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San Basilio de Palenque - Keeping the African tradition alive in Colombia

Afro Colombians make up 23.5 percent of the Colombian population. Most Afro Colombians are descendants of former enslaved Africans, with roots in countries such as Angola, Gambia, Cameroon, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and more.

The former Spanish Colony wanted to benefit from free forced labour on sugar cane and mine plantations. During these times, various groups of enslaved Afro-Colombians made plans to escape the plantations to free themselves.

San Basilio de Palenque, a village near Cartagena, was the first free town created by former enslaved Africans. It was then known as the “village of the Maroons,” and founded by Benko Biohó and ten other Africans. They were transported on a boat down the Magdalena River in Colombia when an accident led it to sinking. Benko and the others used the opportunity to escape and create a safe haven for the escaped Black inhabitants in the region. Under the leadership of Benko, they continued to fight their oppressors and consistently freed enslaved people that joined their growing village. This was so disruptive to the colonial powers that it lead Spain to negotiate a peace declaration with the inhabitants of San Basilio de Palenque in 1603.

One of the most impressive things about San Basilio de Palenque is how the inhabitants have preserved the traditions of their African ancestors until today. Although there were other free towns founded by escaped enslaved Colombians, San Basilio is the only one still existing in its form till today. Whether it is Oral storytelling traditions, cuisine, music and dance, or African languages, the Palenque culture reflects the innovation and knowledge of our African ancestors. The inhabitants proudly made sure that their roots and traditions were taught to the next generations to ensure it never got lost. By embracing their culture and staying connected to their roots, they continuously found the strength to stand up for their rights. In 2005, it was proclaimed a “Cultural Heritage of Humanity'' by UNESCO.

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