Chains Old And New: A Brief History of the Afro-Colombian Peoples

June 19th signaled an unprecedented shift in Colombian politics. Gustavo Petro and his left-wing coalition, the Pacto Histórico, defeated the far-right wing multi-millionaire Rodolfo Hernández in the second round of the presidential elections.

Pedro’s running mate, the environmental activist and human rights lawyer Francia Márquez, is now the first Afro-Colombian woman to ever become Vice-President. This report will therefore contextualize this impressive achievement in the broader history of Colombia’s black minority—a people who endured and continue to endure incalculable misery.

Frederick Bowser says African slaves with melancholy-scarred faces and bodies riddled with scurvy or broken bones first arrived in Colombia in 1529. Conscripted to work in gold mines, slaves faced the wrath of Spain’s Inquisitorial Tribunals if they displayed the slightest hint of disobedience. Runaway “maroons” fled deep into the jungle or mountains and founded free communities and villages known as palenques.

Three centuries later, in the early 1810s, Spain’s colonial empire in Latin America began to crumble under the weight of internal pressures (Créole elites seeking self-determination to defend a favorable economic system) and external crises (Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion and occupation of mainland Spain).

Historian Leonardo Reales writes that Royalist armies, stranded far away from the metropole and desperate to stem the rising tide of revolutionary fervour, saw free and enslaved black populations as expendable cannon fodder. The Spanish Crown offered freedom to slaves in exchange for military service against republican rebels.

Simón Bolívar, still revered today as a great Liberator for shattering Spanish rule in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, ordered his underlings in 1820 to free thousands of slaves not out of humanitarian concern, but to preempt another Haitian Revolution that would imperil Latin American independence and, above all, endanger white economic interests.

Moreover, Bolívar assured his nervous comrades that numerous Africans would perish in battle anyway and not live long enough to become threats: “Will it not be useful that they acquire their rights in the battlefield, and their dangerous number shall be decreased through a powerful and legitimate manner?”

Bolívar’s Gran Colombia, and the Republic of New Granada following the former’s dissolution in 1831, took their time to abolish slavery. Yesenia Barragan says the ubiquity of small-scale slaveholding, combined with the influx of foreign slaveholders into the Chocó region, ensured that wealthy anti-abolitionists postponed full emancipation until 1852.

The Law of the Free Womb decreed that children born to female slaves after 1821 would be freed at the age of 18 (later extended to 25 in 1842) after a period of temporary bondage, while slaveholders were legally obliged to “tutor” the children until they reached the age of majority.

Barragan says the law effectively retained traditional slave trading practices at a local level. Non-kin patrons could still purchase and sell Free Womb children separately from their mothers. This compromise satisfied slaveholders convinced that hasty emancipation amounted to releasing “a multitude of furious tigers from their chains…”

Disappointed slaves, yearning to be repaid for their hefty sacrifices during the Wars of Independence, knew they would likely die before being free. Eduardo Carbó estimated the average life expectancy of men and women in early 19th century Colombia was barely 26.5 years. Grueling working conditions guaranteed an even lower life expectancy for the enslaved.

In a last ditched effort to prevent the inevitable, anti-abolitionists, invoking the “black menace” boogeyman and the sanctity of private property, rebelled in southern Colombia. The Liberal government under José Hilario López promptly crushed the insurgents, and on the 1st January 1852, slaves finally enjoyed the same rights and duties bestowed upon fellow Colombians at birth.

This fateful day arrived much too late for the likes of Justo, Magdalena, Alonsa, and countless anonymous slaves savagely whipped, tortured, maimed, crippled, incapacitated, raped, or murdered by their masters. Court proceedings reveal that slaveholders often paid a measly fine for their crimes.

Yet Nancy Appelbaum says the mere sight of Afro-Colombians free to toil for “the few luxuries their simple natures crave”, to quote an American mining prospector, sent shivers down the spines of Colombian and transnational capitalists itching to exert complete control over pliant work forces. Strict vagrancy laws, constant surveillance, and brutal policemen bound black populations to forced labor in the Pacific lowlands long after slavery ended.

