Located at the bottom of the Montes de Maria Mountain in the Bolivar Department of the country of Columbia, near the city of Cartagena, sits a historical African settlement that still stands to this day. San Basilio de Palenque was established in the early 1600s by several slaves who escaped and built a walled settlement to live free from Spanish oppression. The word Palenque translates to “walled city”. A Spanish slave ship traveling the Magdalena River in Columbia wrecked allowing the slaves aboard to escape, one of the slaves who escaped was the legendary Benkos Biohó, Bioho was a West African of royal descent. Bioho and his comrades escaped into the Columbian mountains before settling on the location and establishing what is now San Basilio de Palenque around 1603. The freed Africans who established the Palenque were known to frequently raid the slave plantations of Cartagena freeing a large number of slaves. Cartagena at the time was used as a main slave-trading location in Columbia. The Palenque was well hidden which allowed it to not be found by the Spanish surviving for over two-hundred years.
The inhabitants of San Basilio de Palenque are referred to as Palenqueros, their isolation over the centuries has allowed them to preserve their African culture while infusing it with Spanish culture. The Palenqueros speak a form of creole called Palenquero, a language this is widely believed to be the only Spanish based creole language spoken in the world. Around 3,500 Palenqueros exist today. Between 1691 and 1713, San Basilio de Palenque was issued a Royal Decree by the Spanish declaring their freedom as long as they stopped freeing slaves from the plantations of Cartagena. The women of Palenque are known as the Palenqueras, these women dress is beautiful bright colored dresses with turban wrapped heads. The women are masterful saleswomen who are famous for their look and their delicious food. The food of the Palenqueras is widely known and desired across the world, Palenquera recipes were awarded the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in 2014, and Palenquera recipes have been included in over 15,000 cookbooks throughout the years.
African culture influenced by Spanish, Caribbean, and South American cultures is what makes up the culture of San Basilio de Palenque, a settlement that is documented as the first free African settlement in the Americas. Their music, food, fashion, language, dances, and ways of thinking are based in their ancestral heritage, a heritage that was untouched by the Spanish for over two-hundred years. The Palenquero people were able to establish a way of living that was unique to them as well as empowering to them. From the time of the legend Benkos Bioho to the present day, San Basilio de Palenque stands as a symbol of African resistance against the Spanish, African pride, African strength, and African freedom. To Benkos Bhiho and the many heroes who established the Palenque and the inhabitants of San Basilio de Palenque over the centuries, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
J. A. Ward
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