Walled City. Heroic City. Gold. Pirates of the Caribbean. Fortress. Battles. Victory.
This is essentially the summary of Cartagena’s history you receive as a tourist; not just when you’re there, but in guidebooks, articles, and blogs. The large presence and contributions of Afro-Colombians — if they are even mentioned at all — are only vaguely acknowledged or ignored altogether.
Colombia has one of the highest populations of people of African descent in all of Latin America, many of whom are based on the Caribbean Coast, but their history is largely hidden. Instead, the history of the area has been confined to an easily consumable story, something that unfolds like a Hollywood action film.
In a popular tourist stop that presents itself as a historic destination, a significant portion of the local history is not shared. Here are three often concealed stories of Cartagena and Colombia’s Caribbean Coast that deserve to be told:
Cartagena as a Major Slave Port
It’s a huge challenge to find any substantial information about the history of the slave trade in Cartagena even though it’s estimated that one million Africans were forcibly brought to Cartagena during the slave trade. Along with Veracruz, Mexico, it was one of just two authorized slave ports in the Spanish New World. Essentially, the history of many people of African descent in Central and South America has roots in Cartagena.
Just beyond the clock tower gate in Cartagena is the Plaza de los Coches, the site of Cartagena’s former slave market where humans were bought and sold. Today, this plaza is known for nighttime revelry and stands where sweets are sold. It’s likely that few visitors are aware of the site’s prior commercial history.
After slavery was abolished in 1851, attempts were made to assimilate Africans and indigenous peoples into the mainstream Colombian society which was controlled by people of Spanish descent. Former slaves who wanted to maintain their traditions were compelled to retreat into remote jungles. The results of forced assimilation are apparent in both the lack of Afro-Colombian culture in Cartagena today and the isolation of Afro-Colombian culture in Colombia in general.
The African Origins of Cumbia Music
When I think about Colombia’s greatest export, I don’t think about drugs. I think about cumbia, a style of music I’ve danced to up and down the Americas, from Bolivia to Mexico to California.
Given the pervasiveness and popularity of cumbia across the Americas, it would be easy to think that it originated in Mexico or Argentina or somewhere else, but it’s actually from Colombia. Like many styles of music from Latin America, cumbia has mixed origins and influences, but it began with sounds and movements of West Africa. The rhythmic foundation and shuffling dance style are derived from rhythms and dance moves found in various parts of West Africa.
The original West African cumbia drumming was mixed with instruments and styles of both the indigenous populations and the Spanish colonizers. One of the prominent elements you often hear in Colombian cumbia is the sound of the kuisi flute which comes from the local indigenous people of Caribbean Coast. Cumbia further morphed into what we think of it as today, perhaps most notably because of the addition of the bass guitar.
The sounds of cumbia left the villages and floated into Colombian cities and the rest of Latin America in the 1940s and 50s. Below is an example of roots cumbia where you’ll hear the complex West African rhythms, the offbeat vocal phrasing, and call and response singing — a pattern you’ll often hear echoed in today’s cumbia (and many other musical styles) through the use of backup singers, horns, and accordions.
The Other Walled Cities: Villages Founded by Escaped Slaves
During the slavery era in Colombia, many villages called palenques were established by escaped slaves. In these fortified communities, former slaves lived freely and carried out their African traditions and customs. Southeast of Cartagena, San Basilio de Palenque is the only surviving palenque in Colombia. It was also the first official palenque in the Americas, declared a free village in 1713 after the King of Spain abandoned efforts to attack the walled village and recapture the slaves.
Today in San Basilio de Palenque, people continue to speak their own unique language called Palenquero, a type of creole that combines Spanish and Bantu languages from West Central Africa. But as less than half of the village’s 3,000 people currently speak it, people fear that the language could disappear, and efforts are being made to preserve the language. Aside from the language, African heritage can be found in music, societal organization, funeral rituals, and many other aspects of San Basilio de Palenque’s culture.
Inside San Basilio de Palenque, the culture remains strong, but its residents face discrimination when they leave the village because of their African origins and unique language. Opportunities to advance are slim inside the village which is what leads them to places like Cartagena to seek out ways to make money. As I mentioned previously, there are sparks of San Basilio de Palenque being established as a tourist destination. Hopefully they can make it work in a way that will bring in revenue while maintaining the integrity of the culture.
When we tell historical stories, we are not just telling the stories of people who’ve passed on, but those of their descendants who may still be living their pain in the present. These stories need to be told not just so that the people who’ve died can be remembered, but so that people who live today can be empowered by their culture. These stories need to be told because figuring out how to move forward requires a deeper look at the mistakes of the past. These stories need to be told so that people who are right in front of us do not disappear.
The quote by Teju Cole at the beginning of this post was found in this article:
How We Tell Stories About Cities