San Basilio de Palenque : First free black town of the Americas

 

 It is often said that the history is written by the victors. But what does the term victory mean? If victory means to enslave, to destroy languages and cultures, then yes the western countries are the winners.

France, Spain, England and Portugal shaped the world map, conquest after conquest; but as strong that steamroller was, some people have always resisted to preserve their identity. The inhabitants of San Basilio de Palenque in Colombia are a perfect example of this will of resistance and survival that every single culture carries.

Forcefully removed from the West African coast to finally land in the Caribbean Sea (in present-day Colombia), their ancestors broke the Spanish chains of slavery to create their own village and take back their lost freedom. Since its creation, the inhabitants of San Basilio de Palenque have never stopped fighting to give meaning to the word victory.

Declared a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of the Humanity” by UNESCO in 2005, now more than ever San Basilio de Palenque deserves this title and must be rewarded for having triumphed over the worst instincts of humanity. Having had the chance to visit this village, accompanied by some of its inhabitants, I cannot resist sharing their history with you. Our teachers for this fascinating history class are Diover Cassiani Cassere and Jhon Jairo Salgado Padilla.

Both of them are part of an association with five others people in charge of the promotion of the village and its community. Microphone check — the time has come to listen Diover and Jhon.

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 Indigenous Extermination

American continent was initially inhabited by the indigenous people. When the Spanish arrived here, they came in search of gold. They started to enslave the indigenous people and forced them to work under the harshest of labor conditions, in areas like mining and agriculture.

Many indigenous people started to die off because they were being worked to death by the Spanish. Many indigenous people also died as a result of the diseases the Spanish brought. When the indigenous population started to decrease, the Spanish decided to start importing Africans. They had already seen slavery practices in Africa, and they knew that Africans were very strong people for this type of labor.

 Slaves importation

During the sea voyage to the new world, many of our African people died because of the terrible conditions. But many also ended their lives by throwing themselves into the ocean, because it was better for them to die on their own terms than to live a life of suffering and oppression.

When the Spanish arrived to Cartagena with their Africans, Cartagena became the first black port in Latin America. Today, Cartagena remains very black with a high population of Afro descendants, yet it is the most racist city in Colombia that has a population of mainly people of color. There are problems of discrimination still. This is the legacy of being the first black port from this period of slavery.

From the black port city of Cartagena, our people were distributed throughout the South American continent. Years later, the Spanish created another black port, which is in Buenaventura. From there they also distributed blacks around the continent.

Runaway Slaves : Creation of the Palenques

Soon after slavery started in this region, the blacks started to runaway and to secretly organize themselves into groups to resist the Spanish rule. They started to form groups of 15 to 20 people and would go to the high points of the mountains.  These people were called Cimarones it is a word in Spanish meaning mountain top. And the free communities that these people formed were called palenques. From the palenques, our people started to practice their traditions that they had brought with them because for the first time in the New World, they felt free. For example, the method of playing the tambor, and many other customs.

When the Spanish discovered these palenques, they forbade them and destroyed them. Our people responded by moving their palenques further and further out, into areas that were harder for the Spanish to access.

There is a statue in Cartagena called La India Catalina, and to the right of where her statues is, is where the first palenque was formed in the state of Bolivar, it was called the Palenque de la Matuna. The neighborhood near that site is still called La Matuna. The actual first palenques in the Americas were in the town of Santa Marta, Colombia. Because the Palenque de la Matuna was very close to the center of the Spanish walled city, the Spanish considered it a provocation, a direct incitement for conflict.

On the other side of La India Catalina, there was another palenque called Chambacú. There is a work by Manuel Zapata Olivella called Chambacú, Corral de Negros. Again, this palenque’s bold and strategic location provoked the Spanish. Consequently, the palenques were continuously destroyed and relocated further away.

Palenquera creation (Language spoken in San Basilio de Palenque)

The Spanish purchased slaves from different countries and regions, like the Congo, Senegal and Guinea Bissau, so they would not speak the same languages. It was a strategic way to prevent them from communicating with one another.

This mix of people is the reason why we have our own creole language here today, we call it Palenquera.  Palenquera is a mix of Spanish, Portuguese, French, and the Bantu languages of Africa. We have many words from Bantu that are still used throughout Africa today. For example, “gombe” and “kikongo” we have the same words with the same meanings here, as they have in Africa.

