“Benkos Biohó: Symbol of a Movement and Community”

Two young boys stand on a grassy hill as they enjoy a beautiful and expansive view of the Maria Mountains near San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia. San Basilio de Palenque, a town located 31 miles from Cartagena de Indias, is considered the first community to officially free enslaved people in the Americas. Photo by Richard Cross

Though not much is known about how Benkos Biohó, known as Domingo Biohó to his captors, arrived in the Americas, we know that he did so towards the end of the 1500s. He was captured in West Africa by Portuguese human traffickers and sold to one of the many Spanish business interests in Cartagena de Indias, the 16th century’s largest port and human trafficking market. Denied his freedom and subjected to abuse and forced labor on arrival, Benkos Biohó actively resisted his enslavement, even attempting to escape three times, a fact that made him “rebellious” and “aggressive” in the eyes of his captors and colonial authorities and a victim of constant punishment.

In 1599, Benkos Biohó escaped an unprecedented fourth time, and this time he was successful, leading a group of 30 enslaved Africans, including his wife and children, to the safety of the María Mountains, where they settled in Ciénaga de la Matuna, one of the region’s many swamps. Here, Benkos Biohó and his followers constructed Palenque de la Matuna, a fortified community where they could live life on their own terms, and used the environment for food, shelter, and protection.

At Palenque de la Matuna, Benkos Biohó encouraged the development of a community whose existence paid homage to freedom. There, they embraced their African identity and culture, shameless speaking their languages, praying to their gods, preserving their customs. As word quickly spread, it comes as no surprise that Benkos Biohó, a man without a pedigree in Africa, was soon known as Rey del Arcabuco (King of the Forested Mountain).

Shortly thereafter, King Benkos Biohó led a campaign of active resistance against the colonial system that enslaved him, and other Africans like him. Warriors under his command plundered farms and plantations, gathering supplies, and liberating enslaved Africans along the way, with one demand: the official recognition of their freedom. This quickly became unacceptable to colonial authorities who depended on forced African labor and rather than negotiate, their fear of a slave insurrection in Cartagena de Indias turned to aggression as they opted for war.

Beginning in 1602, reports of African depredations on the local population flooded King Phillip III’s desk. Colonial authorities also vowed to destroy the palenques and return any survivors to slavery. However, King Benkos Biohó and his followers fiercely resisted all Spanish attempts to enslave them again. Evidently, many chose death rather than a lifetime of slavery. By 1605, weary of the cost and the conflict, colonial authorities capitulated. This was a major victory for King Benkos Biohó and his followers, whose nascent movement demanded fierce resistance and a commitment to liberation, which left Spanish authorities in Cartagena de Indias with no other choice but to agree to their freedom. Beyond this, it became clear to the palenqueros that Spanish imperial power had its limitations.

On the night of March 16, 1621, King Benkos Biohó was assassinated, a victim of state-sanctioned violence, after an altercation with local authorities in Cartagena de Indias. He was arrested on charges of contempt for authority and inciting an insurrection, subjected to a short trial, and sentenced to a brutal death. He was hanged and quartered, much to the jubilee of the local authorities and residents. As his death reverberated throughout Cartagena de Indias and Palenque de la Matuna, the seeds of liberation that King Benkos Biohó sowed in the María Mountains bore fruit. The tragic death of King Benkos Biohó symbolized the success of the liberation movement, which reinvigorated their struggle.

Over the course of the 1600s, palenqueros from across the María Mountains ramped up their resistance as enslaved Africans continued to escape, leading colonial authorities to a state of panic. Reports to the king were followed by a string of failed military campaigns, which only worsened the situation. As the number of palenques and runaways increased, Spanish authorities in Cartagena de Indias were forced to admit that they were powerless to stop them.

By the 1680s, the conflict had taken its toll, especially on the colony, and it was at this time that the King Domingo Angola approached the Catholic Church with a peace proposal, honoring their tradition of peace. However, timing and active resistance from colonial authorities delayed the process, which included a royal decree in 1688 ordering the destruction of the palenques and a new royal decree from 1691, in which King Charles II of Spain ordered peaceful negotiations with palenqueros, accepting virtually all of their demands.

Peace, unfortunately, would have to wait much longer. Colonial authorities in Cartagena de Indias simply hid the king’s decree and doubled down on their campaign to eradicate the message of the liberation of the palenques of the María Mountains. After just over 20 more years of resistance against Spanish aggression, King Nicolás de Santa Rossa received a threatening letter from colonial authorities to which he responded with a peace proposal, once again reiterating the community’s tradition of peace, a time-honored tradition since the days of King Benkos Biohó and King Domingo Angola.

Beginning in December 1713, both sides negotiated in discussions mediated by Fray Antonio María Cassiani, Bishop of Cartagena de Indias. After weeks of talks, both sides agreed, signing a treaty in January 1714. More importantly, however, this represented the defeat of an imperial power and the vindication of the struggle for peace and liberation that Benkos Biohó formalized and encouraged in 1599. Included in the treaty was a stipulation to establish San Basilio Magno, from whose fertile lands and womb was born San Basilio de Palenque and its residents, the living testament and legacy of Benkos Biohó, and the thousands of formerly enslaved Africans who opted resistance before accepting the hopelessness of slavery in the Americas.

Though much of his story is shrouded in myth and fantasy, the documentary evidence presents an ordinary man with an unbreakable spirit whose desire for freedom led him on an epic journey across Colombia’s María Mountains. Benkos Biohó instilled in his followers a love for freedom and an empowering message of cultural and racial pride that encouraged enslaved Africans to resist the yoke of slavery. While his exploits in life saw many flee and join his movement, his death emboldened many more to continue to resist, which left an enduring legacy in San Basilio de Palenque, home of the Palenqueros and a symbol of resistance, rebellion, struggle, and liberty.

Bibliography

Cassiani Herrera, Alfonso. Palenque magno. Resistencias y luchas libertarias del Palenque de la Matuna a San Basilio Magno, 1599–1714. Cartagena: Icultur, 2014.

De Friedemann, Nina S. and Richard Cross. Ma ngombe. Guerreros y ganaderos en Palenque. Bogotá: Carlos Valencia Editores, 1979.

We collect, preserve, and disseminate the visual history of our region—Southern California—with an emphasis on ethnic communities.

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