Enslaved Africans Reclaimed Their Freedom All Over the Americas
In Venezuela, the story of the real communities of enslaved people who freed themselves existed and grew exponentially during the seventeenth century in South America. In Venezuela, these townships were called Cumbes. “Cumbe” was an African term signifying “a separate or out-of-the-way place.”So much so was the enslaved Africans’ suffering and mistreatment by their enslavers, that escape became a necessary action for survival. Reportedly by 1720 there were between 20,000 and 30,000 Cimarrones particularly in Venezuela, compared to 60,000 slaves still working on the plantations (Rout 1976, 111112).
Typically located over river banks or secretly imbedded in remote mountainous land, cumbes were well hidden and housed about 120 residents. The communities were also called rochelos and patucos. Indigenous tribes in the area (e.g., the Tomusa tribe in Barlovento) helped the Cimarrones and the cumbe populations became a special mix of not only freed Africans, but also Indigenous tribes and even poor Whites. Cimarrón groups were masters of subterfuge, raiding plantations, freeing other enslaved people, and trading contraband.
Barlovento was ground-zero for intense cimarrón resistance and the fight for freedom throughout the 18th century, with several cumbe settlements established around Curiepe and Caucagua. The most notable of these was that of Ocoyta, founded around 1770 by the legendary Guillermo Rivas. After leading several raids on various plantations both to liberate enslaved Africans and to punish overseers, the Spaniards had to organize an army to find and destroy Ocoyta and to murder Rivas.
The only town of free Blacks officially recognized by the spaniards was Curiepe, established in Barlovento in 1721 under the leadership of Captain Juan del Rosario Blanco. The community was comprised of former members of Caracas’s Company of Free Blacks as well as huangos from the Antilles. The latter were escaped Africans who, like all Blacks fleeing non-Spanish-speaking islands, were granted freedom upon arrival in Venezuela if they were willing to be baptized.