The First Free Town in America
by Annika Beaulieu
We recognize ourselves as different people that embody a little piece of mother Africa on American soil. The land where the first seed of freedom was sown in the Americas, the land of the first American revolutionary - Benkos Biohó.
Nos reconocemos como un pueblo diferenciado que encarna un pedacito de la madre África en tierras americanas. La tierra donde se sembró la primera semilla de libertad en las Américas, la tierra del primer revolucionario de América -Benkos Biohó.
Just an hour and a half outside Colombia’s jewel of the Caribbean, Cartagena, lies San Basilio de Palenque; an arid valley home to around 3,500 direct decedents of the first free slaves in the Americas. The streets are lined with clay houses and thatched roofs bleached white by the relentless sun. People stroll slowly down the dirt roads, cruising to a rhythm brought to this dusty valley hundreds of years ago from the West Coast of Africa. While passing old men dressed in dashikis and greeting each other in a language only spoken here (a combination of Kikongo and Spanish), it is hard to believe Africa is a whole ocean away.
Today the village welcomes hundreds of visitors each year from around the world to learn about Palenque’s unique Afro-Caribbean language, music, culture, and religion. But most make the pilgrimage to learn how the people of Palenque became the first free town in the Americas more than a hundred and fifty years before any of the abolitionist movements of the 19th century.
In 2008 UNESCO named San Basilio de Palenque a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity Site. It is here at the foothills of the Montes de Maria that the enslaved African prince, Benkos Bioho, managed to escape captivity in 1603 and founded a community of marooned slaves. After nearly twenty years of sustained resistance, Bioho was captured, hanged and quartered. But the community of “Palenques” (or walled villages) went on to fight the Spanish for 100 years. In 1718 they finally received formal acknowledgment of their freedom from the crown; making it the first free village in the Americas.
Victor Dani, a guide for the local tourism cooperative Paletur, says that, “All Palequeros either sing, dance, or play the drum. Every child naturally chooses one, or you are not human.” Musicians crowd together in the town square beating the tabmor alegre as casual passers by briefly join the musical spectacle to sing or dance along with the familiar tunes. Small bands of children cruise through the streets pounding on upside down buckets while sucking on lolipops. It was the tambor alegre that was used in the 17th century to alert villagers to the approach of Spanish invaders, and it is often said that the sound of warriors beating the drum in unison on the ridge of the Montes de Maria was powerful enough to drive the Spanish away. In Palenque, music infuses every day, and every ritual from birth to death.
The spiritual and material world of the Palenqueros is tied together with music. One of the defining cultural rituals for Palenqueros is the Lumabalu; a musical procession for the dead where it is critical that correct music is performed under the right circumstances so that the soul of the deceased can travel successfully to the world “mas alla” (the beyond). “Lumbalu” means collective mourning and it is through the experience of music that the material and spiritual world of Palenque is aligned.
The mystical traditions of Palenque are rooted in the cosmovision of the Orishas; a pantheon of spirits that govern the material world and the events of daily life. The Orishas traveled here with the first Yoruba captives in West Africa hundreds of years ago and have remained the dominant spiritual tradition in spite of 400 years of christian missionaries.
A local shaman opens the doors to his palm thatched hut to visitors who wish to learn about the traditional medicinal plants used for physical and spiritual healing. He offers a warm drink smelling of sweet herbs that, according to him, “Have kept Palenque Covid free with only 12 reported cases in the village”. The shaman emphasizes that, “We are a deeply spiritual and superstitious people, finding full sustenance in tour most ancient beliefs and practices.”
The musical and spiritual traditions of Palenque remain vibrant throughout the village in large part due to the preservation of their unique linguistic tradition. Palenquero, a combination of Kikongo and Spanish, is one of the 37 official languages of Colombia. It is estimated that in the 1600’s over 70 bantu languages were spoken in the region when Cartagena was a major port for importing slaves to the Americas. With just a few thousand native speakers left, the residents of Palenque decided in 1992 to create a special cultural initiative to preserve their “language of resistance” by teaching it alongside Spanish in the local schools.
It should be no surprise that the home of freedom fighters in America produced the two time World Boxing Champion, Antonio Cervantes (also known as Kid Pambelé). He received international fame in the 1970’s and was responsible for mobilizing the Colombian government to bring electricity, radio and television to the village. Visitors can peruse the community sports center he established in the middle of town where locals train and children play. In spite of the scorching heat, young men lift weights and sweat through their boxing gloves in hopes of continuing Cervantes’ legacy.
For more than 400 years Palenque has been a refuge for Afro-Caribbean culture and identity. Though they have suffered slavery, persecution, racism, and deprivation, together they have forged a unique and enduring community by clinging to their African roots of music, language, and spirituality. While small and unique in the world, Palenqueros are deeply aware of how important their heritage and legacy are to the whole of humanity; proudly calling themselves the first free people of the Americas.