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Miners & Maroons: Freedom on the Pacific Coast of Colombia and Ecuador

Slaves freed themselves by means other than escape to fugitive communities. In certain contexts, they also gained freedom through a mix of precious metals mining, subsistence cultivation, livestock raising, and participation in the market economy. Slaves in Iberoamerican mining areas, which were generally quite different from plantation zones in terms of both geography and political economy, often purchased their liberty and created "free towns," or pueblos de libres. Most such towns sprang up right next to slave communities. This article traces black culture on the modern-day Pacific Coast of Colombia and Ecuador to its colonial roots in these Maroon-like communities.

Study of Maroon societies in Colombia dates back nearly half a century, beginning with the pioneering work of Aquiles Escalante, Roberto Arrázola, and Nina de Friedemann. All focused primarily on the formation and surviving culture of Palenque San Basilio, a small town on the Caribbean coast near Cartagena. We now know something of colonial marronage in Colombia more generally, particularly in the near hinterlands of slave entrepots like Cartagena, Santa Marta, Panama, and even La Guajira. By the late 17(th) century there appear to have been at least 20 Maroon communities located within a few days' march of Cartagena alone. Research on this area has also brought to light important black leaders like Benkos Bioho.

Anthropological interest in the vibrant and singular culture of modern San Basilio has done much to reinforce Maroon identity there in recent years, and residents have lately called for legal recognition of local land-use patterns, language, and so forth. Both local-provincial and central authorities in Bogotá have not been totally unsympathetic, but Colombia's considerable political difficulties since the 1980s have largely over-shadowed these efforts.

Aside from the Caribbean coast, slave communities in colonial Colombia were concentrated first in the long inter-Andean valleys of the Cauca, Magdalena, and Patía Rivers, then all along the Pacific Coast from Panama to Ecuador. It was on the gold-rich Pacific rim, particularly, that significant slave uprisings and escapes took place -- Maroon communities known as palenques (literally "stockades") were formed, but also quite a few "free towns" as discussed below.

Whereas palenques like San Basilio developed in close relation to slaving ports, the region of Esmeraldas became a Maroon haven by chance. Beginning in the early 16(th) century, Spanish ships carrying slaves from Panama to Guayaquil and Lima were wrecked along the equatorial coast amidst strong currents and shifting sandbars. A number of slave castaways consequently dashed to freedom in the unconquered interior, where they allied with indigenous groups and a handful of Spanish renegades.

By the 1580s, after foiling several military expeditions sent to dislodge them, several independent Maroon bands in Esmeraldas sued for peace in Quito, modern capital of Ecuador. All were guaranteed continued autonomy in exchange for safe passage of further shipwreck victims and promises not to ally with English and later Dutch pirates. A 1599 portrait of one such Maroon leader, Don Francisco de Arobe, and his two sons was commissioned in Quito and sent to Philip III of Spain to commemorate these negotiations (see cover).

Modern Afro-Esmeraldeños proudly celebrate the unique history of their province during regional independence festivals in late July. Marimba dancers sometimes wear skirts painted with images of slaves escaping sinking ships, and onlookers sport T-shirts picturing the imagined likeness of 16(th) century Maroon leader Alonso de Yllescas. Nevertheless, centuries of Afro-Colombian immigration to the region have all but erased any distinctly "Maroon" cultural enclaves.

Afro-Ecuadorians have become more politically active since the early 1990s, often in conjunction with newly mobilized highland indigenous and campesino, or peasant, groups, but thus far there has been no movement to recognize territories or customs of Maroon descendants in Ecuador comparable to that of Colombia's Palenque San Basilio.

Pacific Coast Slavery and Cimarronaje in Colonial Times

Esmeraldas was unique in that it remained largely independent into the mid-18(th) century. To the near north, however, efforts to exploit the mineral wealth of the Pacific Lowlands led to enormous transformations, in part because of Colombian colonists' prior experience in gold mining and access to slave labor.

Near the end of the 16(th) century the Governorship of Popayán (roughly the modern southwest quarter of Colombia) passed through a mining crisis. This resulted from played-out gold deposits and declining numbers of indigenous laborers. Some élites responded by purchasing African slaves and expanding mining frontiers to the north (Caloto), west (Chisquío), and south (Almaguer). In the Patía Basin between the highland towns of Popayán and Pasto, midway to Quito, there emerged an early and tenaciously-defended palenque called Matarredonda, said to have been destroyed c. 1590.