The specter of the “black menace” never dissipated either. It returned to haunt elites shaken by blatant US meddling in Colombian internal affairs, the independence of Panama in 1903, and the seemingly irreversible social and moral decline of the nation due to industrialization.

James Henderson argues Colombian physicians, ethnographers, sociologists, scientists, and psychiatrists in the early 20th century, many of whom obsessed with eugenic theories imported from France and Britain, lamented that widespread destitution and disease were symptoms of “racial decay”.

The scholar and politician López de Mesa, dreading that further “population darkening” would forever banish Colombia from the civilized world, wrote a widely distributed report called The Ethnic Factor in 1927. Therein, he warned government and clerical officials of the grave dangers of miscegenation, especially between black and indigenous citizens: “This mix of impoverished bloods, from inferior cultures, creates subjects…who are subject to nervous disorders, mental disease, madness, epilepsy, and crime”.

Laureano Gómez, a rabid anti-Semite, borderline fascist sympathizer, and leader of the Conservative Party in the 1930s, dared imply that Afro-Colombians had to disappear if Colombia ever hoped to compete with advanced nations in Latin America or Europe.

Scholars like Melba Meza, José Lacasta-Zabalza, and Angie Reyes amply demonstrated that Gómez was enamored with the authoritarian and reactionary Catholicism espoused by General Francisco Franco in Spain and António de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal. For example, in 1942, Gómez launched an unhinged anti-Freemason, anti-communist, and anti-Jewish  campaign to discredit his liberal opponents. These baseless conspiracy theories bore a disturbing resemblance to the massive disinformation campaigns extreme nationalists unleashed before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

Furthermore, upon becoming President in 1950 at the height of La Violencia, a civil-war which claimed the lives of approximately 200,000 Colombians over a decade, Gómez planned to implement constitutional reforms that would have granted immense power to the Church and military, curbed press freedoms, and imposed restrictions on electoral suffrage.

Considering his enthusiasm for Iberian dictatorships and Nazi Germany’s anti-Jewish Nuremburg Laws, as Carlos Páramo Bonilla mentioned previously, one can only imagine what ominous solutions Gómez had in mind to get rid of Afro-Colombians: “The black is a plague. In the countries where he has disappeared, as in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, it has been possible to establish an economic and political organization with a strong and stable basis”.

Nominally “progressive” groups also subscribed to racist beliefs. Jaime Arocha argues that Colombia’s Socialist Revolutionary Party envisioned a nationalist utopia whereby white and indigenous peoples lived in perfect harmony, yet Afro-Colombians were often excluded from these dreams of a brighter future.

Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the charismatic lawyer, Liberal Party leader, and life-long advocate of the working-classes, was not above embracing or legitimizing repugnant stereotypes as well.

In an infamous trial, Gaitán defended Jorge Zawadsky, a journalist of Jewish descent who murdered a doctor for having an affair with his wife. With the help of psychiatrist Jiménez López, Gaitán tried to prove that his client’s actions could be explained by examining, in the words of Carlos Páramo Bonilla,“the ancestral pressures of racial temperament”: since his family tree contained “a considerable amount of black blood, of African blood”, Zawadsky, consumed by primordial rage in a momentary lapse of reason, succumbed to the corrupt, primitive, irrational, and violent impulses he inherited from his African ancestors. In other words, the black blood coursing through Zawadsky’s veins compelled him to commit this crime of passion.

Yet, in 1991, Colombia’s new constitution marked a radical departure from Bogotá’s decades-long indifference, prejudice, or hostility to Afro-Colombian communities along the Pacific coast. Article 55 stressed that as a distinct minority in a multi-ethnic society, Afro-Colombians had the right to preserve their culture and maintain collective ownership of ancestral lands. Two years later, Law 70 intended to broaden Afro-Colombian participation in the political process and even promoted the inclusion of Afro-Colombian history in school curriculums.

However, this empowering legislation rankled multinational corporations determined to exploit Afro-Colombian territories rich in timber and gold without interference or resistance from black activists. Ulrich Oslender wrote that Bogotá quickly bowed to corporate pressure and abandoned conservation strategies in Pacific regions by the mid-1990s.

