Benkos Biohó: The Runaway Slave Who Established the First Free African Town in the Americas in 1599

Domingo Biohó Also known as Domingo Biohó, was born in the 16th century into a royal family that ruled Bioho one of the Bissagos Islands off the coast of what is today Guinea-Bissau.

Benkos Biohó: The Runaway Slave Who Escaped Captivity and Established the First Free African Town in the Americas

He was kidnapped by the Portuguese slave trader, Pedro Gomes Reinel a Portuguese merchant who was already the king of the slave trade in Angola. Biohó was then sold to businessman Juan Palacios and transported to what is now Colombia in South America.

Benkos Biohó he was sold again in 1596 to the Spaniard Alonso del Campo in Cartagena de Indias.

Biohó’s journey to freedom began with his first escape attempt. When the boat carrying him sank in the Magdalena River, he managed to break free from captivity. Although he was recaptured, his determination to regain his freedom never wavered. In 1599, Biohó escaped once again, this time into the marshy lands southeast of Cartagena, where he founded San Basilio de Palenque.

In this liberated territory, Biohó organized an army and established an intelligence network, aiding the escape of other slaves and guiding them to the safety of the settlement. His leadership earned him the title “king of Arcabuco,” a testament to his influence and authority within the community.

Benkos Biohó: The Runaway Slave Who Escaped Captivity and Established the First Free African Town in the Americas

After years of conflict and negotiation, the Governor of Cartagena, Gerónimo de Suazo y Casasola, recognized the autonomy of San Basilio de Palenque in a peace treaty with Biohó’s community in 1605.

As part of the treaty, the palenque promised to stop receiving more runaway slaves, cease their aid in escape attempts, and stop addressing Biohó as “king”.

The agreement marked a significant victory, granting the settlement self-governance and a chance to flourish independently. However, the peace was short-lived. In 1619, the treaty was violated when Biohó was captured by the Spaniards and eventually executed on 16 March 1621.

Benkos Biohó Established the First Free African Town
The inhabitants of Palenque de san Basilio still preserve customs and language, religious practices as well as musical and oral traditions, many of which have African roots to this day.

Governor García Girón, who ordered the execution, argued bitterly that “it was dangerous the extent to which Biohó was respected in the population” .

Despite the absence of their leader, Biohó’s legacy endured. In 1713, San Basilio de Palenque achieved a historic milestone by becoming the first free village in the Americas. This transformation was catalyzed by a royal decree from the King of Spain, who recognized the futility of sending troops on unsuccessful missions to attack the village’s fortified mountain hideaway.

Today, the village of San Basilio de Palenque stands as a testament to Biohó’s enduring legacy. Inhabited by Afro-Colombians who are direct descendants of enslaved Africans brought to the Americas, the village preserves its customs, language, religious practices, and cultural traditions.

In 2005, UNESCO recognized the significance of Palenque de San Basilio by proclaiming it a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”

Uzonna Anele
Uzonna Anele
Anele is a web developer and a Pan-Africanist who believes bad leadership is the only thing keeping Africa from taking its rightful place in the modern world.

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