It was not until the middle of the 17(th) century, with the opening of the Barbacoas region, just north of Esmeraldas, that large-scale colonization of the Pacific Lowlands began in earnest. Sindagua head-hunters, conquered in 1635 following a long and bloody war, were, along with other indigenous inhabitants, forced to engage in mine labor via the Spanish encomienda. Indigenous labor served as a bridge to accumulate capital, but native numbers were soon deemed insufficient; as they declined further from epidemic disease and mistreatment, African-descended work gangs grew. In the highlands, meanwhile, particularly in the upper Cauca and Patía basins, élites shifted from indigenous to slave labor on haciendas and ranches as well. Such enterprises replaced older estancias and served in part to supply the lowland mining camps.

In the southern Pacific Lowlands, Barbacoas (now a town in western Nariño Department) was the pioneer mining establishment. Its complex network of alluvial digs and adjacent slave quarters was linked to the seaside settlements of Iscuandé, Guapí, and Tumaco, and because of its riches, also to the highland cities of Popayán, Pasta, and Quito. Some slaves escaped to nearby Esmeraldas. A road to Esmeraldas was finally opened in the mid-18(th) century, leading to similar patterns of mining in the interior and a notable decline in Maroon autonomy.

A network similar to that surrounding Barbacoas also developed in the middle Pacific Lowlands, in the Province of Raposo. These mines, also populated by African slaves by the mid-17(th) century, were connected to the port of Buenaventura and the highland city of Call. After defeating the neighboring Citará, Noanamá, and other indigenous groups by the 1680s, residents of Cali, Popayán, and Antioquia entered the northern Pacific Low-lands, or Chocó, where similar processes occurred.

With the arrival of numerous slaves to staff lowland mines and highland haciendas, the frequency of rebellions increased. Tracing the coast and adjacent highlands of southern Antioquia, the Cauca valley, and the Patía valley, one traces a virtual belt of antislavery movements. In the Chocó these occurred in Citará, on the Atrato River, and at Tadó and Yró on the upper San Juan. Slaves likewise rebelled in the Raposo district, and also Guapí and Barbacoas. All the way to Esmeraldas there emerged a line of free settlements interspersed with those of enslaved miners.

The most violent of the uprisings occurred in Tadó in 1728. The rebels, made up mostly of African-born slaves, but also some creoles, killed 14 white mine owners and administrators before retreating to the forest. Within two months several rebellious slaves were caught and punished, but others, including the two principal leaders, remained at large. It is highly likely that they found refuge in neighboring free communities on the upper San Juan, probably Nóvita or Yró. Subsequent rebellions in this region add credence to the suggestion.

Perhaps the largest palenque formed in the Pacific Lowlands was El Castigo, in the foothills of the Western Cordillera between Barbacoas and the upper Patía valley. According to Zuluaga and Bermúdez (1997): "It was at some point in [the] period between 1635 and 1726 that the palenque of El Castigo arose." Around 1732 the palenque had grown and was made up of two settlements, each with a church: "one which the blacks now call Nachao, and a half-day's walk away another, called Nalgua." The former was said to be home to 200 residents, the latter 100. With time these towns acquired legitimacy and legality vis-à-vis Spanish civil and ecclesiastical authorities, demonstrating their capacity to negotiate formal integration into colonial society. It is apparent that the palenqueros of El Castigo were simply legalizing an established set of relationships, including commercial and godparentage ones, with neighboring slave and free communities in the Patía Valley.

On the Dagua River above Buenaventura the "free town" of Sombrerillo emerged in the 18(th)century. Sombrerillo's roughly 200 residents lived by the transport trade linking the coast to Cali. These free individuals, particularly canoe polers and overland carriers, were highly mobile and well-informed. Partly as a result, Sombrerillo came to be recognized as a refuge for escaped slaves, especially those coming from Cauca Valley haciendas. Fugitives were said to be well-received and some moved westward toward Buenaventura to form similar communities at La Vibora, Triana, and Magdalena.

