Africans were imported from the 1520s into settlements along the northern coast of colonial New Granada. The Caribbean port city of Cartagena became the principal slave port for the colony. Blacks were used in agriculture and as personal servants in this region from early on, but they were mainly used in the mining areas. Prior to 1600, perhaps 100,000 slaves were imported, but from about 1560 the Spanish settlements in the gold-rich Cauca Valley and northern Antioquia increased the demand for slaves to supplement scanty and fast-declining Indian labor. The Pacific coastal region was colonized effectively from the late seventeenth century and became a major user of slave labor.
Mining was the main occupation for slaves in New Granada. Both men and women worked in the open-cast mines, usually in cuadrillas, or gangs, headed by a capitán. They also worked in agriculture and cattle raising in Cauca Valley haciendas, in the mining camps of the Pacific coastal region, in Antioquian farms, and in the large haciendas of the Caribbean plains. In addition, they were used as servants, laborers, and artisans in the cities.
Slavery varied in harshness, according to the region and the epoch, but most slaves had the opportunity to mine, farm, or sell on their own behalf for one day a week, and some were able to save money and buy their freedom. Freedom could also be granted by a master. Colonial records show that women (and children) were given and bought their freedom more often than men. This partly reflected the sexual relations that occurred between White men and slave women. By the 1770s, "free people of color," a general category fed by manumission and race mixture and including everyone who was not classified as a White, an Indian, or a slave, were about 60 percent of the New Granadian population.
Slaves also fought for their freedom, escaping into the many virtually uncontrolled areas and sometimes forming fortified villages, palenques, for their defense against Spanish military missions. Rebellions and the establishment of palenques by slaves occurred from the early sixteenth century and intensified during the eighteenth.
By the time of independence (1819) and abolition (1851), the importance of slavery had declined in many areas, although it was still important in the Pacific and the Cauca regions. After abolition, former slaves in areas such as Antioquia and the Cauca became workers on the mines and farms of their former masters or independent gold panners and farmers, much as manumitted slaves had done during the colonial period. In the Pacific region, colonialstyle mining more or less collapsed, and freed slaves became independent miners and farmers, selling gold to urban commercial elites.
The elaboration of Afro-Colombian culture during and after the colonial period was not as overtly African influenced as in the case of Afro-Cuban or Afro-Brazilian culture. New Granada was not a full-blown plantation society, the importation of slaves ended earlier, and slavery was already a relatively weak institution in many areas prior to abolition. Nevertheless, palenques and communities of free Blacks (which could be quite isolated in areas such as the Pacific coast region) were places where Afro-Colombian culture could develop. As in other regions of Latin America, there were also associations of slaves and free Blacks— cabildos, or councils—located mostly in the cities. These were nominally lay church brotherhoods, but many had tenuous links with the church and were allowed to hold their own dances and celebrations, often centered on drumming. In areas such as the Cauca Valley, Antioquia, and the Caribbean plains, Afro-Colombian culture often fed into a more generalized working-class and peasant culture of triethnic origins. Indeed in Antioquia, Afro-Colombian culture more or less disappeared, except in some isolated northeastern areas.
Relations with Amerindian groups varied. In the Pacific region, where a mining monoculture existed, Indians and Blacks tended to remain fairly separate, although there was, and continues to be, an interchange of goods, services, and knowledge, plus some intermarriage. Especially after abolition, Indian groups gradually moved into the headwaters of the rivers as Blacks occupied the lower reaches. In areas such as Antioquia and the Cauca, either Indian populations declined more drastically, or geographical separation remained more marked. In the Caribbean region, Indians and Blacks tended to mix more thoroughly, although certain zones show a predominance of Indian or Black heritage.