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.


The Igbo Landing – Story Of Igbo Slaves Who Rebelled Against Slave Traders And Committed Mass Suicide In U.S.A., 1803

Jamaican artist, Donovan Nelson’s illustrations paying tribute to the Igbo Landing Event.
Jamaican artist, Donovan Nelson’s illustration paying tribute to the Igbo Landing Event.

Countless accounts of terrifying and dehumanizing events that happened during the slave trade era have been passed down from generations to generations; accounts of irrational cruelty, starvation, resistance, mass killings and suicide. The story of the Igbo landing is another tear-evoking account of resistance to slavery by the Igbo slaves from present-day Nigeria off U.S. coast in 1803.

What Is The Igbo Landing Or Ibo Landing?


The Igbo landing, also written as ‘Ibo landing‘ or ‘Ebo landing‘, is a historic site at Dunbar Creek on St. Simons Island, Glynn County, Georgia, U.S.A. where dozens of Igbo slaves took their own lives in a resistance to the cruelty of slavery in 1803.

In May, 1803, a ship named the wanderer, just like other slave ships, conveyed slaves from Africa to America. Among these slaves were set of Igbo people who were known by the then slave traders of the American South for being fiercely independent and unwilling to tolerate chattel slavery. The Igbo slaves were bought by the agents of John Couper and Thomas Spalding at $100 each for forced labour on their plantations in St. Simons Island, U.S.A.

The Igbo Landing, St. Simons Island The Igbo Landing, St. Simons Island

When the slave ship landed in Savannah, Georgia, the chained Igbo slaves were reloaded and shoved under the deck of a coastal vessel named the Schooner York (some accounts claimed the vessel name was Morovia) which would take them to St. Simons Island. It was during the voyage that the group of Igbo slaves numbering about seventy-five rebelled against their captors and forced them to plunge into the water where they drowned. The slaves successfully regained their freedom but it was of no use since they were already out and far away from Africa, and so, on the order of a high chief who was also a captive, they sang, marched ashore and then into the marshy waters of Dunbar Creek where they drowned themselves.

According to Professor Terri L. Snyder, “the enslaved cargo suffered much by mismanagement, rose from their confinement in the small vessel, and revolted against the crew, forcing them into the water where they drowned”.

Igbo Landing Illustration
Another illustration paying tribute to the Igbo Landing Event by Donovan Nelson

A white man, Roswell King, who was an overseer on a plantation known as Pierce Butler plantation was the first to record the incident at the site now known as the Igbo landing. Roswell and another man, Captain Peterson, recovered thirteen bodies of the drowned Igbos while others bodies were lost forever in the water. highlifextra gathered that some of them might have survived the suicide episode and this make the actual number of deaths in the Igbo landing uncertain.

“Regardless of the numbers, the deaths signaled a powerful story of resistance as these captives overwhelmed their captors in a strange land, and many took their own lives rather than remain enslaved in the New World. The Igbo Landing gradually took on enormous symbolic importance in local African American folklore”. – Momodu, Samuel

Igbo Landing SiteIgbo Landing Site

People in the U.S.A termed the resistance and suicide by the Igbo slaves the first freedom march in the history of Africa and the United States. Local people claimed that the Landing and surrounding marshes in Dunbar Creek where the Igbo people committed mass suicide in May, 1803 were haunted by the souls of the dead Igbo slaves.

Igbo Landing Picture FREEING THE SOULS OF IGBO LANDING, THE NEVER-BEEN-RULED. “The Water Spirit Omambala brought us here. The Water Spirit Omambala will carry us home.” (Orimiri Omambala bu anyi bia. Orimiri Omambala ka anyi ga ejina. – Ancient Igbo Hymn)

In September, 2012, the Igbo Landing site was designated as a holy ground by the St. Simons African American community. The Igbo Landing is also now a part of the curriculum for coastal Georgia schools.

In recent times, many artists, songs, movies and others have paid tribute to the Igbo landing/ Ibo landing. A notable tribute is found in the ending part of Marvel’s comic movie, Black Panther, where Killmonger, played by Michael B Jordan, refer to the event by saying, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage”. Beyoncé also was not left out in the tribute paying as she portrayed the incident in of her music videos.

