San Basilio de Palenque, the first ‘free town’ for Africans in the Americas

San Basilio de Palenque
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The first ‘free town’ in the Americas, Palenque founded by those who fled a life of slavery in colonial times, has been preserved intact in Colombia. It’s a unique place, famous for its culture, language, gastronomy and, of course, its history.

 

Images of his body lying prone were beamed across the world. Alfonso ‘Peppermint’ Frazer was world boxing champion no longer. Antonio Cervantes, known as the ‘Pambelé Kid’, caught him with an uppercut that won him the world title. And where did that fighter come from? He was from San Basilio de Palenque and carried the tradition of Benkos Biohó in his veins, that strong and brave champion of his people during colonial times.

San Basilio de Palenque, in the Mahates district, was the first officially free town in the Americas. Boats loaded with Africans sailed the waters of Colombia’s Magdalena River and, when one of them was shipwrecked, Domingo Benjos Biohó siezed the moment and escaped, along with several of his peers. They settled in the Serranía de San Jacinto mountains, fighting battles and freeing slaves from the city of Cartagena and the passing boats. They took them to the fortress Biohó founded in 1603. The colonisers were his ‘Peppermint’ Frazer and he was determined to knock them out.

San Basilio de Palenque

The free lands of San Basilio de Palenque were founded more than two hundred years before Colombia achieved independence from Spain. A ‘capitulation of peace’ was signed between the Spaniards and the former slaves in 1603 and, in 1713, the Spanish crown issued a Royal Decree that officially freed the people of the palenque from slavery. Their culture and traditions have survived intact, which is why UNESCO declared San Basilio de Palenque a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005. It’s a unique place, where gastronomy, language, music, culture, medicine and societal organization have a rare and special significance.

Tantalize your tastebuds

Thousands of tourists wander Cartagena de Indias’ colonial streets each year and among them stroll a striking group of women, dressed in colorful skirts and turbans with shawls draped around their shoulders. These women are the city’s famous palenqueras, experts at selling goods and making deals with vast baskets of traditional treats and tropical fruit balanced on their heads. The palenqueras sell irresistible sweets, such as coconut cake, cereal balls, syrups, tamarind balls, peanut balls, sugared papaya, traditional cheeses, aniseed and more.

The palenqueras travel across the region too, sharing recipes that have been passed down through the generations for more than three centuries. Some of their best loved dishes include the catfish mote (a cheese and tuber soup) the traditional Caribbean cheese mote, seafood rice, and smoked catfish in a creamy sauce, all of them based on ingredients such as cassava, cane sugar, pigeon peas and coconut milk. The history behind these recipes infuses them with flavor and anyone who enjoys a typical palenque meal will find their mouth watering at the local phrase, “Minino a Palengue a kumé,” which means: “Come and eat in Palenque”.

Palenque’s world-beating culinary skills

The excellence of palenque cooking was recognized on the global stage at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in 2014, held in Beijing, China. More than 15,000 cookbooks written by culinary stars from 184 countries were entered into the awards, including a cookbook written in San Basilio de Palenque called Kumina ri Palenge pa tó paraje. Thirty-eight people from the palenque shared their ancestral secrets and wrote recipes for the book, which was published in the palenque language. The book won the top prize at the awards, nicknamed the ‘Oscar for Gastronomy’.

A unique language

The captives on those European slave ships came from different parts of Africa, with different cultures and languages. They were mixed together deliberately, part of a colonization strategy that was determined to ensure those confined to its boats and workplaces couldn’t communicate and plan mutinies and escape. Despite this, the ex-slaves came together and mixed Castilian, Portuguese, English, French, Bantu and Pingui to create their own language.

Palenque was spoken in all of the palenques that formed at the time and is native to African communities in the Americas. Today it is spoken only in San Basilio de Palenque and is one of Colombia’s 69 native languages. Even in Cartagena, the palenqueras who sell their traditional products speak in their original palenque, which carries incalculable cultural value for Colombia.

 

Palenquera, Colombia, Cartagena

Palenqueras

An irresistible beat

Music and dance are the soul of San Basilio de Palenque. Drums rumble and energetic dancers make the floor vibrate. Spectators’ hearts beat faster, swelling with the sound of song, and the influence of Africa is evident all around. Percussion instruments in the palenque thrum to beats such as puya, son, pava and mapalé and every occasion, even death, is marked with the beat of a drum.

Joy is contagious in San Basilio de Palenque. The costumes are vibrant and the stamina for dancing unparalleled and exhibited in styles such as the entrompao, pa raito or paseo, palenquero son, chalusonga and, of course, champeta. Visitors will hear artists such as Sexteto Tabalá, Kombilesa Mi, Radio Matuna, Las Alegres Ambulancias and Son Palenque and hear the magic and charm of songs such as Bullerengue Sentado, Son del Negro and Son Palenquero de Sexteto. One of the best times of the year to visit is in October, when the Drums and Cultural Expressions Festival is held, a complete overview of San Basilio de Palenque’s musical culture.

A stand-out society

A place with no police, in which there is no crime. San Basilio de Palenque is organised into groups called ma-kuagro. Its system of rights and duties is accepted by all, and citizens watch out for one another. The Cimarrona Guard work for the community’s overall welfare but the ma-kuagro manage community matters, such as the lumablú. The lumablú is a funeral ceremony that lasts nine days, with songs, dances and feasts in honor of the deceased. The lecos of those who sing laments for the departed, float through the streets and, on the ninth day, the pechiche drum sounds a final farewell.

A monument to Domingo Boikos Biohó stands in the center of the main park. Women sit on patios and braid intricate patterns into the hair of their friends, a technique that was used centuries ago when women wanted to design escape maps, or hide seeds before fleeing in the hope they would plant them in a free place. Many residents retain African first names and surnames.

A place of global and national interest

Approximately 3,500 people live in San Basilio de Palenque, which is 50km from the city of Cartagena de Indias and has been declared a Place of National Character and Cultural Interest by the Colombian government. It was the birthplace of Antonio Cervantes and the brothers Ricardo and Prudencio Cardona, who became world boxing champions too. It was also home to the musician Rafael Cassiani Cassiani and the actor Evaristo Márquez, who worked with Marlon Brando and was the first Colombian actor to achieve international standing.

Discover San Basilio de Palenque’s charm, and uncover an inspiring and life-changing story, in this unique cultural space that represents #TheBestofColombia.

Other places near San Basilio de Palenque parque nacional,  templo de la cruz, 

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