Afro-Colombians are Colombians of African descent. Colombia has the third largest black population outside of Africa and the second largest in Latin America, after Brazil. The black population officially is 26% of the population, experts put it at 36-40% or 11 million.  Afro-descendants can be found in regions such as Choco, Buenaventura, Cali, Cartegena, San Andres Island, and throughout the country. 

Black people in Colombia are difficult to define. Colombians do not define race as black or white, but degrees of black, white, and indian, with numerous constructs in between. Blacks in the island of San Andres, Providencis, Santa Catalina are oriented to Caribbean cultures. The term "negro" is rarily used in Colombia and can be taken as disparaging. Moreno(brown), gente de color(people of color), libres (free people), costeno (coastal dwellers) are terms used to describe Afro-Colombians. After increased political gains in the 1980s the terms Afro-Colombiano, La Comuniado Negras( black community) are used by the government.


African slaves first arrived in the 1520s, as agricultural help and domestics. After the 1560s, slaves were mainly used in mining.

Timeline of Afro-Colombian History

1520s Slaves began arriving in New Granada(Colombia)
1530 First slave revolt@ town of Santa Maria
1603 Palenque de San Basilio founded by Benkos Bioho
1691 Decree grants freedom to palenques of Sierra de Maria
1778 Slave population@51,999 most in gold mining
1800 Free population in Colombia/Panama@142,000
1819 Colombia independent from Spain
1821 Free womb law passed, not enforced
1836 38,940 slave population
1851 May 21, Colombia abolishes slavery
1852 Afrodescendants population@21.1% of pop.
1877 Candelario Obeso publishes Cantos Populares de Mi Tierra
1912 census exclude Bolivar & Caldas, undercount afro popul. 
1918 census exclude Bolivar & Caldas, undercount afro popul.
1922 Colombia pursues blanqueamiento(whitening) via mestizaje
          with Law 114, encouraging white immigration     
1933 Diego Luis Córdoba first black elected to congress
1950 Afro-descendant population@4.6 mil or 28% 
1964 Afro-descendant population@21%
1970 Black consciousness movement
1986 Jorge Artel declared national poet
1991 Colombia recognizes Afro-Colombians as unique ethnic;
         mestizaje cease being dominant ideology 
1993 Law 70, grants collective land rights to Afro-descendants
2001 Vanessa Mendoza, 1st black woman to win Miss Colombia
2002 Bellavista, Bojayá massacre of 119 sanctuary seekers
         -Afro-descendants are 26% of the population (census)
2005 Afro-descendants are 10.6% of the population (census),
         moreno category kept out of Afro-Colombian category         
2007 Paul Moreno, Minister of Culture, first black cabinet      
         appointment in a half-century-Uribe appointee
         -Racial Discrimination Observatory established, to monitor
2010 13 Afro-Colombian members of Congress, from 2006

Some slaves were able to save and purchase their freedom. Some were freed by their masters. By the 1770s, 60% of Colombia was made of free people of color. Numerous runaway slaves formed guarded villages called palenques. Many freed slaves intermarried with the white, indian population producing the complex racial stew of Colombia. Slavery ended in 1851. After slavery Afro-Colombians formed associations called cabildos, which perpetuated the development of Afro-Colombian culture.


The first slave revolt in Colombia occurred in Santa Marta in 1530. The town was completely burned down by slaves. Rebuilt in 1531, it was burnt down again in another revolt in 1550. In 1545, a group of mining slaves in present day Popayán, escaped from the mines and took over the town of Tofeme. They killed twenty whites and carried off 250 indian hostages to the mountains. In 1555 and 1556, Popayán also experience revolts. A Popayán revolt in 1598, had a devastating impact on Spain. 4,000 slaves destroyed the gold mine of Zaragoza, one of the most profitable and productive mines. In 1557, an expedition led by Juan Meléndez de Valdés retook the mine, and slaves who were recaptured were executed. 


Again in Popayán, in 1732 fugitive slave formed a palenque near the town of Castillo. The local government was unable to destroy the palenque so they declared amnesty, providing no new fugitive slaves were accepted. This requirement was ignored. Because of the latter, in 1745, an expedition was launch to destroy the encampment. The dwellings were destroyed, but the ex-slaves escaped and founded another encampment.

Price of Slaves
Years  price in pesos 
1555  110 
1655  180 
1696-1701  375 
1702-1713  300 
1713-1740  150 
1765  290 
1805  250 


In 1819, Símon Bolívar began recruiting slaves in Colombia. Five thousand were recruited for battle. mon Bolívar initially refused to allow blacks, mulattos, and zambos into the independence army, but seeing that he could not win without those population, he conceded. To Bolívar the slave was a child. In addition, because of the high white casuality in the Venezuelan war, he wanted to reduce the latter casualty count so more whites would enjoy the fruitage of independence and diminish the black population. The white elite was in constant fear of a large black population taking over or pardocraciaBolívar harbored that fear. To him a revolt by blacks would be "a thousand times worse than a Spanish invasion." Although he received military aid from Haiti's president Petíon in return for ending slavery, he never openned formal diplomatic relation with the country. Bolivar feared Haiti was "fomenting racial conflict." 

On July 21, 1821 , the congress at Cúcuta passed a free womb law creating a manumiso, a child born of a slave woman who was tied to the woman's master from ages 15 to 25. A junta de manumisión was formed to enforce this law and collect taxes to purchase the freedom of slaves born before July 21, 1821. This action was the process of gradual emancipation, favored by the elites, rather than outright freedom, since the economy of Gran Colombia was overly reliant on slavery.

