The village of San Basilio de Palenque, about 33 miles south of Cartagena, Colombia, should not have surprised me with its history. I live, after all, in Maryland, not far from a main stem of the Underground Railroad, the clandestine network of trails, households and churches that helped runaway slaves escape from the South to the North of the United States in the 19th century. The Spanish Empire in the Americas also had slaves. And it also had escapees.
There were differences, of course. The most consequential may have been that in the Spanish Empire, there was no line separating slave-owning states from free states. In the United States, escaped slaves for the most part directed their energy to escaping to the North. In the Spanish colonies of South America and the Caribbean, escaped slaves had to create their free spaces where they could. They usually fled to the highlands, hoping that the dense forests between their refuges and the cities and plantations of the Spanish would hide and protect them.
San Basilio de Palenque was founded by an erstwhile African king named Benkos Bioho, who ruled several islands off the African coast before he was captured by a Portuguese slave trader in the late 16th Century. San Basilio de Palenque was a fortified town (palenque is Spanish for palisade), and the Spanish could not muster enough troops or strength to make the long slog through the forests and conquer it.
Here's an excerpt from the Wikipedia article on Benkos Bioho:
Biohó made his first escape when the boat that was transporting him down the Magdalena River sank. He was recaptured but escaped again in 1599 into the marshy lands southeast of Cartagena. He organized an army that came to dominate all of the Montes de María region. He also formed an intelligence network and used the information collected to help organize more escapes and to guide the runaway slaves into the liberated territory. He used the title "king of Arcabuco".
On 18 July 1605, the Governor of Cartagena, Gerónimo de Suazo y Casasola, unable to defeat the Maroons, offered a peace treaty to Biohó, recognising the autonomy of the Matuna Bioho Palenque and accepting his entrance into the city armed and dressed in Spanish fashion, while the palenque promised to stop receiving more runaway slaves, cease their aid in escape attempts, and stop addressing Biohó as "king". Peace was finalized in 1612 under the governorship of Diego Fernández de Velasco. The treaty was violated by the Spaniards in 1619 when they captured Biohó as he was walking carelessly into the city. He was hanged and quartered on 16 March 1621. Governor García Girón, who ordered the execution, argued bitterly that "it was dangerous the extent to which Biohó was respected in the population" and that "his lies and enchantment would drive the nations of Guinea away from the city."
It's a remarkable story, but not a unique one. I have read of similar settlements of escaped slaves in the mountains of interior Jamaica. And there were escaped North American slaves who joined with Native American populations living in places like the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina and Virginia or the Everglades in Florida. The intermingling of Africans and Native Americans led white colonists to coin the term Maroons (Cimarrones in Spanish).
Over the centuries in Colombia, all of the Palenque villages except San Basilio have disappeared or been absorbed into the general population. Maybe San Basilio survives because its people have gone to great lengths to protect themselves against assimilation. They have their own language; it combines aspects of Spanish and of African tribal languages from what are now Angola, Congo and Guinea. The story goes that the invention of this language was critical, because until it became a common tongue, the slaves could not communicate with each other; the tribal language of each sub-group was unintelligible to the others. The Palenque language is being taught today, along with Spanish, to children in the local school. It is written on the walls.
San Basilio has a separate police force that tries to handle local crime without the intervention of the regular Colombian constabulary. It has its oral history and its legends. I was told, for instance, that the village women are very adept at elaborate, braided hairstyles because during the Benkos Bioho era, enslaved women learned to do hairstyles that served as maps for escapees trying to make their way to San Basilio de Palenque. Could hair braids act as a guide through the wilderness? Who knows? I do know that Maria Elida, the hairstylist pictured above, who is the owner of a beauty shop called La Reina del Kongo, showed me how her style contains a convenient slot in which a woman can secrete some money.
Not that there appears to be a lot of money in San Basilio de Palenque. Their village of 3,500 souls has one paved road; the rest are rutted dirt. The houses are small; some still have thatched roofs. Pigs and dogs browse for food in the dusty lots between houses. I saw television sets in the houses I visited, but I saw more saddled mules than cars. In the middle of the day, idle men sit clustered in patches of shade. The occasional roosters seemed to be the only males with gainful employment.
I would guess this is because employment opportunities are fairly scarce throughout Colombia, particularly in a rural area like the one around San Basilio de Palenque. It would take a sizable tract of land to run enough livestock to make a profit in this part of Colombia, and sizable tracts of lands are not something poor people are likely to have. Women of the village seemed more likely to be working, whether as teachers in the local school, or doing hair, or sewing colorful head scarves known as turbantes to sell to the tourists down in Cartagena.
The town tries to grow and prosper. It is proud to call itself the oldest free town in the Western
Hemisphere. It is happy to welcome tourists, who usually come, as I did, on day trips from Cartagena. (My trip was with Cartagena photographer Paola H. Sanchez; you can find her on TripAdvisor.) It sponsors a music festival that features an indigenous instrument comprised of a brightly painted box affixed to tongues of steel like piano keys. A building near the center of the village has a painted sign that says "I [heart] being black," an indication of pride in being part of the global African community.
But I thought as I left that San Basilio de Palenque shows that it can be easier to escape from slavery than to escape from poverty.