Afro-Colombian slaves used their braids to communicate messages and escape routes. Source: Vanessa / Adobe Stock

African Slaves Used Braids to Communicate Escape Routes in Colombia


The hair of black boys and girls was, and continues to be, an object of ridicule and discrimination. This kind of distain is a throwback to a more openly racist era, steeped in beliefs of African inferiority used to justify slavery and colonialism. But, did you know that the hairstyles of African slaves in Colombia were once used as a form of resistance?

African slaves were forcibly brought to Colombia in the 16th century by Spanish colonizers of South America and the Caribbean, used to supplement indigenous labor for agriculture and mining. Many were originally from West Africa, where hair was seen as a way to symbolize identity, be it tribal affiliation, social standing, age or even marital status.

Within hair culture, cornrows, also known as canerows, are a braided hairstyle performed close to the scalp to create a raised row. Cornrows can be used to create a variety of designs and patterns. The first depiction of women wearing their hair in cornrows dates back thousands of years in rock art discovered in southeastern Algeria.

Legend has it that displaced African slaves in Colombia began to use their hair as a way to encrypt messages and maps to aid escape into remote areas. This was the case of Palenque de San Basilio, a village just 55 km from Cartagena, which was founded by maroons, a term used for escaped slaves , led by the self-proclaimed King Benkos in the early 17th century.

Young girl having her hair braided into cornrows. (Cultura Creative / Adobe Stock)

Young girl having her hair braided into cornrows. ( Cultura Creative / Adobe Stock)

As the first free village in America of African heritage, the Afro-Colombian tradition of braiding cornrows is alive and well. From the caracol or the puerca parida , many of these braided hairstyles have names. Some are even in use today, such as departes, a hairstyle of thick braids tied into buns on top, which signaled plans to escape, as described in The Washington Post .

Some cornrows reportedly mapped out escape routes or signaled where to find water. They also made ideal hiding places for seeds, gold nuggets stolen while working mines, and even weapons. These were to help the runaway slaves to survive once they had found freedom.

But how much of these stories is actually true? It’s hard say since official history has usually been told by white men and a form of resistance amongst the African diaspora by definition lacks archival evidence. Thus the only evidence for this hair history is the oral history maintained by Afro-Colombian communities.

Nevertheless, the ancient tradition of hair braiding by Afro-Colombian women continues to this day and has become a core part of their identity. Cornrows are worn to honor African heritage, symbolizing freedom from oppression. There is even a braiding contest in Cali known as called Tejiendo Esperanzas (or weaving hope).

Top image: Afro-Colombian slaves used their braids to communicate messages and escape routes. Source: Vanessa / Adobe Stock

By Cecilia Bogaard



"Many were originally from West Africa, where hair was seen as a way to symbolize identity, be it tribal affiliation,..."

So, is it possible hairstyles may have played a part in who became a slave? After all, if the hairstyle indicated one was from a neighbouring tribe, it may have also indicated one was fair game for capture and selling to Arabic or European slavers.

A lot of African slaves were first captured by other Africans. They did not ship the slaves out to the New World themselves because they were not in the business of trans-Atlantic shipping. This does not excuse non-African slavers, of course, because all slavery is abhorrent, whether it was conducted by Romans, Vikings, Arabs, sub-Saharan Africans, genteel American Confederates, or even modern Ukrainians. However, it is genteel now to only talk about some slavers as abhorrent, while ignoring completely the existence of others both past and present.

Future generations may look back on this situation and rightly denounce it as a case of putting base politics ahead of the truth. With regards to slavery, only the total truth is ever good enough. However, as slavery still exists, as is well-documented internationally, there are those with vested interests in avoiding the truth. This avoidance has been deliberately spread until it now permeates through society.

In that sense, it is not much different to the genteel Confederates discussing human rights in their drawing rooms, but avoiding linking the subject to their enslaved plantation workers. This is because people don't change much, but very much like to pretend that they do.

Pete Wagner's picture

It’s a beautiful hair style.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

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