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The colourfully dressed Afro-Colombian women selling fruit in the main squares are one of Cartagena‘s most memorable sights. Thousands of tourists pose with them for souvenir photos, and the women adorn the covers of many magazines and guidebooks. But few people know their history and that of the village where they come from, San Basilio de Palenque: the first free slave town in the Americas.
San Basilio de Palenque is a small village nestled in the foothills of the Montes de Maria, a small mountain range to the south of Cartagena. It doesn’t appear in many guidebooks, and few tourists take the time to visit. However, this small settlement of some 4,000 people is one of the most important historical villages in the Americas and a UNESCO-declared ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ since 2005.
Palenque was founded sometime in the 16th century—the exact date remains unknown—by Benkos Biohó, a former African king from either the Democratic Republic of Congo or Angola, who was sold into slavery and escaped the slave port of Cartagena in 1599. He fled his captors into the swamps to the south of Cartagena and went on to form an army of escaped slaves who conquered the area around the Montes de Maria.
Biohó also created an intelligence network, which helped to facilitate more escapes. Eventually, in 1605, the governor of Cartagena offered Biohó a peace treaty. This treaty was finalised with inhabitants of Palenque in 1612 before being violated by the Spanish in 1619, when they captured Biohó in Cartagena. He was executed by hanging in 1621 by Governor García Girón on the basis that Biohó’s image was likely to inspire dangerous subversion among the slave population. Today, he is immortalised in an evocative statue in the main square of Palenque with his right arm reaching towards Africa, broken chains hanging from his wrists.
The village of Palenque—which means “walled city”—grew slowly in the early days, when it was a small group of escaped slaves living secretively in the mountains. However, in 1691 the Spanish Crown issued a Royal Decree officially freeing the Africans in San Basilio de Palenque from slavery. This made them the first free Africans in the Americas and it made Palenque the first free settlement.
These former slaves maintained many of their African oral and musical traditions, including the only Spanish-Bantú spoken on earth, known as Palenquero. Influenced by the Kikongo language of Angola and Congo, it is only spoken today by roughly half of Palenque’s residents but is recognised as the only Spanish-based Creole language that exists in the world. Palenque’s African-influenced funeral traditions, known as the lumbalu, have also been maintained and studied extensively by historians and anthropologists.
Palenque is also the birthplace of some of Colombia’s finest boxers, musicians, and actors. The iconic Colombian boxer Antonio ‘Kid Pambelé’ Cervantes—a two-time world Jr. Welterweight champion—was born in the village, as was the actor Evaristo Márquez, who appeared alongside Marlon Brando in the movie Burn! in 1969. The village is also considered the birthplace of a genre of music called champeta, which has evolved to become incredibly popular throughout Colombia and Latin America. Famous practitioners of the genre such as Charles King, Louis Towers, and Rafael Cassiani Cassiani were all born in Palenque, as were the members of the popular new Colombian rap group, Kombilesa Mi.
This musical heritage is celebrated annually in Palenque’s most famous festival: the Festival de Tambores y Expresiones Culturales, or Festival of Drums and Cultural Expression. Held every year in October, this three-day festival celebrates the unique musical gifts that Palenque has bestowed upon the world. Local and international musicians gather in the town to eat, drink, and play live music on the main square. It is one of Colombia’s most important cultural heritage festivals.
The iconic palenqueras of Cartagena, who appear in so many tourist photos, come from San Basilio Palenque. Some still live in the village, just 50 miles from the city, and many have migrated to Cartagena. They sell traditional coconut sweets, developed over hundreds of years within the community, and pose for pictures in traditional dress. However, most of the tourists smiling in those photos never know the fascinating history of San Basilio de Palenque and its inhabitants, past and present.