One of the things we learn when we travel is that our African ancestors did more than just rebel against slavery. They built communities throughout the Americas. This one survives to this today.
The IBIT family has some great readers out there who teach me a lot. One of them is Rasheed Dennis, who just this morning got me thinking very hard about Colombia.
Tropical beauty, a rich blend of Spanish, indigenous and African cultures and the only country on the South American continent with coastline on the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Caribbean. For all those reasons, Colombia has long been “on my list.”
Now, thanks to Rasheed, it’s just moved up several places, after he “pulled my coat” to a place called San Basilio de Palenque and a man named Benkos Biohó.
ENSLAVEMENT AND ESCAPE
Born sometime late in the 15th century, he hailed originally from the Biohó region in the West African nation we now call Guinea-Bissau. There, he had been a king.
Captured by 16th century Portuguese slavers, he was sold and resold until he ended up in the Spanish colony of near what is now the Colombian city of Cartagena.
There, he and other African captives were subjected to brutal treatment. Many submitted to it.
Benkos did not; he escaped by boat.
He was recaptured, but soon escaped again. This time, he led a group of 30 slaves into the swamps with him.
But the slave who had been king was only getting started.
THE BLACK GIBRALTAR
He led a five-year guerrilla war against the Spanish slaveowners, raising his own small army of escaped slaves — freeing still more slaves andkilling their masters, even creating his own intelligence network within the colony.
Every Spanish attempt to crush the revolt failed.
They formed their own walled town, known in Spanish as a palenque, at a place called San Basilio. for those escaped slaves who could reach it, it was their little Gibraltar, a small rock that the Spanish army couldn’t crack.
Eventually a deal was brokered and a treaty signed. Benkos walled town and its inhabitants would be left in peace. That made San Basilio de Palenque the first town of free Africans in the Americas — north, south or central.
Through it all, Benkos made but one mistake; he actually trusted the Spanish to honor the treaty they’d made with him. He let down his guard and a Spanish army “caught him slippin’.” He was captured and executed.
But the town he and his followers had built remained unassailable, inviolable, free.
It still stands today as a living icon of African heritage in Colombia. UNESCO has listed it as a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”
THEIR OWN LANGUAGE
It’s a small place, a poor place. Maybe about 3,000 souls live there. They not only have preserved many of their original folkways, but developed their own language, known as palenquero, which they are struggling to keep alive.
There were a lot of palenques like this back in the day, places where our ancestors stood up and fought back, where they formed their own communities, maintained their own languages and cultures, and lived out their lives as free men and women.
The people came to be known as Maroons — cimarrones in Spanish — and they formed their own communities throughout the the New World. There was even one in Florida, which was home to the Black Seminoles.
Few of the palenque towns still exist, but the descendants of their founders can be found all over the Americas &imdash; in places like Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Suriname and Bahia state in Brazil, to name but a few.
Places like San Basilio de Palenque hold as much meaning and importance for me as Jerusalem does for Christians, Mecca for Muslims or Bodh Gaya does for Buddhists. They are my sacred ground.
And before I’m done, I mean to see as many of them as I can.
IF YOU GO
San Basilio del Palenque is in northern Colombia, about 30 miles from the regional capital of Cartagena.
From the United States, the Colombian nation airline Avianca operates direct flights to Cartagena, as does Spirit Airlines. Other airlines serving Cartagena include TACA, LACSA, Condor, Iberia, Lufthansa and Air Canada.
Your next fastest option probably would be to fly into the Colombian capital of Bogotá, then get a connecting flight to Cartagena.
From there, you can rent a car for the roughly one-hour drive to San Basilio de Palenque.
If you’re not a backpacker prepared to camp out, your best bet probably would be to treat it as a day trip, using Cartagena as a base. Visit the town. Meet some of the residents. See the statue of Benkos Biohó in the town square.
While you’re there, you might as take a little time to check out Cartagena, a coastal city with a good deal of charm and history of its own.
Powered by Facebook Comments