How The Cornrow Hairstyle Was Used As An Escape Map From Slavery Across South America


African Cornrow hairstyle
Cornrows have become a crowd favorite for women of every culture in the last 10 years. Whereas it used to be worn by children, especially young African and African American girls, the style has become widely popular across women of all ages.


But many do not know the deep and rich history of the hairstyle that saved the lives of many. Moreover, they do not know of its role in the freedom struggles which have led to the liberties we now enjoy.

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 in order to create a single line of raised row, creating the cornrow”. 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.

African Cornrow hairstyle
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.”

Now to its role during the Transatlantic Slave Trade:

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

But not all enslaved Africans would not keep their hairs cut. Many would braid their hairs 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.

It is most documented in Colombia where 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 17thcentury. Bioho created his own language as well as intelligence network and also 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.

African Cornrow hairstyle
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 has 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.


Carlota Lucumi: This Yoruba Woman Led One of Cuba’s Biggest Revolts In 1844 That Later Inspired Fidel Castro

Carlota Lucumi
Carlota Lucumi

Several slave revolts were triggered in the 1800s especially in the Caribbean where slavery had taken a huge rise despite abolitionist effort to end it.


Sugar and cotton plantation owners flourished during the time and needed as much cheap labour as they could get in order to increase production which would then have a positive effect on their income.

As enslaved Africans began to build a stronger community and sense of ownership, they started to rebel and fight their masters. Although several of the revolts ended with leaders being killed, the revolts shook the white enslavers any time they would happen.

In the history of slave revolts, several of them are linked to brave men or male leaders who risked their lives for others while women were celebrated more as activists and pioneers of several movements.

However, stories like that of Carlota Lucumi prove that Afro Cuban women also had a huge impact during slavery and in fact led revolts as well.

In 1843, Carlota Lucumi rose among few other enslaved Africans working on the Triunvirato sugar plantation and surrounding plantations in Matanzas, Cuba.

After months of secret planning with her other counterparts, Firmina – also a woman, Filipe Lucumi, Eduardo, Narciso and Manuel Ganga of the Acana plantation set out to strike on November 5, 1843.

They led a rebellion against the mayor and Julian Luis Alfonso Sole, owner of the sugar mill and his assistants setting several houses on fire including the house where slaves were often kept and punished.

West African In Bahia And Cuba Book
According to the book West African Warfare in Bahia and Cuba: Soldier Slaves in the Atlantic World by Manuel Barcia Paz, the rebel leader had their own weapons and used leather as both a weapon and protection from spears and stray bullets.

The November 1843 revolt successfully spread through more than 5 plantations where slaves, following in the shadow of Carlota Lucumi and her partners, seized their own freedom and killed as many white enslavers as possible.

An article on IBW21 explains that Carlota is said to have celebrated her successful attack on María de Regla, an overseer’s daughter whom she struck down with a machete.

Carlota Lucumi was killed and her body found on the morning of November 6, 1943, by her loyal followers on the Triunvirato estate who then went into an uproar and killed as many whites as they could.

Oral Cuban history has it that she was captured by white soldiers who tortured her by tying her body to her own horses which dragged and pulled her till she died.

Although the revolt was not successful in the long term, it played a significant role in the history of Cuba as it was the largest and last rebellion that caused major fear in the white society in the 19th century eventually leading to the 1868 Cuban independence movement. According to IBW21, it shaped the course of Cuban history — and Fidel Castro’s ideology of the oppressed rising up to defeat their oppressor.

Celebrated for her role in leading a revolt, Carlota is a Yoruba born woman who was kidnapped from the Kingdom of Benin where she was born and raised till about the age of 10.

She is called Carlota Lucumi mainly for belonging to the Lucumi ethnic group which was and still is made up of Afro-Brazilians of Yoruba descent.

During the days of slavery, the Lucumi ethnic group was greatly feared in Cuba and were similar to the Maroons. They led several revolts and often established their own settlements.


  1. Face2Face Africa
  2. Franco, Jules (2020, September 17). Meet Cuba’s Machete-wielding Freedom Fighter. Institute of the Black World 21st Century.