Benkos Bioho and the Cimarrones

When the Spanish began to bring slaves from Africa to Colombia, there were some who escaped and began to form free, outlaw communities. These escaped slaves were called Cimarrones, and their communities and their enclaves were known as Palenques.

Benkos (called Domingo by the Spanish) Bioho is the most famous of all Cimarrones. He arrived in Cartagena de Indias in 1599, where he became the slave of Juan Gómez. The historian Fray Pedro Simón (1574-1628) wrote Benkos Bioho's story in his epic work. According to Simón, the mistreatment of slaves by Gómez led Bioho to rebel and flee his master taking with him his wife, three other men and three other women. He also encouraged an additional 22 slaves, owned by Juan de Palacios, to rebel and flee with them. The group of 30 headed out into the swamps and camped near the village of Tolú -- around 50 miles away.

From there, Bioho organized the group into a guerrilla type movement, and for five years the group launched attacks on Spanish interests. The Governor of Cartagena tried everything to stop the group, but found it impossible to do so. Finally, in 1605, the Governor signed a peace treaty with the group and gave them a small section of territory -- what is today San Basilio de Palenque -- where they could establish themselves as free people.

Eventually, Benkos got the Governor of Cartagena to sign agreements that allowed his Cimarrones to freely go wherever they wanted (including Cartagena), carry arms both without and within the city limits, and be treated with respected by all Spanish authorities. Fray Pedro Simón reports that Benkos insisted that he dress, act, and be treated like a Spanish gentleman.

When a new governor arrived in 1621, he wrote to Spain that Bioho had established a Palenque (a walled city) where no Spanish were allowed to go, and that it was well fortified and protected by Bioho's soldiers. Apparently, the governor had sent troops to the area, but Bioho's men disarmed them and sent them back with a message that they were not to return.

As a result of this offense, the Governor sent more armed troops, Bioho was captured and hanged on 6 March 1621. This sparked an insurgent war that would last until 1691 when Domingo Criollo, a palenquero, asked the King of Spain to intervene. The decision of the King allowed all Palenqueros born in the Palenque their freedom and the right to live in freedom on the lands where the Palenques were located.

Below is the anthem of San Bailio de Palenque. It is an ode to Benkos Bioho.


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