Culture

How cornrows were used as an escape map from slavery across South America

Cornrows have become a crowd favorite for women of every culture in the last ten years. Whereas it used to be worn by children, especially young African and African American girls, the style has become widely popular among women of all ages.

The journey to freedom was never easy, but African Americans still found ingenious ways to escape from the terrible bonds of slavery. Many of these escape routes were laced into the hair of enslaved people in a style known as cornrows that served as maps from South America all the way up north. 

We will take you through an inspiring odyssey and explore how these braids acted as an indispensable tool for determined individuals who refused to surrender their dreams of liberation against impossible odds.

Rihanna wears cornrows

The Stories Told By Cornrows

Cornrows have long been a facet of African beauty and life. In many African societies, braid patterns and hairstyles indicate a person’s community, age, marital status, wealth, power, social position, and religion. In the Caribbean, the style may be referred to as cane rows to represent “slaves planting sugar cane” and not corn.

The style consists of braiding the “hair very close to the scalp in an underhand, upward motion to create a single line of raised row, creating the cornrow.”

Blackdoctor.org writes on the history of cornrows:

“Depictions of women with cornrows have been found in Stone Age paintings in the Tassili Plateau of the Sahara, and have been dated as far back as 3000 B.C. There are also Native American paintings as far back as 1,000 years showing cornrows as a hairstyle. This tradition of female styling in cornrows has remained popular throughout Africa, particularly in the Horn of Africa and West Africa.

Emperor of Ethiopia (1872–89)

Historically, male styling with cornrows can be traced as far back as the early nineteenth century to Ethiopia, where warriors and kings such as Tewodros II and Yohannes IV were depicted wearing cornrows.”

Its Role During The Transatlantic Slave Trade

During the Atlantic Slave Trade, many enslaved people were forced to shave their hair to be more ‘sanitary’ and also to move them away from their culture and identity.

But not all enslaved Africans would keep their hair cut. Instead, many would braid their hair tightly in cornrows and more “to maintain a neat and tidy appearance.”

Enslaved Africans also used cornrows to transfer and create maps to leave plantations and the home of their captors. This act of using hair as a tool for resistance is said to have been evident across South America.

Cornrows were most documented in Colombia. Benkos Bioho, a King captured from Africa by the Portuguese who escaped slavery, built San Basilio de Palenque, a village in Northern Colombia, around the 17th century. Bioho created his own language and intelligence network and came up with the idea to have women create maps and deliver messages through their cornrows.

The site Edtimes explains,

“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.”

Afro-Colombia, Ziomara Asprilla Garcia further explained to the Washington Post in the article, Afro-Colombian women braid messages of freedom in hairstyles:

“In the time of slavery in Colombia, hair braiding was used to relay messages. For example, to signal that they wanted to escape, women would braid a hairstyle called departes. “It had thick, tight braids, braided closely to the scalp and was tied into buns on the top.

And another style had curved braids, tightly braided on their heads. The curved braids would represent the roads they would [use to] escape. In the braids, they also kept gold and hid seeds which, in the long run, helped them survive after they escaped.”

Garcia said with satisfaction that there had been a resurgence of braided hairstyles in Colombia in recent years. But this reality is not only evident in Colombia but all around the world.

Bridget Boakye

Bridget Boakye is a writer, activist, and entrepreneur based in Accra, Ghana. Raised in both Ghana and the U.S., she is particularly interested in issues that draw on the experiences, insights, and values from both Africa and the African Diaspora. She is currently an Amplify Africa Fellow and member of the Global Shapers Accra Hub. You can find her on Instagram at @boakyeb

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