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Fri, 07.20.1810

Afro Colombians, a history

*This date, in 1810, celebrates Colombia’s Independence from Spain. This article affirms the history, culture, and heritage of Afro Colombians, the country's citizens of African descent.  Colombia is considered to have the fourth largest Black African population in the western hemisphere, after Brazil, Haiti, and the United States.  The Colombian Declaration of Independence refers to the episode in Santa Fe de Bogota, in the Spanish colonial Viceroyalty of New Granada. That day resulted in the establishment of a Junta de Santa Fe. The experience in self-government eventually led to the creation of the Republic of Gran Colombia.  

Africans began coming with explorers to Colombia in the first decade of the 16th century. By the 1520s, Africans were imported into Colombia as slaves from the CongoAngola, Gambia, Nigeria, Cameroon, LiberiaGhana, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Sierra LeoneSenegal, and Mali to replace the rapidly declining Native Colombian population.  African slaves were forced to work in gold mines, sugar cane plantations, cattle ranches, and large haciendas.  African labor was essential in all the regions of Colombia, even until the 20th century.

African workers pioneered extracting alluvial gold deposits and growing sugar cane in the areas that correspond to the modern-day departments of Chocó, Antioquia, Cauca, Valle del Cauca, and Nariño in western Colombia. In eastern Colombia, near the cities of Vélez, Cúcuta, Socorro, and Tunja, Africans manufactured textiles in commercial mills. Emerald mines outside Bogotá were wholly dependent upon African laborers. Also, other sectors of the Colombian economy, like tobacco, cotton, artisanry, and domestic work, would have been impossible without African slave labor.  

In pre-abolition Colombia (before 1851), many Afro-Colombian captives fought the Spanish and their colonial forces for their freedom as soon as they arrived in Colombia. It is clear that there were strong free Black African towns called palenques, where Africans could live as cimarrones, that is, they who escaped from their oppressors.  Also, the Raizal ethnic group is an Afro-Caribbean group living in the Archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia, and Santa Catalina, speaking the San Andrés-Providencia Creole. 

Afro Panamanians are also related to Afro Colombians; some historians consider that Chocó was a very big Palenque, with a large population of cimarrones, especially in the areas of the Baudó River. Very popular cimarrón leaders like Benkos Biojó and Barule fought for freedom. African people played key roles in the independence struggle against Spain. Historians note that three of every five soldiers in Simon Bolívar's army were African. Not only that, but Afro-Colombians also participated at all levels of military and political life.  African Colombians were forced to live in jungle areas for self-protection during this time. There, they learned to have a harmonious relationship with the jungle environment and to share the territory with Colombia's indigenous people.  

From 1851 into the 20th century, the Colombian State promoted the ideology of mestizaje or miscegenation. So, many Africans and indigenous peoples went deep into the isolated jungles to maintain their cultural traditions. Afro-Colombians and indigenous people were, and continue to be, the targets of the armed actors who want to displace them to take their lands for sugar cane plantations, for coffee and banana plantations, mining, and wood exploitation. In 1944 the Department of El Chocó was created; it was the first predominantly African political-administrative division. El Chocó allowed African people to build an African territorial identity and some autonomous decision-making power.  The Department was created by a (then) speaker at the House of Representatives, Pedro Yances Salcedo, but it was never legally established.  

It’s estimated that 4.4 million Afro-Colombians actively recognize their Black ancestry, while many other African Colombians do not due to inter-racial relations with white and indigenous Colombians. Afro-Colombians often encounter racial discrimination and prejudice.  They have historically been absent from high-level government positions, and many long-established settlements around the Pacific coast have remained underdeveloped. In Colombia's ongoing internal conflict, Afro-Colombians are both victims of violence or displacement and members of armed factions, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, and the AUC. African Colombians contribute to the development of Colombian culture.  Several of Colombia's musical genres, such as Cumbia and Vallenato, have African origins, and some African Colombians have also been successful in sports.  

Colombia’s civil war began in 1964 and ended in 2017 when a peace treaty was signed between the guerrilla movement (FARC) and the government. This long civil war continues to affect most Colombians into the 21st century.  According to the World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous People (WDMIP), some communities have been significantly more affected than others. One of these are Afro-Colombian communities, which have been strongly impacted by the civil war, mainly because of their vulnerability and lack of protection from the government. For years, the FARC sought areas to gain possession of as much Colombian territory as possible; territories occupied by indigenous groups and Afro-Colombians. are typically the poorest and therefore seen as the easiest areas to invade. Many Afro-Colombian regions have been “attacked” and taken over by the FARC, which has resulted in more than 2 million Afro-Colombians being displaced. Most of them have been forced to migrate towards bigger cities (like Bogotá, Cali, or Medellín), which has increased their poverty level (due to the higher cost of living in urban areas) as their exposure to discrimination and violence.  

Though the occurrences of racial violence against them have decreased since the 2017 peace treaty was signed, the displaced people continue to struggle to return to their hometowns.   Because of this, many Afro-Colombians have been victims of collateral damage and killed due to this war, which has become another major reason for displacement. According to research by one of Colombia’s official radio stations, Caracol Radio, over 25% of Afro-Colombians have left their hometown due to violence.  

They have been exposed to bombs, shootings, and deaths at a much higher level than all other Colombians.  Finally, another conflict that the civil war has generated is drug trafficking and prostitution. For years, the FARC guerrilla sought to recruit people who would do this for them cheaply. Given that a high percentage of Afro-Colombians are extremely poor, young people from these communities are tempted by these options as the only way out of the poverty they live in. As a result, over 40% of the people in the guerrilla are composed of Afro Colombians who support the conflict and have been manipulated by the guerrilla to continue supporting their side of the conflict. 

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