WWW: Benkos Bioho, Choco Department and the Palenques of Colombia

434px-Palenque1 benkosFor our first WWW post of Black History Month, and following a month in which we focused on indigenous language, I would like to turn our attention to a particular region of Latin America where both African ancestry and indigenous languages play a vital role in the local society, cultural traditions and regional politics.  We will see a vibrant history of cultural, social and political autonomy among communities of escaped slaves called palenques, from an age in history when we normally do not talk about free, autonomous communities of Afro-latinos. As we see in the photo, Benkos Bioho (also spelled Biojo) founded this palenque in 1603, a community that survives today. Benkos Bioho was himself born in Africa, in a place called Bioho, Guinea Bissau, in the mid to late 1500s.

Choco, or el Departamento de Choco, is a region in northeastern Colombia.  It comprises the northeast Caribbean coastline as well as the Darien jungle that borders with Panama.  Culture and society in Choco Department form many similarities and connections to Afro-Central America.  Choco is also the only department of Colombia to contain coasts on both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans.  Here are some basic statistics provided by www.choco.gov.co to help understand the social and demographic makeup of the region.  Over 75% of the population is black or afrocolombian, 12% are indigenous, while only 7% are mestizo and 5% white.  Choco is also one of the poorest regions of Colombia, which is important in understanding afro-latino history and reality, which shows us over and over again that the afrolatino populations in the Caribbean, Central and South America often comprise the most marginalized regions of that country or group of countries. In Choco, the Index of Basic Necessities Received shows that a staggering 79% of the population goes without some of the items or services considered basic for livelihood and well-being.

This being said, Choco is also a place of historic autonomy, due to the neglect of Bogotá and central Colombian powers.  Choco also represents one of the wealthiest regions in terms of minerals and resources.  Of course this has led to an unjust proportion of exploitation to profits for the local community members; however, as former governor of Choco State and local historian Luis Gilberto Murillo Urrutia explains on behalf of many Choco inhabitants, “We are lucky to have been born in this extraordinary territory called Choco State and the Pacific Colombian region. This is a land of contrast between poverty and wealth, between economic exploitation and cultural development, between Bogota’s historic neglect and Choco’s autonomous development efforts.”

Urrutia explains that Choco’s population represents the largest concentration of Afrolatinos outside of Brazil, and the history of forced exportation of African labor to the coastal regions of Colombia share much in common with the histories of coastal regions all over the Caribbean, Central America, Brazil and even the southeast U.S.  African communities in Choco were strong and fought hard for freedom ever since the early 1500s right up until abolition.  There were towns in colonial Colombian Choco region called palenques where free blacks lived as cimarrones – Africans who had escaped their oppressors. Some of these palenques became important centers of local leadership and autonomy.  As Urrutia explains: “Some historians view the Choco as a very big palenque with a large population of cimarrones, especially in the areas of the Baudo River. There were very popular cimarron leaders like Benkos Biojo and Barule who fought for freedom. Black people played a key role in the independence struggle against Spain. Historians say that there were three African soldiers for every five soldiers in Bolivar’s army. Not only that, we participated at all levels of the political and military structure.” Benkos Biojo is an amazing figure to look at, as well as this UNESCO page, which offers a short video and background information on a palenque that survived as a thriving community today, Palenque San Basilio.


Image: Statue of Benkos Bioho in the main square of Palenque, Colombia reprinted CC BY-SA 3.0 © Wikimedia Commons user Wahwalt.

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