A Brief History of African Presence in Colombia.
Today, Colombia is a country that hosts the third largest population of African descended people outside of the African continent, and the second-largest after Brazil. As with most stories of Africans living in this part of the world, Afro-Colombians are the descendents of enslaved and kidnapped Africans from the west coast of Africa.
During the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in 1500s, enslaved Africans were brought to what was then New Granada by the Spanish. They were forced to work on plantations and gold mines where they pioneered the extracting of alluvial gold deposits and the growing of sugar cane. Africans became an essential part of the economy in this region of the world and a large portion of Colombia’s wealth was built on the backs of enslaved Africans.
From the moment Africans arrived in Colombia, Africans began to fight for their freedom and in 1530, the first slave revolt in Colombia occurred in Santa Marta. The town was torched and completely burnt down, and after being rebuilt the following year, it was again burnt down in 1550 during another revolt.
In 1545, a group of enslaved Africans working in the mines of present day Popayán escaped and took over the town of Tofeme. They killed twenty whites and carried off 250 Indian hostages to the mountains. In 1555 and 1556, Popayán was also the site of more slave revolts. The Popayán revolt of 1598 had a devastating impact on Spain and it’s revenue from New Granada. 4,000 enslaved Africans destroyed the gold mine of Zaragoza, one of the most profitable and productive mines. In 1557, an expedition led by Juan Meléndez de Valdés retook the mine and slaves who were recaptured were executed.
Once again in Popayán, in 1732, fugitive enslaved Africans formed a free Black African town called a palenque near the town of Castillo. Unable to destroy the palenque, the local government had to option but to give the enslaved Africans amnesty, as long as no new fugitive slaves were accepted into the town. This requirement was ignored by the Africans who gave refuge to any Africans who could escape their masters. As a result, in 1745 an expedition was launched to destroy the town. Their dwellings were destroyed but the freed Africans once again escaped and founded another encampment.
By the 1770s, 60% of Colombia was made up of free people of color who had formed a number of palenques where Africans could live as cimarrones - free people. Very popular cimarrón leaders like Benkos Biojó and Barule fought for freedom. African people played key roles in the independence struggle against Spain. Historians note that although he initially did not accept black people into his independence army, three of every five soldiers in Simon Bolívar's army were African. Afro-Colombians also participated at all levels of military and political life.
However, much like during the American War of Independence, some say that part of Bolívar’s reason for allowing black people to fight in his army was to reduce the casualty of white soldiers whilst simultaneously reducing the population of black people in Colombia. This would also ensure that more white and non-black people would enjoy the fruits of a free Colombia. The white elite was in constant fear of a large black population taking over, a fear that Bolívar harbored. To him a revolt by blacks would be “a thousand times worse than a Spanish invasion”. Part of this fear may have stemmed from Haiti’s successful fight against the French, gaining their independence in 1804. Colombia gained theirs in 1810.
Although a law declaring all children born to an enslaved woman and her master as free was passed in 1821, it was not enforced. Slavery in Colombia was not abolished until 1851, and even after emancipation, the life of the African Colombians was very difficult. Some African Colombians were forced to live in jungle areas as a mechanism of self-protection, whilst others became squatters on land they had fought for. Many were excluded from Colombian life with little access to resources such as education, healthcare, and property ownership.
From as early as the mid-1800s, the Colombia government began making efforts to whiten Colombia and eventually rid the country of any and all black people by promoting the idea of miscegenation as a way to wash out the existence of black people. In 1922, Law 114 was passed banning immigration of peopled deemed “inconvenient” for the development of the Colombian race and nation. This law encouraged white immigration. In 1928, the president Laureano Gomez stated, "The black is a plague. In the countries where he has disappeared, as in Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay, it has been possible to establish an economic and political organization on a strong and stable basis."
In 1945 the department of El Chocó was created; it was the first predominantly African political-administrative division. El Chocó gave African people the possibility of building an African territorial identity and some autonomous decision-making power.
Today, most Afro-Colombians, who make up around 10.6% of the country’s population, live in urban parts of the country in places such as Quibdo, Cali, Cartagena and Barranquilla. Many still experience a high degree of racism, prejudice and discrimination and are largely absent from the elite and political spheres of the country. In Colombia’s ongoing internal conflict, Afro-Colombians are both victims of violence or displacement and members of armed factions, such as the FARC and the AUC. Despite making considerable contributions to many facets of Colombian culture, Afro-Colombians have gained little from the state.