When it comes to heritage travel for African-Americans, maroon is — or should be — the new black.
About an hour’s drive inland from the Colombian port city of Cartagena de Indias stands the village of San Basilio de Palenque. Population: roughly 3,500. Dusty streets, small, one-story homes and shops. A humble Catholic church. At first glance, nothing remarkable.
But its very existence is remarkable.
When the Spanish began shipping African captives into slavery at Cartagena de Indias back in the 17th century, some broke free and fled into the wilderness. They returned — often — to free every kidnapped African they could. Eventually, they built their own little walled, fortified village. A palenque.
They were led by an African king named Benkos Biohó.
Ultimately, the Spanish not only did they opted to leave the town alone, but formally granted its occupants their freedom. Which is how San Basilio de Palenque became the first community of free Africans anywhere in the Americas — North, Central or South — a fact that won it special recognition from UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
To every descendant of every African ever enslaved in the Americas, this is — or should be — sacred ground.
All across the Caribbean and South America, African escapees built palenques, sometimes clashing with indigenous peoples trying to protect their lands from these strange newcomers, as well as the European plantation owners who wanted their “property” back.
They fell back on the knowledge of foods and medicinal plants they had brought with them from the Mother Continent. They kept alive their music, dance, religion, languages. They even raided European plantations for supplies, weapons — and more escapees.
Collectively, the Spanish labelled them maroons. Supposedly, the word derives from the Spanish word “cimarron”, meaning feral animal, fugitive, runaway. Or “outlyers.”
None had more success than in Haiti, where a force of free African rebels went toe-to-toe with the cream of Napoleon Bonaparte’s army and overthrew slavery altogether. But throughout Latin America, including Haiti, the maroons paid a high price for their defiance. Brutally attacked and suppressed in the past, discriminated against up to the present.
Add to that the need to migrate to big cities in search of jobs and you understand why San Basilio de Palenque is the only community of its kind left in the 21st century.
Still, the maroons themselves endure, and you can find them scattered across the Americas.
They may speak Spanish in Mexico, Uruguay and Colombia, in the Dominican Republic and Cuba. They may speak Dutch in St. Maarten and Suriname or French in St. Martin, Haiti and Martinique, English in Belize and Trinidad.
Over time, some blended their native African languages with European tongues to create new languages spoken only by them.
Across the centuries, though, they all spoke a common language of resistance. For them, culture became a survival tool, a way of saying to the world, “This is who we are, and who we will remain.”
MANY BLACK AMERICAS
In Martinique, you can hear that pride and independence in the music of traditional artists like Sully Cally, who makes his own drums in the capital Fort-de-France with native woods he collects himself.
It may take the form of religion, santeria rituals in Cuba or in the practice of candomblé in Brazil, which has eclipsed Catholicism as Brazil’s most popular faith. In the conduct of weddings and funerals and births. Or in any of dozens of festivals across the Americas with their origins rooted on both sides of the Atlantic.
When you look at all that, you realize that there are many Black Americas, not just ours here in the United States.
Throw in great tropical climate, incredible natural beauty, food, music, beaches, nightlife and a lot of Latin American countries make great destinations. And slowly but surely, Latin America is catching on to that.
After centuries of persecuting maroons and their descendants, nations are starting to actively promote maroon-based tourism.
If Afro-Latin culture has a capital, it might be Salvador, the capital city of Bahia state in northeastern Brazil, where 80 percent of the population is of African descent.
For 300 years, Portuguese slavery in Brazil was both huge and brutal. The Portuguese referred to Africans as peças. Pieces. It doesn’t take long to get the picture.
Today, the Bahia state government is marketing African heritage tourism to the world. State officials even speak of promoting it as a form of — wait for it — reparations. Says Bahia state governor Jaques Wagner:
“We are aware that our debt to Bahian people of African descent is still great. Yet with faith, courage and determination, we will build a Bahia that is even more diverse, more just and more human.”
Time will tell how serious they are about the reparations bit, but Bahia state already has put out the welcome for visitors wanting to get a first-hand look at its Afro-Brazilian culture.
Put it all together and you’ve got new reasons to explore Latin American destinations to which you might not have given a second thought in the past. . For culturally conscious African-American travelers, maroon may well be the new black.
Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency, specializing in cultural and heritage travel worldwide.