The First Free Village For Africans In The Americas
“The first ‘free town’ in the Americas has been preserved intact in Colombia. It’s a unique place, famous for its culture, gastronomy, language, and, of course, its history. The village was founded by Benkos Biohó also known as Domingo Biohó, a leader who commanded a rebellion of runaway slaves in the New Kingdom of Granada in the 17th century.”
Every year, thousands of tourists from all over the world wander the colonial streets of my hometown, Cartagena de Indias. When you take a stroll through the city, it is impossible to miss a striking group of women, dressed in colorful skirts and turbans, selling goods with large baskets of traditional treats and tropical fruits balanced on their heads. These women are the famous Palenqueras, icons of Cartagena’s history. The Palenqueras sell irresistible sweets such as coconut cake, syrups, tamarindo balls, peanut balls, sugared papaya, traditional cheeses, aniseed — and my very favorite, “Alegrias” (“Happiness”). These cereal balls with honey and coconuts are delicious.
As a native, I have always admired these strong women who come to Cartagena each day from their village, about fifty miles away, to meet tourists and sell their goods. Their dedication to keeping their traditions alive has earned them a special place in my heart. During my most recent visit, I took the time to visit San Basilio de Palenque and learn more about the history of the town where our amazing Palenqueras come from.
Arriving In Palenque
When arriving from Cartagena, the colorful town is located behind a mountain range, and over swamps and a river, protective barriers in the past against slave traders. Nowadays, San Basilio de Palenque is part of the Decenio Internacional de Los Afrodescendientes, an organization that strives for justice and equality for black people.
The village of San Basilio de Palenque is inhabited by Afro-Colombians, who are direct descendants of African slaves brought by the Europeans during the Colonization of the Americas. These descendants have preserved their ancestral traditions and also developed their own language: Palenquero (aka, Spanish Creole”), a mix of the African Kikongo language, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Located about an hour and a half south of Cartagena, in the foothills of the Montes de María, the village has a population of about 3,500 inhabitants. The word “palenque” means “walled city,” and San Basilio de Palenque was the first of many walled communities, or palenques, that were founded by escaped slaves as a refuge in the seventeenth century. Of the many palenques of escaped slaves that once existed, San Basilio is the only one that still survives.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the most significant source of wealth from the Spanish colonies in America did not come from gold or silver but sugarcane. This crop required extensive and virgin lands, as well as abundant working hands. These working hands were taken from Africa and brought to work the sugarcane plantations.
Through the Royal Decree of 1789, freedom was granted for the trade of African slaves. The rise of slavery and the emergence of a new socio-economic structure that depended upon the work of the slaves spurred the regulation of this abominable practice.
Spaniards introduced kidnapped African slaves in South America through the important port of Cartagena de Indias, where ships full of Africans arrived. The first Africans were transported to Colombia in the 1520s, and the first slave revolt happened only a decade later, becoming a common occurrence at regular intervals over the next three hundred years. Benkos Biohó, alleged to be an African king, was brought as a slave to Cartagena in 1599. He promptly escaped into the swampy jungles surrounding the city with many followers. They settled in the Serranía de San Jacinto mountains, fighting battles and freeing slaves from the city of Cartagena and the passing boats. Biohó and his followers then took them to the refuge of the fortress, which Biohó founded in 1603. San Basilio de Palenque became the symbol of freedom since every person who became part of a palenque was automatically free.
An interesting fact that the locals shared with us was that women’s braids were not only used as maps to lead people to the free town but also used as a transportation method for seeds.San Basilio de Palenque
The free lands of San Basilio de Palenque were founded more than two hundred years before Colombia achieved independence from Spain. A “capitulation of peace” was signed between the Spaniards and the former slaves in 1603. While, in 1713, the Spanish crown issued a Royal Decree that officially freed the people of the palenque from slavery. Their culture and traditions have survived intact, a major reason that UNESCO declared San Basilio de Palenque a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005. It’s a unique place, where gastronomy, language, music, culture, medicine, and societal organization have a rare and unique significance.
San Basilio de Palenque is a village without a police force. It is organized into groups called makuagro, a system of rights and duties that ensures that citizens watch out for one another. The Cimarrona Guard work for the community’s overall welfare and the makuagro manages community matters such as the lumablú. The lumablú is a funeral ceremony that lasts nine days, with songs, dances, and feasts in honor of the deceased. On the final day, a pechiche drum sounds a final farewell.
A monument to Domingo Benkos Biohó stands in the center of the central park, and Palenqueros are proud of the prominent figures that have come from this unique village, including boxer Antonio Cervantes, famous champeta musician and teacher Rafael Cassiani, and the rap group Kombilesa Me.
During our walk through the streets of San Basilio de Palenque, trees and flowers fill the air with unforgettable aromas, and you can see women selling cocadas, alegrias, and enyucados. You can also hear the drums and songs in the houses of the natives enjoying their favorite beats.
We made a few stops to visit Kombilesa Me’s house and place of rehearsal, and we also stopped by Antonio Cervante’s statue and Benkos Biohó monument. Our most fascinating moment was spending time with maestro Rafael Cassiani, who keeps his doors open to welcome tourists and visitors and share his music, listen and dance to his most famous songs.
The cultural heritage of San Basilio de Palenque, its people, its town, its history, its language, are testimonies of the efforts for the creation of an identity of the African diaspora in America. In Colombia, they are the experience of the African-American bridge.
Palenque is not a regular village; it is a place where you can sense the peace and calm of its habitants. A place that serves as a testimony of human perseverance and the strength of those who gave everything for freedom and justice, not only for themselves but also for their future generations. San Basilio de Palenque is a great stop for those willing to learn about the Palenquero way of living, as well as for those passionate about history, culture, and music. They are sure to have an inspiring experience in San Basilio de Palenque with an exceptional group of people that continues to achieve extraordinary things.
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