Spanish reaction against the palenqueros

When the Spanish would capture or recapture our people in the palenques, our people were punished in proportion to the time they were missing from their owners. So if a black person was missing for 30 days, they were beat 30 times. The women were punished somewhat less, because the women were mostly doing work in the home. But the value of the women to the palenques cannot be overstated. When the women were recaptured in the mountains, they wore special braided hairstyles that were secret codes, indicating escape routes to share with our people who they knew they would meet in the prisons. Once the women arrived to the prisons, they would then braid the men’s hair, so that they too could have a copy of the escape routes and easily share this knowledge with others. We have a beauty salon in our community that still does these traditional braids. The women also used to hide gold, seeds, and any important objects they could in their hair.

Mutual help between the palenqueros and action plan to free enslaved africans

The people who lived in the palenques would often meet to plan ways to help other blacks escape the Spanish and join the palenques. Maria La Baja is another town, about thirty minutes from here. And San Pablo is about fifteen minutes from here. Also nearby is San Cayetano. All these towns I mention are black towns, they were all formerly called palenques. Now they have changed their names. Only San Basilio de Palenque still maintains the word palenque in its name.

The various palenques used to work together and meet to help free other blacks imported to Cartagena. There were lots of different groups of palenqueros fighting these battles.  As a result of these many battles, the Spanish became tired of fighting the palenques and of losing most of the battles. In 1691, the Spanish crown declared the people of San Basilio de Palenque as a free town, which resulted in the first free black town of the Americas.

San Basilio de Palenque: First free black town of the Americas 

This declaration was a success for us after so many years of fighting with the Spanish. Our people were among the first anti-colonial freedom fighters and we also helped fight against Spain in the independence wars that followed.

After its official recognition as a free town, San Basilio de Palenque was able to defend itself even more. The population became closer and surrounded itself with fences constructed of long sticks. The sticks were not only used as fences, as they appeared, because they were also sharpened sticks that could be accessed rapidly and at any time to use as weapons to defend ourselves from future attacks.

We also used a drum, called the tambor, to communicate between the different palenque towns for security and other purposes. The communication system is very sophisticated. For example, from the highest part of the mountains the tambor sounds different which communicates an important message. Or if we use a different kind of drum, that also has a separate meaning. We also used smoke signals to communicate with neighboring villages, for example if there was a meeting of the people or a demonstration going on. We use yet another type of tambor to announce that a person of our community has died.  The sounds we use speak of different locations, telling the listener which palenque the news was coming from. There was another unique tambor sound used for security purposes, to alert the communities that an enemy was approaching and tell everyone to prepare to defend ourselves. The tambor indeed has its own language.

Social Organization in San Basilio de Palenque

In the past and until today, we have no government police here. The community does not want Colombian police. Why? We want to preserve our independence. We solve our problems here between the father of one and the father of the other. We truly value the older members of our community. If they cannot reconcile the issue, the people in conflict each pay a fine to our community government.

Religion and rituals

We have a catholic church here, but really the catholic religion was imposed by the Spanish on our community because our religions are African. We believe in and have our own African gods and goddesses, like Chango, Yemaya, Orisha. For example, the Lumbalus are chants we sing at funerals, the songs of death, and they are sung by our women. One Lumbalu they sing is for persons who die that are 50 years and up. This particular Lumbalu cannot be sung for children that die, because they are free of sin. The Lumbalus are sung so that the soul of the person can rest in peace and return again to Africa, our homeland. The leaders of this community come from various parts of Africa. In the Lumbalu, many investigators today have said that Palenqueros come from Congo, Angola, and an old region of Africa called Luan. In the Lumbalu songs, the lyrics actually mention these places.

Music

Music is something very crucial and powerful in our community. The music we use here if very important. We utilize it to give farewell to our deceased. When a person dies, we play music for them to honor their life.

We have musical groups here, like Sexteto Tabala, a group of elderly musicians, known around the world for their sound. Many people who die here ask for their music to be played in their memory at midnight. Las Alegres Ambulancia, is another group of elderly musicians. Now they are a dynasty of relatives: comprised of grandparents, parents, children, nieces, nephews and more. Each generation of these musicians continue their tradition.  People also request to play their music at midnight when they die.