Also in the 18(th)century, it appears that in the upper Patía Valley a sort of Maroon aid society developed, capable of protecting and absorbing slaves escaping both highland haciendas and lowland mines. Although no palenque as such was constructed, a variety of pueblos de libres served the same purpose. The best known example, recorded in 1749, is that of a group of free persons led by a certain Juan Tumba. Similar refuges appear to have been scattered throughout the huge and thinly populated Patía Basin. Such communities, the remnants of which still survive today, lived primarily by ranching and small-scale agriculture.

Free Towns in the Interstices: Alternatives to the Palenque

In spite of the relative frequency of palenque formation at the margins of the wet Pacific coast, it is clear that this was not the most representative means of obtaining freedom. There were in fact attractive possibilities more centered on internal developments and dynamics from Esmeraldas to the Chocó.

The extraordinarily wet rainforest ecosystems and broken topography characteristic of the goldfields -- quite a contrast to the sunny and open canefields of the Caribbean and Brazil -- rendered any control of slave movement quite difficult. With few exceptions, no structures of extreme incarceration were employed. On the other hand, this geography did not encourage formation of isolated palenques. Basic survival was most assured by maintaining social and market relationships with fellow mining communities.

Faced with constant rains, poor soils, and inconsistent supplies of rations from the highlands, slaves and free persons inhabiting the Pacific Lowlands quickly learned to combine indigenous and Spanish-introduced subsistence methods with their own. Hunting and fishing were added to small-scale agriculture, which entailed frequent mulching and scattering of plantings of maize, plantains, manioc, and so forth throughout various microclimates. This itinerant subsistence pattern, coupled with the scattered and unpredictable nature of placer gold deposits, rendered mobility and self-sufficiency the rule rather than the exception for both slave and free populations. Faced with these challenges, Maroon communities would have had to sacrifice secrecy for subsistence (as happened in Esmeraldas).

It appears that slaves made up the majority population from Barbacoas to the Chocó throughout colonial times, but only via constant importation. Even African-born slaves could gain freedom, or at least the freedom of their children, by panning for gold on Sundays and feast days. Many women were also able to accumulate money (in this case gold dust or credit) by marketing surplus garden produce and livestock.

A key development evident already in the early 18(th)century was the extension of blood and fictive kin relationships between slave and free communities. Usually these linked various portions of the same river system, but at times they connected people from distant rivers to one another. Clearly it was these networks developed irrespective of slave-owner desires -- that undergirded local cultural formation, transmission, and evolution. Kinship and associated rituals provided one means of making sense of the world, or at least maintaining spiritual wellbeing, despite the omnipresence of slavery. Ancestral deities were remembered or reconstituted and musical forms like the marimba revived and adapted. Material culture and interpretations of the natural world likewise combined old and new forms and ideas. The early years must have entailed much groping and experimentation, but the medicinal use of plants was learned, like slash-and-mulch agriculture, from surviving indigenous peoples. The combined challenges of slavery and the natural environment naturally gave rise to reciprocal relationships and solidarity. Broadly speaking, then, it was these various colonial black "families" who reconstructed and invented the distinct cultural practices and systems of belief witnessed today on the Pacific Coast.

To Be Free on the Pacific Coast

It was about the middle of the 18(th)century that gold mining in the Pacific Coast region reached greatest productivity. Slave imports grew, but so also did black creole populations. As in other parts of the Americas, males were preferred by slaveowners, but records suggest that Africans could and did find locally-born marriage partners, some of them free. The acute demand for laborers allowed many slaves to rent themselves to someone other than their master on off days in exchange for cash. Money thus accumulated was used to purchase their own freedom or that of family members.

Family relations were not the only links slaves had to free communities. In 1766 Spanish authorities complained of the free town of Belén, near modern Guapí: "…it is well known that the free people of Belén corrupt the slave gangs (cuadrillas) of these rivers, and that their bad example incites and perverts the black slaves…." (ACC Sig.11378; Romero, 1995) Though obviously helpless to do anything about such communities, which directly abutted their slave-staffed mines, the owners continued to express their fear and concern. One claimed: "…they live in drunkenness and sedition and corruption of my slave gangs, and the numerous [free people] in the area are the result of the pernicious intermixture of free and slave. Since the free ones are not subject to the same good discipline and governance with which the slaves are managed, they introduce rum (aguardiente), plant discord, distract the slaves and fill them with vices, seducing them and spreading ideas contrary not only to the rights of masters, but also prejudicial to the public good and general order…." (Romero, 1995)