The free womb laws were never enforced. Masters extended the terms of the manumiso, making them still slaves. The Junta de Manumisión was packed with slave owners, who completely ignored the law. The Junta de Manumisión only collected funds to free 461 slaves.

In 1830, the Republic of Gran Colombia broke into civil war. After the war in 1832, the slave plantation class held the upper hand and proceed to exclude all laws of manumission from Colombia's constitution. In 1839, another civil war broke out. This war plus slaves rebelling in the goldmines of Cauca and wreaking havoc and destroying the mindfields, caused many of the slaveholders to request permission to sell to their slaves to Peru for a profit. Eight hundred slaves were sold to Peru. The end of slavery was also hastened with the rise of anti-slavery politician Jose Hilario Lopez, influenced by the revolutionary thoughts and ideals of Europe. Lopez was elected  to the presidency in 1849. He immediately pushed for emancipation by compensating slave owner for manumission. Some slaver owners began to release their slaves in 1850. On May 21, 1851 all slaves were ordered freed. The congress hammered the nail to slavery by declaring on January 1, 1852 all servitude in Colombia, abolished.

After emancipation, Afro-Colombians seemed to have become invisible. They were non-existent in the national life. Very little was written on them. The government did little to educate and provide skills for the ex-slave population. Most Afro-Colombians became squatters and subsistence farmers. Most could not vote because of provisions in the constitution, passed in 1821, 1832, and 1843, barring those who were illiterate, domestic servants, laborers, and non-property owners from voting. In 1910, laws were passed that made it even more difficult to vote by requiring comprehensive literacy and a certain amount of property. The invisibility, some scholars believed, stemmed from the government policy of portraying Colombia a one ethnic state and white.

  Estimated Free black population in 1800 
 Colombia-Panama 142,000 


Beginning in the 1920s, the government of Colombia pursued a policy of whitening. Like most of Latin America, this was viewed in economic/biological terms. In 1922, Law 114 was passed banning immigration of peopled deemed "inconvenient" for the development of the Colombian race and nation. This law encouraged white immigration. Law 114 was the manifest of ideas and sentiments expressed by later president Laureano Gomez in 1928, who stated, "The black is a plague. In the countries where he has disappeared, as in Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay, it has been possible to establish an economic and political organization on a strong and stable basis."

During the 1990s, black Colombian political organization gained ground, with a strong emphasis on "black identity." In 1993, Law 70 was passed, barring discrimination against blacks,  and bringing about a mandate promoting black representation in government and industry. The law also gave collective land rights to Afro-Colombians.

Even with the passing of Law 70, it has been unraveled by the conflict on the Pacific coast, mainly the Choco region, where conflict between guerrila groups, right-wing paramilitary, and army have cause widespread death and displacement of Afro-Colombians. Those regions are remote, with very little government control. 

Geographic Distribution

Afro-Colombians are concentrated mainly in the Pacific coast, a much under-developed region focus on mining. The Caribbean coastal belt and alongside the banks of major rivers is another region with high concentration of black Colombians, the Magdalena, Cauca, and Lower Sinu rivers. The latter region is flat and focused on agriculture and cattle herding. Upper Central Cauca Valley is another  main area of concentration,  particularly northeast Cauca Province and southwest Valle Del Cauca Province. Migration to Bogota, Medellin, and Cali has increased the black population in those cities.


Black Colombians practice the same popular Catholicism of the general population. The exception is in the pacific region with emphasis on saints, observation of funery rites,  diminished role of priest, and emphasis on singing. In the area of Palenque de San Basilio, unique creole language and rites exist and can be traced to Africa.


Black Colombians have contributed much to Colombia. The popular music of the 20th century Porro, Cumbia, and Vallenato have originated in the Caribbean coast where the African influences are strong.

Prominent and Famous Afro-Colombian

Arigga Andrade Addan-former governor of Choco
Benkos Biohos
Pedro Comejo-personal bodyguard of José Antonio Páez, "the first black"
Diego Luis Cordoba-senator from Choco
Manuel Zapata Olivela
Carlos Arturo Truque
José Padilla- admiral in the war of independence
Arnoldo Palacio
Candelario Obeso
Jorge Artel
Diego Luis Cordoba
Alejo Duran
Remigio Márquez-colonel in the independence army, later senator in Gran Colombia
Toto La Momposina-
Vanessa Mendoza-
Efraim Canavera Romero-served on Bogota City council 
Dr. Raúl Cuero- NASA scientist, invented molecule that protects skin from UV radiation/invention containing solid state fermentation
Francisco de Paula Vargas-federal deputy

Works Cited

Appiah, Kwame Anthony and Gates, Henry Louis, Jr.(1999). Africana: the Encyclopedia of African and African American Experience. Basic Civitas Books, pp. 475-478. ISBN 0-465-00071-1

Dixon, Kwame and Burdick, John. Comparative Perspectives on Afro-Latin America. University Press of Florida. ISBN 978-0-8130-3756-1

Luis Gilberto Murillo (former governor of Choco State, Colombia). (speech)El Choco: The African Heart of ColombiaNew York, February 23, 2001. retrieved 20-May-2011.

Contreras, Joe. Rise Of The Latin Africans. A new black-power movement in Central and South America. Newsweek, May 31,2008. retrieved 23-May-2008

Rout, Leslie B(1976). The African Experience in Spanish America: 1502 to the Present Day. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 052120805X.

tag: timeline of Afro-Colombian History