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Monuments and Events

We have a monument in our town square of Benkos Biohó,, who is the leader and founder of our free community, and who came from Africa to Colombia as a slave. We also have a monument of Antonio Cervantes Reyes “Kid Pambelé” the first boxing world champion from Colombia, who is from our community.  Many well known traditional musicians and music groups also originate from our community.

We are proud of him. And our community actually had four world champions: Antonio Cervantes Reyes, Francisco Tejo, and the Cardona Brothers. In 1998, we received the fifth world champion from our community with Rocky Cassiano, in the United States.

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Here in our community, we have many special festivals. We have Holy Week festivals, during which we celebrate our families and social groups. organizations. Everyone participates in the festivities. We have our typical food and sweets during that week.

On July 14 on our two main streets, the whole community participates to celebrate our victory over the Spanish. San Basilio must celebrate the fact that it has helped so many blacks in our country.

Symbol of the resistance

The relations between us palenqueros and other palenques and Afro-Colombians is positive. We have a lot of appreciation from our people throughout the country. They say that to understand the life and knowledge of the Afro-Colombian experience, you must know San Basilio de Palenque, because they know that here we have preserved the history of the journey and traditions of our people from Africa to Colombia. So this place is truly considered to be the guardian of our common history. I have met blacks from Buenaventura and they told me that they know very little about our history so they feel the need to come to San Basilio de Palenque to learn about it.

Celebration of the African Heritage

In September we have a music festival. It is certain that in Colombia, you will hear African music in towns like San Basilio de Palenque, Cartagena and Baranquilla. Music from Africa was first heard here in San Basilio de Palenque because we were the first independent African community in Colombia. Likewise, traditional and current popular music from Africa has a special place in the heart of all palenqueros and is very popular.

In October, we have the Festival of Tambores and Cultural Customs of San Basilio de Palenque. We have readings in our own language. We wear our special braided hairstyles. We celebrate our medicinal plants. This festival is full of tourists from throughout the country and the world. Also many members of African communities and musical groups come, such as Lokassa ya M’bongo to sing traditional African music.

In the 1990s, Palenqueros started singing Champeta music which is a creole form of music imitating African music. The first to do that in Colombia was the palenqueros. So the Champeta music is also an important music genre for us.

Keep the traditions and the memory alive

The young generation here is proud of our traditions and they carry on the legacy. Our legacy is the reason why we already had our first black president in Colombia, his name was President Juan Jose Nieto. Our youth are raised in and familiar with our customs.

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We have an enculturation process to teach our youth everything. We retell our history to them of how we overcame the Spanish and moved forward. We tell them of our importance to Colombia and the continent. For example, the history of independence of Colombia doesn’t mention that blacks were a part of it. But the truth is the blacks were the first to fight for independence in Colombia. The palenqueros defeated the Spanish and formed a sovereign community. But in the historical discussion today, blacks are not even mentioned. They discuss Simon Bolivar, but not the blacks that fought. All types of Black Colombians fought side by side with Bolivar, palenqueros and others. Likewise in Argentina, there used to be a large black population but the President at the time sent almost all of them out of the country to fight in the independence war here. Most of them stayed in Colombia after the wars and this is the main reason that Argentina has a small black population today.

http://raisingcolombiankids.blogspot.com/2010/05/benkos-bioho-and-cimarrones.html (Benkos Bioho)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Cervantes (Kid Pambelé)

http://historyofafricaotherwise.blogspot.com/2011/10/juan-jose-nieto-gil-black-president-of.html

 

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2 thoughts on “San Basilio de Palenque : First free black town of the Americas

  1. HelloI am making an independent documentary film about slavery in Colombia. I was looking for images to use for my website for the film along with my kickstarter campaign to help raise the funds to make the film. I saw that you have a picture of Benkos Bioho and I wanted to know if I could use your photo and any other photos you would like to provide to help me out with imagery. I would really appreciate it. My team and I are working on the film this summer.

    Its called Palenque; A History of Slavery in Colombia

    Thank you very much
    Kevin Hodges

    Like

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