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  • Marquetta L. Goodwine, The Legacy of Ibo Landing: Gullah Roots of African American Culture (Atlanta: Clarity Press, Inc., 1998)
  • Igbo Landing,” Glynn County, Georgia History and Lore
  • Igbo Landing May 1803 a Symbol of African Resistance – New Afrikan 77

Malê Revolt of 1835: How Yoruba And Hausa Slaves In Brazil Helped Bring An End To International Slave Trade

The Malê Revolt spearheaded by Hausa and Yoruba slaves in Brazil
The Malê Revolt, spearheaded by Hausa and Yoruba slaves in Brazil

The Malê Revolt was one of the many slave uprisings in Brazil between 1807 and 1835. It was perhaps, the most significant slave rebellion in the history of Brazil.


The Malê revolt featured black slaves who were mostly Hausa, Kanuri and Yoruba people from present day Nigeria and freedmen attempting to usurp the powers of the white authorities of the Brazilian province of Bahia and establish a settlement dominated by freedmen and Islam.

The name given to revolt, Malê, was a parody of the word ‘imale‘ which is a Yoruba term for muslim clerics.

According to reliable data, Brazil is the only non-African country with a population of blacks reaching over 100 million. In fact, blacks take half of Brazil’s estimated population of 200 million and above.

In the early years of slave trade in Brazil, thousands of slaves were shipped in from Africa, most especially, from the Bight of Benin. Slaves brought from the Bight of Benin were mostly the Hausa, Nupe, Tiv and Yoruba People of present-day Nigeria. This brought a heavy concentration of Hausas, Yorubas and other Nigerian ethnic groups, called Nagô, to Bahia in no time.

In Bahia, as at then, the slave system in practice was the Brazil’s urban system which gave slaves the freedom to walk freely on the streets and to even engage in petty trades after working for their masters. They work as ganhadores (slaves-for-hire) who sold their labor on the street of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil.

Some Hausa and Yoruba slaves hauled goods for merchants, sold tobacco and also worked as tailors and carpenters. This made it easier for them to plan their attacks without the knowledge of the Brazilian authorities. They met before and after praying in the mosque, in their homes and briefly at the market.

Trial records show that slave and freed female street vendors also took part in the conspiracy. The Muslim cleric, Dandará, who sold tobacco at Bahia local market, was one of several holy men involved in the movement.

Manoel do Nascimento Santos Silva, also known as Gibirilu, the last known survivor of the Malê revolt in Bahia.
Manoel do Nascimento Santos Silva, also known as Gibirilu, the last known survivor of the Malê revolt in Bahia.

The revolt conspirators, the Malê, planned to execute the attack on the the last Sunday of the Muslim’s month of Ramadan which was also the day set aside to celebrate Our Lady of Bonfim, a Catholic holiday commemorated at a church located eight miles from the city center.

The Malês calculated that authorities would be away at Bonifim, keeping order and that would be a perfect time for them to strike.

Execution of the Malê Revolt

According to Thomson Gale, “the Malê rebellion was set to begin on January 25, 1835 at 5:00am, an hour when Africans fetched water at public fountains.”

Their plans, however, were betrayed. Two African freedwomen, Guilhermina Rosa de Souza and Sabina da Cruz, wife of a Nagô leader, pieced together details of the conspiracy. On the night of January, Guilhermina told a white neighbor about the rebels’ plans.

Upon knowing about the plot, Provincial President Francisco de Souza Martins ordered police forces to search the homes of Africans whom Sabina da Cruz had identified as central to the conspiracy.

Within two hours, forces led by police chief Francisco Gonçalves Martins entered into battle with African rebels in the streets of the upper city, amid the government buildings, theater, and churches frequented by the white slaveholding elite.

Black Brazilian Muslim woman with prayer beads around her neck and wrists
Black Brazilian Muslim woman with prayer beads around her neck and wrists | MARGARITA ROSA

However, the Malê rebels were defeated by the Bahian authorities after the death of over seventy Malês and nine white and mixed race Brazilians. Several people were injured. Slaves found guilty were sentenced to hard labour and flogging which ranged between fifty and one thousand; none of them were jailed in order not to put slave owners at loss.

On the other hand, the freedmen found guilty of involvement in the Malê uprising were sentenced to prison, death and deportation to African coast.

Malê rebellion in Brazil
Holy book belonging to the Malê

For several months, Brazilians live in fear. It was reported that some white families even left their homes to sleep offshore in canoes for the fear of another revolt by the slaves and their cohorts.

The Bahians won but the Hausa and Yoruba slaves left a big impact on the slave life in Brazil. Fifteen years after the Malê revolt, slave trade was eventually abolished.

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  1. Goody, Jack. “Writing, Religion, and Revolt in Bahia.” Visible Language 20 (1986): 318–343.
  2. Lovejoy, Paul. “Background to Rebellion: The Origins of Muslim Slaves in Bahia.” