Reflections: Afro-Colombians do not celebrate bicentennial Independence of Colombia.

By: Daniel Garcés Aragón

(Translated by Emily Schmitz, a CSN Volunteer Translator. Edited by Teresa Welsh, CSN’s Volunteer Editor)

July 15, 2010


Nowadays, in order to refer to the commemoration of the bicentennial celebration of the independence of Colombia, it is both necessary and indispensable to look through a rearview mirror.  A look to the past helps clarify the situation of Africans and their descendants established in the New Granada viceroyalty and the ruptures and impacts the independence project of 1810 had on colonial conditions at that time.


The racism and racial discrimination which occurred through uprooting, commercialization and submission of Africans into slavery, seen throughout the Atlantic alongside centuries of systemic negation to educational access, has created disadvantages through the impoverishment of Africans and their descendants in Colombia and America.  These disadvantages make up part of our society and hold Africans back against Europeans and their descendants – today whites and mestizos (indigenous and European blood) – while making the construction of equality impossible in the midst of existing affirmative actions and reparations of historic debt to Afro-Colombians.  In regards to African and African-descendant education, the cry of independence did not generate tensions against the existing colonial system of 1810.

It is important to keep in mind that institutionalized education was established early in the “new world”, as requested by the Dominicans of the Pope.  The first university institution arose from the Dominican Convent of Santo Domingo in Spain, created by Bula de Paulo III on October 28th of 1538.  These university foundations were later to expand to Lima, Mexico and Carcas in 1551-1552 and the Tomistica de Santafé, which was founded at the end of the XVI century.  This educational system was adopted by both higher and lower educational institutes and was directed toward those with Spanish blood.

John Lynch examines a number of considerations, highlighting the following issues:  One explains how Creoles had two forces against them; one coming from the influence of the Spanish in America whose caste system, established in the Peninsula, prevented Africans from obtaining the best positions in colonial public office and the other resulting from the influence of popular classes fighting to keep Africans and their descendants, mainly pardos (Indigenous and African blood), mulatos and Africans, kept down.  

It must be noted that the Bourbon politics (1759-1808) offered more opportunities for social mobility.  For example mulatos and free blacks were received in the military and could buy the right to legally be considered as “whites” through a Grace Identity Card system.  Additionally, mulatos who were given accepted permission were also authorized to receive education, marry a white person, hold public office and enter into priesthood.  These ideas leave behind the established theory and practice of “whitening”, institutionalized through a caste system and further solidified in the colonial period.  These practices remained valid until 1810, despite the cultural and racial realities of this era.

The Creoles rebelled against the 1789 Identity Card which designated educational instruction, treatment and occupations to slaves.  Aranjuez, on May 31st of 1789, was a summary of ordinances and black codes in America.  Its publication received strong rejection from American Creole slaves.  The 1789 Identity Card and the 1795 February Law 10 that offered basic education to mulatos, Africans and their descendents only increased skepticism among Creoles.  Creoles stubbornly opposed any type of advantages for Africans or African descendants and manifested against the legal status of whites, popular education and the entrance of pardos to higher education.  Education for Africans and African descendants in the Nueva Granada viceroyalty was limited to evangelicalism, Castilianization (The process through which a group of people is forced to adopt the Castilian languagee and ways of life), and the repression of previously established norms.


A transcendent yet fundamental debate took place at this time between two conflicting ideas: one supporting Enlightenment and the other supporting scholastics.  On one hand lay the importance and significance of continuous scholastic education and, on the other, embracing Enlightenment and the continued promotion of the secularization of higher education and study of science.  This debate played an integral part in the education reform of Francisco Antonio Moreno and Escandon.  Held in Santa Fe, Bogotá in the University of General Studies in 1768, it remained effective throughout both the end of the XVIII century and the beginning of the XIX. These academic movements placed the appropriation and education of science against scholastic teachings, as they were linked to an increased understanding of nature to obtain, utilization and social importance of new technology.  Thus, around the period of 1810, scientific utilization had taken a leading role in social transformations and had converted into one of the principal agents of cultural and material transformation in the New Granada viceroyalty.