Thereafter, state and paramilitary forces, acting on behalf of insatiable national and transnational companies, evicted Afro-Colombians from their homes and villages with ruthless efficiency. Hit lists in hand, killers systematically cleansed uncooperative locals and brought in laborers to replace them and work for African Palm plantations.

Human Rights Watch reported in 1996 that the Colombian army, in collaboration with paramilitaries, used the pretext of eliminating leftist guerrillas like the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army) to launch devastating offensives against civilians in the Chocó department.

An Afro-Colombian community leader vividly remembered the aftermath of air raids in Riosucio: “… they bombed all the surrounding rivers…when someone went down, there was not a single soul along the banks of the Salaquí river.”

In 2013, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned Colombian authorities for their complicity in the murder of 80 victims and forced displacement of 4,000 people during Operation Génesis in 1997. For Peace Presence added that courts eventually sentenced US-trained General Rito Alejo Del Río to twenty-five years in jail for orchestrating the killing of farmer Marino López. El Espectador reported that paramilitaries barged into López’s home, slit his throat, dismembered his body, and used his head as a football.

These corporate-backed rampages pushed enraged Afro-Colombians into the arms of violent militias. Daniel Martínez says the Marxist ELN (National Liberation Army) took full advantage of the escalating chaos in Pacific regions to covertly arm and sponsor black “self-defence” regiments like the mysterious Benkos Biohó.

Benkos Biohó was a West African prince born and raised in present-day Guinea-Bissau. Portuguese colonists had him captured and shipped-off to Colombia as a slave. Undaunted, Biohó amassed many followers, led a slave rebellion, fled to the mountains, founded one of the most resilient “free black” towns in the New World, and waged relentless guerrilla warfare against his former masters.

Wesley Tomaselli says Spanish Governor Géronimo de Suazo eventually signed a peace treaty with the West African Spartacus, yet his successor broke the agreement, lured Biohó into a trap, and had him executed. Biohó was decapitated and dismembered in the central plaza of Cartagena, then one of the most important slave markets in Spanish America.

This shameless betrayal and Biohó’s gruesome demise served as warnings to any other African captives tempted to break free from bondage. Over three centuries later, Afro-Colombians keen to protect their autonomy from rapacious corporations and barbaric paramilitaries, like the beheaded farmer Marino López, still suffer a similar fate.

Yet the Benkos Biohó guerrillas in the nineties never gained the popularity, respect, or notoriety their namesake acquired in the 17th century. Instead of helping to channel endemic discontent among Afro-Colombians into a productive and peaceful mass movement, the Biohós alienated people the EPL (Popular Liberation Army) and other groups indiscriminately attacked by becoming terrorists themselves.

In August 1994, Biohós ambushed a bus and slaughtered the eighteen soldiers and civilians inside. This disastrous assault tarnished the Biohós reputation among the public, crippled its recruitment drive, and precipitated the militia’s disintegration. Following the death of their leader, the Biohós degenerated into a criminal organisation known for kidnapping people and training child soldiers.

Moreover, Martínez writes that laws awarding land ownership titles to Afro-Colombians, for territories black and indigenous peoples administered together for centuries, dealt a hammer blow to inter-ethnic solidarity. Land disputes devolved into bloody turf wars as the emergence of indigenous guerrillas tore communities apart. Factions affiliated with the FARC, like the FARIP (Armed Indigenous Forces of the Pacific), contributed to the region’s descent into chaos.

Francia Márquez ‘s election as Vice-President is a momentous accomplishment worthy of celebration. However, this victory cannot disguise the damning fact that, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, Colombia is home to the world’s third largest internally displaced population. The UN Refugee Agency added that at least 740,000 out of 7.4 million IDPs are Afro-Colombian.

President Pedro and VP Márquez, if they truly intend to make a definitive break with the past, must devote all their energy and resources to implement the 2016 Peace Agreement, which ended nearly 50 years of war between Bogota and the FARC. Demilitarization on an enormous scale would allow Afro-Colombians to return to their homes. Only then can they start rebuilding the autonomy various regimes so cruelly denied them for so long.

Jean-Philippe Stone is an Irish post-graduate who recently completed a PhD in Modern History at the University of Oxford. He works as a Senior Correspondent at the Organization for World Peace. Read other articles by Jean-Philippe.