The necessary participation of free communities in the market was another cause of resentment. In the Province of Raposo, free towns like Sombrerillo virtually dominated all means of transport linking the Cauca Valley and Buenaventura. Home to some 200 inhabitants by the mid-18(th)century, Sombrerillo was said to be "…filled with families of free blacks, Afro-Indians (zambas), mulattos, and a few white outsiders [i.e., merchants]…." (AGN Caciques e indios 11, ff. 633-63) It was also alleged that fugitive slaves, "…pursued by the magistrates of Cali and other parts, find refuge in Sombrerillo since it is isolated and rarely visited by the lieutenant governor…." (AGN Libras raros y curiosos 370) Finally, it was claimed that "the [free] canoe polers of those parts…incite the slaves, and bring criminal vices and theft…[and they] establish little shops along the road where they get drunk with the slaves…." (ACC Sig. 8865)

In expressing their distaste toward the free towns of the Pacific Coast, slave-owners and officials inadvertently recognized these communities as having achieved both legal and effective hold on the interstices between the mines. These free communities also exercised considerable control over slave gangs, providing liquor, tobacco, and other products, along with sexual and marriage opportunities. Children of enslaved men, when born of free women, were by law born free. Furthermore, extension of family links among aunts, uncles, cousins, maternal and paternal grandparents, godparents, and godchildren served to weave a fabric of relationships so tight that slaveowners could never break it. For its members, slave or free, this fabric was the fundament of social life.

The strength of the free towns centered on their capacity to do certain things: 1) increase in number; 2) maintain market relations with neighboring slave communities; 3) extend kin and fictive kin relationships; 4) exercise control and dominion over immediate village and scattered agricultural, hunting, and fishing territories; 5) receive fugitive slaves from mines and haciendas; and 6) maintain autonomy vis-à-vis slaveowners and authorities wishing to reduce them to the status of illegal squatters and vagabonds.

Black Self-determination in Colombia and Ecuador Today

A long history of geographical isolation and racial homogeneity, terms still used to describe the Pacific Lowlands today, gave rise to what could be called de facto Maroon societies. Still thriving all over this vast region are locally distinct and mostly riparian African-American enclaves that continue to mix mining, fishing, hunting, agriculture, livestock raising, and other activities to carve out a living. Some individuals move back and forth between these scattered locales and larger cities with great frequency, a reminder that the region's so-called "isolation" can easily be overstressed. Cell phones and computers have now been added to the mix. As for proof of the assertion of de facto marronage, most current observers and residents would agree that throughout the Pacific Lowlands today distinctive patterns of speech, music, poetry, dress, religion, history, and so forth reflect not a shared sense of past or present subjugation, but rather of past and present autonomy.

Although historical isolation of the sort romanticized by Gabriel García-Márquez has aided the creation of distinctly Afro-Colombian and Afro-Ecuadorian cultures, official neglect, deep-seated racism in both the highlands and major ports, and general political disenfranchisement have been among the many negatives. With the possible exception of parts of Amazonia, Esmeraldas and western Colombia are still the least developed regions of northwest South America. Roads, railroads, and other transportation networks are slipshod or nonexistent, electricity unavailable or sporadic. The difficulty of the terrain is often blamed for these infrastructure shortcomings, but there is no excuse for the appalling State of health care, education, water treatment, and many other basic services.

A second problem is political division. Although the Chocó and Esmeraldas are seats of regional government, neither carries much weight at the national level due to low populations and continued highland chauvinism. The former Province of Barbacoas, furthermore, is presently split among the Colombian departments of Valle, Cauca, and Nariño. There is currently a movement among Pacific Lowlanders to unify the Colombian portion of the region as a new "Department of the Pacific," but as with Palenque San Basilio, Colombia's manifold recent crises have monopolized the national stage. Opposition to such a restructuring in Cali, Popayán, and Pasto would of course be fierce in any case. In recent years guerrilla activity and drug smuggling have increased throughout the region (including Ecuador), as has investment of drug trade proceeds in gold and platinum mining. These trends have fueled violence and consequently out-migration from the Pacific Lowlands, and together may pose the greatest threat thus far to cultural survival.

