in Cartagena were organised around the slave trade and at the same time further developed it.”

Once disembarked from the holds of the ships, the Africans were inspected to set their price and then sold at the slave market square. A significant number of them were sent on to other regions to work in the mines and on farms.

Overview of the slave trade out of Africa, 1500-1900. David Eltis and David Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade / UN.org

The rest were put to work as domestic servants or public works labourers. The city’s fortifications, which stretch 12 kilometres around Cartagena, serve to illustrate this, as they were built by Africans and today serve as a symbol of this city now classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tour guides even say that the stones were bonded using the blood of slaves. Spine-chilling, to say the least.

Runaway slave army

Captured in Guinea-Bissau at the end of the sixteenth century, Benkos Biohó would become the hero of Colombia’s African descendants. He was sold in 1596 in Cartagena and worked as a rower on the Magdalena River. Three years later, he managed to flee along with other slaves living under the same roof as him. They settled in the Montes de María, south of the city, and organised a runaway slave army.

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Made up of members originally from Guinea-Bissau, Congo, Senegal and Nigeria, the group gradually filled its ranks with more escaped slaves, known as Maroons. Women braided their hair to create actual maps indicating the route to the refuge. Since they came from different ethnic groups, the Palenqueros created their own creole language, a blend of Spanish, Portuguese and Bantu languages, which they alone could understand.

A young girl on a bike at the centre of the village where the statue of Benkos Biohó, the hero of Afro-Colombians, is located. © Elodie Descamps for JA

For five years, the rebels relentlessly carried out attacks against the Spanish, who were unable to eliminate them. The Spanish struggled to such an extent that in a letter sent to the King of Spain in 1603, the governor of Cartagena declared: “Considering the difficulties we are having in eliminating the negroes there, although they are few in number and we nevertheless fought as if there were thousands of them, I resolved to grant them peace for a year.”

After that year, a peace agreement was signed by the governor and the runaway slaves, officially granting them the right to establish themselves as a free people on the current territory of Palenque de San Basilio. This is how 200 years before Colombia’s independence (in 1810), a Maroon refuge became the first free African territory in Latin America.

Here, we enforce Palenque law, not national law.

The group also acquired new rights, such as the freedom to travel and bear arms, as well as the formal recognition of Maroon authorities. The concessions were a hard to swallow embarrassment for the Spanish Crown, which ordered the assassination of Benkos Biohó. The Maroon leader was hanged and quartered in Cartagena’s public square on 16 March 1621.

But since you can kill a man but not his ideas, the rebels continued to fight for their cause until they obtained an entente cordiale agreement which officially established the territory’s independence in 1705.

Political autonomy and cultural identity

Three centuries later, the village appears to have changed very little. Time itself seems to be suspended in Palenque. The village’s glaring absence of government and isolation makes its presence felt.

Residents still do not have recycling or wastewater treatment systems and they drink potentially contaminated water from an old well. Electricity did not become a fact of life until 1971, and only thanks to the intervention of world boxing champion Antonio Cervantes aka Kid Pambélé.

Of the many palenques that existed during the colonial period, the village is the only one to have survived until the present day. Even more remarkable, its cultural identity has remained intact, which led UNESCO to inscribe the cultural space of San Basilio de Palenque on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008.

In addition to passing down ancestral practices, the Palenqueros have maintained a certain political autonomy, which prevents the police from being able to enter their territory. Residents have created their own community self-protection initiative called the Cimarrona Guard.

“We don’t want to have any relations with governmental military forces, illegal groups or the police. Here, we enforce Palenque law, not national law,” Palomino says.

The social organisation of the community is based on family networks and age groups called “ma kuagro”, forming ties between members via a system of rights and duties. Everyone participates in community life in one way or another.

Nevertheless, the anthropologist worries that his village is gradually disappearing. “There are no higher education institutions or jobs, so young people no longer believe they have a future here. We don’t have a hospital either, it’s those who are knowledgeable about medicinal plants who take care of sick members of the community. What will we become when the last of them dies?”

In the village square, a statue of Benkos Biohó extends one hand towards the sky, while the other breaks free of the shackles of slavery. The expression on the statue’s face, revealing pain and rage, is hypnotising. Although the history of black resistance is often scorned by the official account, in Palenque, it is passed down orally from one generation to the next.

What’s more, we are told that “here we don’t talk about ‘slaves’, but instead ‘the enslaved’”.

Here, children are lulled to sleep with magic-tinged stories of “the first revolution”, as the elders call it. A black, indelible revolution.

Because, if the victors wrote history, depriving Africans of a voice, “we have our collective memory as a witness, and no one can take that away from us,” says Palamino.

In the footsteps of the slaves of Cartagena

Overseen by UNESCO in several Latin American cities, the Slave Route project has turned up in “the pearl of the Caribbean”. Stressing the issues surrounding the memory of slavery and the contribution of Africans to Colombian history and culture, the initiative has helped train 25 tour guides so that they can offer an alternative version of Cartagena’s history. The tour of this memorial route includes 18 sites in all. Three are particularly remarkable.

1. The bay and port

Since the arrival of Pedro de Heredia, the “founder of the city”, and throughout the colonial period, thousands of ships containing “enslaved” Africans landed via the Bay of Cartagena. The Africans were then put up for sale and distributed as labourers inland or sent onwards to other countries.

2. Boca del Puente

Slaves entered the city through this gate to reach Plaza de los Coches, where they were sold. An inscription on the walls of the gate reads: “Since the moment the first enslaved black Africans were forced to walk through this gate, they have forged a different memory. A memory of rebellion, resistance and negotiation so that they could reinvent themselves as subjects of these new lands. They established identities in the midst of pain and found their own voices to silence the sound of their chains.”

3. Plaza de los Coches

The city’s iconic square, an example of colonial-era architecture, has today become the starting point for tourist carriage rides which cross the city’s historic centre. Once known as Plaza de la Aduana, it housed a market where Africans forced into slavery were bought and sold.

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