As these ideas were transforming life for European whites, Creoles and Mestizos in America, the situation for Africans remained centralized in Evangelism and rotated around rules of the Catholic Church and Castilianization.  It was affirmed that “the Evangelical educational project and Castilianization of the crown was taxing in the New World, as it denied the acknowledgment of both indigenous and African wisdom and cultural evolution.”

It is important to note that, regarding scholastic education and the formation of higher and lower education, it is said that “all colonial university activities revolved around theology and one worrying priority: the Salvation of the Soul.” This rationality was imposed through colonial slavery by the Catholic Church in a manner oblivious of established human and social conditions but rather augmented the contingency of souls at the end of the established Cavalry of life.

As mandated by the king, it was instructed that: “loyalty to the sovereign, love of the Spanish nation, acknowledgement and gratitude for your masters, subordination to whites…” and was accompanied by respective obligations and repressive norms; norms which were to be taught by masters or butlers of respective homes.  It was eminent that opportunities for slaves to learn Catholic dogmas, Castilianization and obedience and caste norms were a continuation of the workday, trespassing the standard “sunrise to sunset” workday to 14, 16 or even 18 hour days.


From reading documents and letters of the actors and events of the independence process, the incorporation of education as part of social development of the Independent Republic was never derived for Africans and their descendants.  Around 1813 the abolishment of slavery was proposed by Juan del Corral which led, during its supportive work, to the encounter of a reliable but forgotten testimony; a result which conserved the state of African and descendant education.  It was a proposal which was never put into practice.

The cry of independence took an international turn.  Prior to Haiti’s independence from France, within the framework of the French revolution of the XVIII century, slavery was abolished.  And that was how Simón Bolívar arrived in 1816, with the legacy of Toussaint Louverture, who had planted the seeds of liberty in the American nations and abolished slavery through the bloody battles of 1791 during the French Revolution.  In 1816 the president of Haiti, Alejandro Petion, promised Simón Bolívar the liberation of slaves, due to ongoing support and favors, as a testimony in a letter dated February 8, 1816 in Cayos, when it said:

“To his Excellency the President of Haiti:  Mr. President, I am exhausted from the weight of favors of your Excellency.  Sir Villarret has returned, having been dispatched by your Excellency in an incomparable manner.  Through it all, your Excellency is magnanimous and forgiving and (…) if it is possible, I will personally go to show the extension of my appreciation.  In my proclamation to the habitants of Venezuela and through the decrees which issue freedom to slaves, I do not know if I would be permitted to express the feelings in my heart toward your Excellency, leaving out an irrecusably philanthropic monument of your Excellency as author of our liberty.  Therefore, I beg your Excellency to manifest his will on the matter.
(…) Accept, Mr. President, the respectful homage of the high regard to have the honor to be the most humble and obedient servant of Your Excellency. Bolívar.”

The previous events demonstrate the breach of promises made, despite the participation of great contingencies of Africans and their descendants in the campaign for freedom.  The executions ordered by Simón Bolívar to Manuel Piar and José Prudencio Padilla, plus the prolongation of slavery in Colombia until the first of January 1852, explain the indolence of Bolívar against Africans and their descendents established in the Americas.


With annotations completed, the commemoration of the bicentennial of the Independence of Colombia divides Colombian society into two large groups: one of the whites and mestizos, who assisted the right to celebrate the consummation and consolidation of the cry of Independence of 1810.  The other group, the Afro-Colombians, who do not celebrate, and commemorate a scenario of reflection, analysis, discussion and debate derived from the constitution.  It is a debate which considers its condition during this historical moment and the long processes of “cimarronaje” (the process through which black slaves escape and found their own community), the establishment of runaways, fighting for claims to ethnic rights and the conformation of social movements to guarantee success that was negotiated and obtained over two hundred difficult years.

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