Colombia Independence Day: How Benkos Biohó, an Enslaved Guinea-Bissaun in Colombia, Formed the First Maroon Community in the AmericasJul 19, 2021 02:00PM ● By Oga Africa
Statue of Benkos Bioho, Source: Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.0
Happy Independence Day, Colombia! On July 20th, 1810, this Caribbean country gained independence from Spain. To celebrate Colombia’s African history, we are exploring the life and impact of Benkos Biohó, a Guinea-Bissauan man in Colombia who founded the first African Maroon town in the Americas.
(Statue of Benkos Biohó. Wehwalt, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons )
Biohó was the son of an African chief who was kidnapped from the Mandinka Kingdom of Kaabu, which is located in present-day Guinea-Bissau. In 1596, he was sold in Cartagena, Colombia. He first attempted to abscond when a boat he sailed in sank. He was then recaptured. However, as he insisted on his freedom, Biohó planned his escape. By 1599, he and an estimated 30 enslaved people, including his wife, escaped 55 miles away from their place of bondage to a remote part of the country.
They formed their own community, a town now known as San Basilio de Palenque, and created an army to protect themselves. This community, originally composed of Africans from Nigeria, Senegal, and Congo, was eventually joined by more runaways. In addition to the enslaved populations that ran away to join San Basilio de Palenque, Biohó and his army freed enslaved populations by raiding plantations and even went to war with the Spanish for their freedom. The communities that settled in free towns became known as Palenques.
This slave resistance offset an on and off, almost 100 year battle with Spanish colonists. By 1603, the then governor in Cartagena signed a peace treaty with Biohó’s community, which was extended by the following governor. In 1619, the third governor of the treaty’s duration, who feared Biohó’s power as a leader was a threat to Spanish colonization, took Biohó as a prisoner and hanged him in 1621.
The murder of Biohó sparked an uprising that lasted for 70 years, and in 1691, the King of Spain declared all Palenques to be free to live peacefully. The language of the Palenque community, Palenquero, is a sacred Creole language mixed of Bantu, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. Palenquero, spoken in Colombia by Afro-Latinx communities, is now taught in universities in Colombia. In 2016, about 33,000 known Palenquero-speaking people existed in Colombia and its diaspora.
( Colombian Fruit Vendors. Luz A. Villa, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons )
The creativity exhibited among enslaved populations show artistic elements weaved into slave resistance. During the slave era, in preparation to run away, African populations in Colombia would braid the route to free slave towns like San Basilio de Palenque in their hair, so they would not get lost. The town retains its Africanisms well, through language, cuisine, culture, and spirituality, and is not formally policed by the Colombian government.
Explore the San Basilio de Palenque community here: