Sheltering Liberation: A Short History of Maroon Settlements

This week on teleSUR’s The Global African, Dr. Msomi Moor and Dr. Sheila Walker discuss the legacy of the maroon presence in Panama and Colombia.


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BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African, we’ll talk about a new bill in Mexico that will give legal recognition to Afro-Mexicans. We’ll also look at the maroon presence in Colombia and Panama.

That’s today on The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us.


FLETCHER: The Global African, and I personally, am very proud to announce that we will be starting a series called The Maroon Connection. The series will look at the maroon presence in and around Latin America.

The maroons were African slaves that escaped from their European captors and formed independent settlements in the New World. Most people associate maroonage with the Jamaican maroons of the British territories. However, that number pales in comparison with the maroon communities of Latin America. In some countries, maroon populations run higher than 20,000 inhabitants, and many trace their beginnings to the dawn of the 16th century.

On today’s episode, we’re going to look at the maroon presence in Panama and Colombia. Stay tuned. I know you’re going to enjoy this segment.

[music plays]

This segment, we’re going to explore this time–I’m not supposed to say this, perhaps, but I’m really excited about this. And we have two guests with us in this exploration of maroons.

We have Dr. Sheila Walker, who, as they say, is a relentless globetrotter, a cultural anthropologist whose research, writings, and visual productions focus on the African Diaspora, the presence and contributions of people and culture of African descent to the global civilization. She is the executive director of Afro Diaspora Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public about the global African diaspora.

And joining us in our studio once again is Dr. Msomi Moor, who teaches at the University of the District of Colombia, is a Howard University-educated scholar of the African Diaspora. He’s been researching black history and teaching in North America and South America at historically black colleges and universities for over two decades.

And I want to welcome you both to The Global African.

DR. MSOMI MOOR: Thank you very much.


FLETCHER: Good. Good.

So the maroons, now, to the extent that many people, at least in the United States, have ever heard that term and know about it, there’s an association with Jamaica. Maybe people know something or have heard something in connection with Central America, but you, the two of you, actually argue that it is much broader. Give us some background, Dr. Moor.

MOOR: Okay. The term maroon actually comes from the Spanish cimarrón. And cimarrón was a term that was used for livestock who ran away–in the Dominican Republic, of all places. The first time you hear that used in the Americas is to refer to cattle.

Very soon after that, 1501, 1502, that term gets used to, I guess, apply to Africans who run away. Okay? Natives are already in their own communities, so you have different terms for natives. But cimarrón you say /un ‘negro sefugo/ or say cimarrón /jo/–he marooned himself or he fled. And so, collectively, cimarrónaje, or maroonage, as it’s termed, gets incorporated into the French, the Spanish, and the English lexicon. And maroon, as we know that term, comes directly out of the Spanish language, and it means runaway.

WALKER: There is the suggestion that the Spaniards got it from the Taínos, the indigenous people in Cuba, and that it had that kind of meaning for the Taíno, but that it didn’t–it was not originally the Spanish who had the idea, they appropriated it from the indigenous people. And it’s interesting that in English it means /’sɪmərɑn/, you know, wild, undomesticatable, cannot be tamed, refuses to lose its freedom or his or her freedom.

FLETCHER: And this we’re talking about, this would be in the 1500s, I’m assuming.

WALKER: Well, that’s when it began. When Africans arrived, they began arriving and revolting. The first revolt was in what is now Haiti on, I believe, the plantation of one of Columbus’s relatives in about 1520. Is that right, Dr. Moor?

MOOR: Yeah, that was one of the more well-renowned revolts. There was actually laws against bringing certain blacks from different places in Africa over as early as 1503 because they were known for rebelling against the Spaniards. Cape Verdian blacks, which is an amalgamation of anybody from Senegal to Guinea to Guinea-Bissau, they were outlawed. As well, Ladinos, blacks who were raised in the Iberian Christian cultures, they were also outlawed. And so the big one, though, that’s the 15th. That’s–I think they have it on Christmas day, what Dr. Walker’s referring to. So yeah. So it’s well known early, early, early on.

FLETCHER: Dr. Walker, take us through the development of the maroon presence in Colombia and Panama. What were some of the unique features of that development?

WALKER: To speak of Panama, most of the marooning in Panama was in the 16th century. And the whole part of Panama from the town of Nombre de Dios on the Caribbean coast, as far as the Darién–so that’s the entire eastern part of Panama–came to be known as the Bayano region. And Bayano was one of the major maroon leaders. He was–obviously, he acquired a lot of space, and there were about ten established palenques, maroon communities, in the Bayano region.

Bayano was trapped by the Spaniards and deported in 1556. He was deported to Peru, and perhaps to Spain after that, and was kind of exhibited as this is a savage presumed king, ’cause he was referred to is King Bayano. And many of the maroon leaders, in Panama, at least, were called king.

But what we see here is not ethnic exclusivity, but rather ethnic cooperation. For example, when somebody I remember learning about as some sort of marine hero, Sir Francis Drake–I had no idea of–nobody ever told me about who his major supporters were when he attacked the Spanish in Panama. His major supporters were the maroons, and both sets of the eastern maroons, the Bayano region of maroons, as well as the western maroons, those with Luis Mozambique–or sometimes called Mazambique. And Drake attacked the Spaniards, made them have their greatest loss during that whole period. And then he went away and came back and hoped the maroons would help him again, and they said, nope, sorry, we’re not on the same page anymore. So what that demonstrates is the importance of the maroons in the history of the interaction between Europeans in the Americas. So without the maroons, we might not have heard of Drake.

FLETCHER: I’m curious whether–I want to take us through the evolution within Colombia and Panama of these communities. But I’m curious, whether there or anywhere else, was there ever an effort or were there republics that were created by these maroon communities, you know, bringing together more than one in some sort of state structure? Or were they largely the equivalent of city states?

MOOR: Okay. Excellent question. So, Colombia, first of all, just to get there, the numbers of Africans that are coming over and where they’re going is important to answer that.


MOOR: Portobelo, Panama; Veracruz, Mexico; have a higher importation rate of Africans in the 1500s than does Cartagena. Okay? What that means is that it’s not by coincidence that you have a lot of Africans who were just not really going to accept the rule of others, because they still have their traditions intact, they still believe in their own cultures and their own dogma, as it were.

That being the case, with the trafficking patterns, you do find when Portobelo and Veracruz fall off, 1580s to 1590s, Cartagena picks up. Maroon activity in Cartagena also picks up. And so the actual century of terror, as we called it, is the 17th century, it’s the 1600s, right at the turn. Okay. Benkos Biohó is a name that everybody needs to know. He’s the most recognized maroon leader of Colombia. Okay? Now, he was, like, in the 1590s, 1599, 1600, around there. What you’re going to find is that where the districts of mining were in Colombia and wherever else Africans were brought to, you had maroon activity. So the 1500s, Panama was actually part of Colombia at that time, right? It’s called la gobernación de la Castilla del Oro. Okay? Then it becomes the gobernación of Panama. So if you were to look at the northern coast of Colombia, you have la gobernación de Santa Marta, then Cartagena, and going up into Panama is Panama. They’re all connected.

So Colombia, just to finish that part off for the development stage, it goes northern mining regions, Antioquia and whatnot in Colombia. Then it goes to the southern, southwestern Popayán district. That’s, like, modern-day places of Cauca, Badia del Cauca, so the southwest little. Okay? These are mining places in Colombia. And then the last place would be Chocó up in the north. So if you were to name now maroons associated with each one of those places, not necessarily the mines in the Caribbean basin, because just a huge importation center of Cartagena produced a lot of those maroons, just truth be told, all these Africans come in. The director of the national archives in Colombia puts the figure at about 1,100,000 for entering into Cartagena. That’s about three times as many as came to United States if you take different authors, Curtin’s and whatnot.

FLETCHER: Dr. Walker, final question. What happens with these maroon communities over time? And how do they develop culturally? But, also, what ultimately happens to them in Colombia and Panama, in Panama?

WALKER: Well, in Colombia, there’s the best-known maroon community in Spanish-speaking America, Palenque de San Basilio, not so far from Cartagena. And now it’s become a rural community. It’s part of UNESCO world historical patrimony because of its significant historical role. And clearly in other places in Colombia there are communities that are maroon-descended communities but are not identified as such. So Palenque is the one that gets all the press. They have language. They have certain sociological forms that continue to exist.

In Panama, there is no place that one can say so far–there’s not enough research being done. Like, there is a place called Palenque, but was the maroon community there, or was it up the hill away from the coast? That hasn’t yet been established.

So today in Panama you can go to a place called Mandinga. You can go to more than one place called Mandinga. One of the Mandingas I went to–because Toshi and I are trying to follow the map and go to those places and see what’s there now and what people say about what’s there now–Mandinga is way up a hill. And we went by car, and it was a lot of winding roads and things. But the fact that it’s way up a hill suggests that it would have been a great place of refuge. And it could have continued.

And one continuing manifestation of the idea of marooning in the Americas–in Panama, excuse me, particularly, is the phenomenon of the Congos. All along the Caribbean coast–or along a lot of the Caribbean coast in Panama, there’s the phenomenon of the royal Congos. There is a pageantry that every year takes place between the end of January and Ash Wednesday. There are those who say it’s part of Carnival, and the Congos say, no, Carnival falls within el periodo Congo, the Congo period. During that time, people who consider themselves Congos all along the Caribbean coast build what they call either their palenque, so their maroon community, or their palace, palacio. And essentially it’s a dance spot. They raise their Congo flag on 20 January. That’s beginning of the periodo Congo. They speak Congo, which is a kind of creole of Spanish that they can make more or less understandable to outsiders as they wish. And what they do, essentially, is dance. And they have their drums. They have their Congo dances. They have their Congo outfits. They have crowns. The major figure is the Queen. There may not even be a king. He may not even be thought of. But there’s got to be a queen. And there are some kings.

FLETCHER: I wish we had more time to continue this particular segment, but we’re going to continue this over future episodes of The Global African.

So I want to thank you both, Dr. Walker and Dr. Moor, for taking your time to join us on The Global African.

MOOR: Thank you.

WALKER: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to share this information.

FLETCHER: Oh, our pleasure.

And thank you for joining us for this segment of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll be back in a moment.


FLETCHER: After Mexico achieved independence from Spain and on through the Mexican Revolution of 1910, there was an assumption that Mexico was racially mixed. However, the Mexican government excluded Mexicanos of African descent in factoring in what it meant to be a Mexicano. In fact, it was believed that being Mexican meant that you could not be mixed with African. Therefore the ethnic groups that had legal recognition in the state were only white so-called Spaniards, mestizo, meaning European and native, and native.

México negro, an organization dedicated to the equality of Afro-Mexicanos, has proposed a bill that is currently being supported by various legislators in the country. The legislation would change the national constitution to include Afro-Mexicanos, granting them inclusion in the national census and access to social and economic services. The bill was launched November 13, 2015, in Oaxaca, Mexico, and is currently being discussed. If passed, it could represent a crucial step in addressing poverty and alienation faced by Afro-Mexicanos.

Stay tuned for this segment.

We’re joined right now by Walter Thompson-Hernandez, who is a recent Stanford University graduate with a degree in Latin American studies. He’s currently a researcher at the Center for Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California. He’s also a freelance writer whose work has appeared on the Huffington Post, Fusion, CNN, and Buzzfeed.

Thank you very much for joining us.

WALTER THOMPSON-HERNANDEZ: Thank you for having me.

FLETCHER: And so when I heard about you and heard about this bill that’s being introduced, I was excited about this. So I was wondering if you could start with some background, because we know that there was slave trade that brought Africans to Mexico, but it’s almost like at that point they vanish.

THOMPSON-HERNANDEZ: Yeah. So the issue of the African experience in Mexico is entirely complex. But it really starts with, I think, how society and how the world really thinks about Mexican identities. Very rarely do people associate blackness with, quote, Mexican-ness, right?

FLETCHER: That’s right.

THOMPSON-HERNANDEZ: And it kind of just speaks to the legacy of the African experience in Mexico. Mexico imported, the Spanish imported about 200,000 enslaved Africans between the 16th and 18th centuries. And this happened at a time when every one in two enslaved Africans who were coming to the Americas essentially went to Mexico.

But what happened is that the slave trade ended a lot earlier, and it stopped, in comparison to other countries in the Americas. So, for example, while it stopped in the 17th and 18th centuries in Mexico, this really continued on in places like Cuba and Brazil and Panama at a much later time. So what happened is that the African population in Mexico were not only isolated geographically, but they were also able to intermix with indigenous groups and Spanish populations. So the black experience was essentially filtered down or watered down.

But this doesn’t mean that there are not existing Afro-Mexican populations. These are groups that continue to live in states in Mexico like Veracruz, in Oaxaca and Guerrero. And as I mentioned earlier, the experience has been relatively isolated, because these groups often do live in isolation, kind of at the periphery, at the margins of society. So that kind of allows people to make the assumption that to be a Mexican, one cannot be black. And that’s kind of where it starts. It starts with this very real, rich historical context.

FLETCHER: So what happened after Mexico became independent from Spain? Because I know that there was an effort to raise consciousness over more than 100 years about the indigenous population. So where did the African descendents fit in in all this?

THOMPSON-HERNANDEZ: Mexico essentially abolished slavery in the year 1820, 1821. And this was also a time when Mexico received its–or actually fought for its independence against Spain.

What’s really interesting about that era is that this independence movement and the person who essentially abolished slavery was of African descent. Vicente Guerrero was the second president in the history of Mexico, and his father was mulatto, a person of a very real, salient African descent. So the person who essentially freed the slaves in Mexico was a black president. And this really predates President Obama by over 100 years, right? So the first black president in the Americas was not President Obama; it was actually Guerrero.

But what essentially happened after 1820 and 1821 was that Mexico, like a lot of other Latin American countries, was in this fragmented state after receiving its independence from Spain. This was a time when they really needed to coalesce and create this unified and strong ethnic identity. So what they did, essentially, was to proclaim that race didn’t exist in Mexico, that ethnicity didn’t exist in Mexico. And what that did was take these very real distinctions of phenotype and of race and of ethnicity and really created this sort of solidified understanding of a Mexican.

A hundred years after that, there was something called the Mexican cultural revolution, which happened again after another revolution which happened in 1910, which was between peasants and government officials. What the Mexican cultural revolution did was essentially, like what happened in the 1820s, was unify a very fragmented Mexican state. What intellectuals, artists, prominent thinkers, and government officials did was, again, they needed to find a way to unite a very fragmented country politically, socially, racially, and ethnically. So what they did was really romanticize and exalt Mexico’s indigenous and European origins and essentially created something called mestizaje. Mestizaje was this sort of ethnic and racial system that they employed which othered and marginalized non-mestizo experiences, right, mestizo being the mixture of indigenous and of the Spanish. So at this point, if you were of Afro-Mexican descent, if you were of Asian descent (because there was also a very large Asian immigrant influx into Mexico at this time from China and from the Philippines), you were essentially considered non-Mexican.

And so this idea of what a Mexican sort of constitutes and is supposed to look like is really rooted in this idea of the mestizo. And that has continued to this day. And it’s been a way to, I think, sort of devalue the Afro-Mexican experience in Mexico today.

FLETCHER: Mm. Fascinating.

So this bill emerges in the Mexican Congress. So tell us about the–where did this bill come from? Who originated this?

THOMPSON-HERNANDEZ: Yeah. So this latest bill or this latest claim for national recognition by Afro-Mexicans is really, I think, the fruit of the labor of years of advocacy, right? Recently the UN considered this decade the decade of the Afro descendent in Latin America. So there is an advocacy group called México Negro, who’s led by Sergio Peres. And what this is is really a bill that is trying to situate the Afro-Mexican experience into the national census. And while there has been a lot of pushback, blackness, we can say, or the Afro-Mexican experience, has been recognized regionally and locally, but it has yet to be recognized in this national bill. It’s been recognized in local regional census in states like Oaxaca and Guerrero, but has yet to really emerge onto the national scene.

So that’s kind of the root of it. It’s been years of strenuous advocacy, and it’s starting to really garner more attention globally.

FLETCHER: Walter Thompson-Hernandez, thank you very much for joining us on The Global African.

THOMPSON-HERNANDEZ: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

FLETCHER: Our pleasure. You take care. And keep the faith.


FLETCHER: And thank you very much for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll see you next time.


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