The abolition of slavery in Colombia materialized through an extensive process that began in the 19th century during the colonial period. The initial measures to abolish slavery were taken with the Slave Emancipation Decree in 1814 and the Law of Freedom of Offspring in 1821. However, total abolition was not consolidated until the year 1851.
During the conquest and subsequent colonial rule, indigenous populations in Colombia became slaves to both Spanish settlers and Creole elites. Encomiendas, territories granted by the Spanish crown to conquerors, subjected indigenous communities to labor-intensive agriculture without any compensation. The mining industry on the Pacific coast witnessed a similar plight.
In 1512, the Spanish crown attempted to regulate slavery through the Laws of Burgos. Later, in 1542, the New Laws aimed to provide better treatment to indigenous populations, even proposing a ban on their enslavement. However, these legal measures had limited impact, as the encomienda and mita systems persisted.
With a decline in the indigenous population due to diseases and exploitation, Africans, primarily from West Africa, were forcibly brought to the Americas between the 16th and 18th centuries. Sold as commodities, they endured arduous journeys lasting over two months. The lucrative slave trade was dominated by Portuguese merchants.
Diverse realities of enslavement
The lives of slaves varied; some experienced tolerable conditions as household servants, while those engaged in mining and agriculture faced grueling work and brutal physical punishments. As the 18th century drew to a close, Enlightenment ideals questioning the morality of slavery gained traction, coinciding with economic shifts making slavery less profitable.
Paths to freedom: Abolition takes root
Visible markers of resistance emerged with the 1781 uprising led by the comuneros, liberating slaves in Mariquita. Even earlier, Afro-descendant slaves had rebelled, forming autonomous communities called palenques. One notable figure was Benkos Bioho, who led a 17th-century revolt, establishing the free palenque of San Basilio near Cartagena.
Post-independence efforts to abolish slavery gained momentum. In 1814, the Free Province of Antioquia enacted the “Law on the Emancipation of African Slaves and on the Means of Successively Redeeming Their Parents.” Commonly known as the Freedom of Wombs Law, it declared children born to slave mothers after April 20, 1814, free once they reached 16, provided they demonstrated a trade to support themselves and reimbursed their owners for expenses incurred until that age.
In 1821, during the Cucuta Congress, Law 21, “On Freedom of Births, Emancipation, and Abolition of the Slave Trade,” granted freedom to the children of enslaved mothers at 18, provided they paid their owners for the expenses incurred. However, some articles raised doubts about the expected freedom, such as the prohibition of owning slaves for non-domestic services.
Resistance from plantation owners to abolition was palpable. The Arboleda brothers of Popayán, Sergio, and Julio, allegedly sold a significant number of slaves to Peru in 1847 to preserve their agricultural and mining wealth. The definitive abolition came in 1851 under liberal President José Hilario López.
Aftermath and figures
The 1851 abolition triggered significant political upheavals. The excluded population joined liberal social foundations, contributing to land seizures. The period also saw the abolition of the death penalty and freedom of expression.
Estimating the number of slaves brought to Colombia varies. The National Archives (2020) state that over three centuries, a minimum of 250,000 slaves were brought to the New Granada. In the late colonial era, slaves constituted nearly 10% of the total population, with Cartagena, Cauca, the Pacific coast, and Antioquia having the highest slave populations.
The abolition of slavery in Colombia preceded Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in the United States by twelve years, occurring in 1863. Despite legal abolition, modern challenges persist, with various social sectors highlighting contemporary forms of exploitation. As Pope Francis asserts, “Slavery is not abolished; it is on the agenda. Workers are exploited in clandestine workshops, and if they are immigrants, they are deprived of the possibility of leaving.”