Before Harriett went Underground…
Before the Maroons freed themselves…
Before – Yanga, Miguel, Zumbi or Douglass…
Before them, came Benkos Bioho.
Benkos Bioho – The King of Arcabuco, the free African community in San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia still exists today. Arcabuco has been a free community with it’s own language, leadership, education system and security force since the early 1600’s…
Identity = to know who we are, from whom and from where we were formed… by telling the stories ourselves, we honor our ancestors, Aguanile, Mai, Mai…
Benkos Biohó (1585 – 1621) was a young African King – a member of the Royal family that reigned over the Bissagos Islands off the coast of Guinea Bissau. Unfortunately, Benkos was kidnapped as a young boy by a Portuguese enslaver – Pedro Gomes Reinel. Young Benkos was sold to another enslaver to be shackled and taken to Colombia- and sold again to the Spaniard Alonso del Campo in 1596, in Cartagena de Indias.
When the Spanish / Portuguese began to enslave people from Africa to Colombia, there were those who escaped and formed free communities of Palenqueros and their enclaves were known as Palenques in Colombia.
Benkos Biohó is the most famous of all escaped enslaved people. He arrived in Cartagena de Indias in 1596, where he was sold and enslaved, yet his enslavement did not last long. Benkos Bioho’s destiny was determined by the African birthright he possessed and not those who attempted to possess him.
Biohó made his first attempted escape from captivity during his first few days on dry land – when the boat transporting him down the Magdalena River sank. He was recaptured, but escaped again in 1599 into the marshy lands southeast of Cartagena. And from then the young king organized an army that came to dominate all of the Montes de Maria region.
The brutal mistreatment of slaves served as an impetus for rebellions. Biohó, raised and prepared as the King of his Tribe on the Bissagos Islands. Benkos used his leadership skills and royal African training in Colombia to unite with other slaves and they banded together to flee their captors.
Bioho freed his wife, three other men and three other women, plus an additional 22 enslaved people and fled with them. The group of 30 headed out into the swamps and camped near the village of Tolú over 50 miles away.
Bioho proceeded to organize his newly formed kingdom – the Palenque into a well guarded fortress, fit for a King. For many years the group launched attacks on Spanish interests and were unstoppable.
King Benkos formed a sophisticated intelligence network, using the information to organize more escapes and guided the newly freed people into the liberated territory, now known as a Palenque. Benkos Biohó was crowned “King of Arcabuco“. At about 50 miles east of Cartagena, the hills of strategic value were used as lookout posts, that led enslaved Africans to the Freed Neighborhoods that exist to this day – Sincerin, Mahates and Gambote.
The Governor of Cartagena furiously tried to stop the freed community, but failed. So on the 18th of July 1605, the Governor of Cartagena, offered a peace treaty to Biohó. In this agreement the Spaniards would recognize the autonomy of the Matuna Bioho Palenque and accept his entrance into the city armed and dressed in the Spanish fashion.
The Palenqueros in turn promised to stop receiving more runaway slaves, cease their aid in escape attempts and stop addressing Biohó as “King”. A Peace Accord was finally established in 1612.
Finally almost a century after the brutal murder of its founding father, in 1713 San Basilio de Palenque became the first free village in the Americas by decree from the King of Spain. The Spaniards gave up their futile attempts of sending their troops on failed missions to attack the fortified mountain Palenque. But still, Benkos Biohó established the first freed African community of San Basilio de Palenque some time in the 16th century. Sadly, Biohó was betrayed and hanged by the governor of Cartagena in 1619.
The treaty was violated in 1619 when they captured Biohó as he was walking unguarded and unarmed into the city. He was hanged and quartered on 16 March 1621. Governor Garcia Giron ordered the execution and argued bitterly that “it was dangerous, the respect Biohó generated in the population” claiming that “his lies and enchantment would drive the nations of Guinea away from the city.”
But the Palenque survived and by the end of the seventeenth century, the area of Montes de Maria had over 600 Palenqueros living freely.
While under the command of Domingo Padilla and his wife Jane, the team successfully challenged further attempts at relinquishing sovereignty from the colonial authorities.
Of their numerous significant contributions, Palenques played an important role in the conservation of African traditions and culture in Colombia. The San Basilio Palenque, on the Atlantic coast, has survived centuries maintaining African social and cultural traditions in the Americas. Palenques and other freed slave communities are an important source for research of various historic, anthropologic and linguistic studies documenting the African significance and dominance in Colombian culture.
San Basilio de Palenque was declared Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2005.