History of Cartagena, Colombia: Spanish America’s Biggest Slave Port

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Cartagema, Colombia
Cartagema, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia: Spanish America’s Biggest Slave Port

Far too many people are unaware that the Spanish Americas received countless millions of chained African men, women and children during the Maafa. Too often when we think of African slavery in the Americas we are hoodwinked into channeling our focus toward the British North American colonies, Portuguese Brazil the British West Indies or the sovereign Black man’s pearl of Haiti.

There is another place though. One you probably have not studied about. As a matter of fact in the Western hemisphere there does not exist a port of call in all of Spanish South America, Central America or the Spanish Caribbean that saw more Africans delivered than this vicious port: it is the efficiently evil slaving depot of Cartagena, Colombia.

Over 1.1 million captive Africans entered the docks at Cartagena de las Indias, according to the former director of the Colombian national archives, Jose Palacios Preciado. Not only did they come earlier to Cartagena, but they came in considerably larger numbers than Black people to other locales of the Americas such as the Dutch, British, Danish or French possessions. The Spanish Crown had the system of trafficking African souls down to a grizzly science, and made it their MOST PROFITABLE business according to the governor of Cartagena Province during the 16th century. In his words, he confirms, “the business of Blacks is the largest and the most profitable business we have,” and it would continue to be so along with its auxiliary economic effects for the next two and a half centuries until this vile institution’s end in Colombia on Jan. 1, 1852.

Equally as sinister in the early period of slavery were the perilous sister ports of Veracruz, Mexico, and Portobelo, Panama. These two scurrilous locales’ steadily active wharves of disembarkation preceded Cartagena in the heinous business of landing newly arrived captive Africans – bozales as they were called, meaning “wild” or “savage.” They were only overtaken by their southern sibling Cartagena in the late 1590s, when the Spanish Crown stepped up their volume of shipping and initiated the asiento contract period of trafficking African people. The asiento contract, promulgated by the Spanish Crown, was a virtual monopoly to supply Africans to the Spanish Americas. By the mid-17th century according to some scholars, more than 300,000 unfortunate ancestors had already been landed on the shores.

Which Africans Were Brought to Cartagena and the Spanish-American Territories?

That depends on which century, which European nation owned the asiento shipping contract at the time, which region of the Americas you are talking about – be it a sugarcane-producing area (cañaveral), a precious metal-mining area (placer or mina), a cattle-ranching area (estancia), a pearl-diving region, an urban or domestic locale, some other destination, or, as recent evidence has uncovered, in many cases the decision as to which Africans were brought may have relied upon which preferences were held by the local proprietors for certain African-based technologies. As such, the case for the latter aided in the detailed use of brand-naming each African captive sent to or through the port of Cartagena – this system of categorizing African people per their expertise and continental region of origin, is known as the casta de nación classification system.

Unlike most other places in the Americas, the casta de nación names stayed remarkably attached to Black people who passed through Cartagena to this very day, they became Afro-Colombian surnames. Some of them, region by region are listed here:

Senegambia: Casamán, Mandinga

Guinea Bissau: Viáfara, Balanta, Bran, Biojó

Guinea (Conakry): Cangá

Sierra Leone: Zape

Liberia: Cetré

Ivory Coast and Ghana: Mina, Kulango, Fanti, *Guasá, Aquamu, Acuasiba, Chambá

Togo: Kotokoli, Popó, Chambá (Ntcham)

Benin: Portonovo

Nigeria: Lucumi, Nagó, Carabali, Briche, Ibo, Ocoró

Congo Region: Musorongo, Loango, Congo, Cambindo

Angola: Matamba, Anchico, Ambuila, *Banguera, Angola

Although these last names are no longer found in Cartagena proper in any significant numbers, the southwestern interior and coastal departments of Colombia, namely Valle del Cauca, Cauca, and Nariño, are TEAMING with these names because that’s where they ended up being sold to – the gold mining districts, sugarcane haciendas and provision farms of the Colombian interior and Pacific coast littoral. These casta names are a living testament to the exceedingly rich African cultural heritage conserved in the Republic of Colombia and are screaming for a profound investigation in Afro-Colombian onomastics.

Everybody Came to Cartagena to Get Their Africans

Buyers and agents came from as far away as Callao, Peru, to the south and Matina, Costa Rica, in the north to get first dibs at the auction blocks on Santo Domingo streets and other enslaved barracoon holding cells in Cartagena. The isolated islands of Cartagena bay like Baru Island served as the perfect quarantine site for these arriving ships from hell, laden with hulls full of dying ebony carcasses and virulent diseases such as smallpox and leprosy. Several levels of inspection ensued after reaching Cartagena Bay and they were among the following. The fondeo, the visita de sanidad, and the palmeo. The last of the three was an actual measuring of the profitability of each of the enslaved’s potential work output. Be they 5’7” in height, without malady, 18 years or older – sometimes younger – they were considered to be a full “pieza de india” (piece of indies), literally translated to mean one fully capable “unit of work.” Every soul did not constitute a “full” pieza, however, during the palmeo inspection. As many as three adolescents could be counted as one full pieza, resulting in any calculation of the number of arrived African people during the years of the trade to be at best imprecise and in reality a recognizably unattainable task. We will never know even close to, much less exactly, how many ancestors passed through Cartagena by reading the palmeo records nor the subsequent bills of sale (compraventas) provided by the notary officials in their official ledgers. Because contraband was exceedingly rampant and customary by local officials, it was practiced in the extreme. Some of the more wicked slaving ships (negreros) during the inspection process at Cartagena would declare just over 40 souls on board, when in reality there would be over five time that number, chained to the walls below in the hold numbering somewhere in the middle 200s. Among the more egregious cases of contrabanding exceeded the unimaginable, as was the incident where there were again slightly more than 40 souls declared at customs, when in reality an inconceivable 600-plus captives were on board, never to be officially recorded.

Cartagena to this day remains a majority Black or Afro-Colombian city. It has never had a Black mayor, few if any of its city council members are nor consider themselves Black. Blacks in Cartagena Bay still live alongside ruins of slaving wharves while relics such as “slave” coffles from the days of holding Africans in bondage, are still known to be found walking along the beaches of Baru Island.  It is past time to consider Cartagena de las Indias among the major slaving ports in the Western hemisphere. Its vile legacy of ill-found wealth should be jointly studied alongside the more readily recognized pernicious ports of Rio de Janeiro, Port Royal, Charleston, Port au Prince, Salvador and Havana. Any worthwhile curriculum of slavery studies in the Americas should find it keenly among its pages.  The English-speaking world has much to learn about slavery on the South American Spanish Main, Cartagena should be the principal point of entry in that regard.

 

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