Today the black towns of the Pacific have a dual responsibility with regard to their people and their history. First, the process of eliminating old patterns of domination and social control requires a deep understanding of the past. Without it, there is some risk of falling into new forms of subordinate relations with the highlands. Second, in seeking to incorporate outside models of development, costeños must recognize potential effects on local culture; that is, full integration into the nation-state should not come at the expense of recognition of and respect for cultural diversity. Already, Law 70, Colombia's "black communities law" of 1993, has been taken beyond basic recognition of land rights and autonomy (its intended purpose) to be used as a tool toward full cultural recognition and access to economic, political, and social development at the national standard. Perhaps recognition of a shared past of mutual resistance and assistance will result in organizations keen to build on tradition -- a Maroon tradition, in effect, of multiple resistances and also cultural and social creativities.


The recognition of a distinct African-American macro-culture, one with many local variations, each with its own distinct history, is of paramount importance. Few observers, scholarly or otherwise, would disagree with this generalization. However, by adopting a historical rather than ethnographic approach to African-American life in the Pacific Low-lands, we have taken the further step of arguing for the (long) existence and (continuing) survival of de facto Maroon societies. Clearly the resilience of these black communities today derives in part from their ancestors' creativity in permeating the slave system. Although they rarely constructed permanent palenques, they found an alternative -- "free towns" built alongside enslaved ones and with the express purpose of assaulting their structures of domination. The pueblos libres built upon family and fictive kinship networks, cultures infused with African traditions, and autonomous means to work and market produce. Today costeño mentalities, though little studied, continue to serve as a significant bulwark against outside threats, and their forms of social organization -- though sometimes dismissed as chaotic constitute peaceful enclaves of mutual respect. Certainly they could serve as models for other societies.

References & further reading

ACC. Archivo Central del Cauca, Popayán.

AGN. Archivo General de la Nación, Bogotá.

Arrázola, R. (1970). Palenque, primer pueblo libre de América. Cartagena de Indias, Colombia: Ediciones Hernández.

Escalante, A. (1954). Notas sobre el Palenque de San Basilio, una comunidad negra en Colombia. Divulgaciones Etnológicas (Universidad del Atlántico, Barranquilla) 3:5, pp 207-359. Portions translated in Price, R., Ed. (1996). Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Pp 74-81.

Friedemann, N.S. (1991). Protocolo para el derecho territorial de Palenque de San Basilio. América Negra 1, pp 201-08.

Friedemann, N.S. (1979). Ma Ngombe: guerreros y ganaderos en Palenque. Bogotá, Colombia: Carlos Valencia.

Friedemann, N.S. & Patiño Rosselli, C. (1983). Lengua y sociedad en el palenque de San Basilio. Bogotá, Colombia: Inst. Caro y Cuevo.

Lane, K. (1998). Taming the Master: Brujería, Slavery, and the Encomienda in Barbacoas at the Turn of the Eighteenth Century. Ethnohistory 45:3, pp 477-507.

Lane, K. (2000). Captivity and Redemption: Aspects of Slave Lift in Early Colonial Quito and Popayán. The Americas 57:2, pp 225-46.

Lane, K. (2000). The Transition from Encomienda to Slavery in Seventeenth-century Barbacoas (Colombia). Slavery and Abolition 21:1, pp 73-95.

Lane, K. (In Press). Quito 1599: City and Colony in Transition. Albuquerque NM: University of New Mexico Press.

Maya Restrepo, L.A., Ed. (1998). Geografía Humana de Colombia, tomo VI, Los Afrocolombianos. Bogotá, Colombia: Instituto Colombiano de Cultura Hispánica.

McFarlane, A. (1986). Cimarrones and Palenques: Runaways and Resistance in Colonial Colombia, in Heuman, G., Ed. Out of the House of Bondage: Runaways, Resistance and Marronage in Africa and the New World. London: Frank Cass. Pp 131-51.

Romero, M.D. (1995). Poblamiento y sociedad en el Pacifico colombiano, Siglos XVI al XVIII. Cali, Colombia: Universidad del Valle.

Wade, P. (1993). Blackness and Race Mixture: The Dynamics of Racial Identity in Colombia. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Whitten, N.E., Jr. (1986). Black Frontiersmen: Afro-Hispanic Culture of Ecuador and Colombia. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Zuluaga, F. (1994). Guerrilla y sociedad en el Patía. Cali, Colombia: Universidad del Valle.

Zuluaga, F. & Bermúdez, A. (1997). La protesta social en el sur-occidente Colombiano, Siglo XVIII. Cali, Colombia: Universidad del Valle.

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