From the “fro” to hair wraps to braids and cornrows, black women over the years have used their hairstyles as a personal expression of who they are and to show the evolution of Black culture over time but, did you know that at some point in history women used these same hairstyles to carve out routes to freedom from slavely and opression?
During the Middle Passage or the period in the Atlantic Slave Trade when millions of Africans were brutally ripped from their homes and shipped to the New World, according to sources, the heads of the captured slaves were shaved not only as a sanitary means but also to take away their own culture and identity from them.
According to history, this was because the African hair was seen as quite heavy and and was considered ‘unruly’ so in order to maintain a neat and tidy appearance African people started to wear their hair in tight braids like cornrows.
History has it that using hairstyles to map an escape route bagan when an African King named Benkos Bioho was captured by the Portuguese before finally finding his way in Cartagena, a port city located on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. This said captured king made several attempts at escaping from his captors but never suceeded until the final and successful attempt. He went on to build San Basilio de Palenque, a village in Northern Colombia sometime around the 17th century.
The village became a walled city that was meant to be a refuge for escaped slaves and help them get back on their feet.
King Bioho not only built the village with other escaped slaves but also created their own coded language, formed an army and even created an intelligence network in order to find, organise and get them to the liberated areas.
It was said King Bioho was the person that had the idea to have woman create maps and even deliver messages through their cornrows.
Since slaves were rarely given the privilege of writing material or even if they did have it, such kind of messages or maps getting in the wrong hands could create a lot of trouble for the people in question, cornrows were the perfect way to go about such things.
No one would question or think that one could hide entire maps in their hairstyle, so it was easy to circulate them without anyone finding out about it.
Another amazing ideas was to have these women use seeds as decoration in their hair, these seeds were then used as a way for the liberated slaves to grow their own crops.
The most fascinating thing is that the city of San Basilio de Palenque still exists and has a population of about 3500 people.
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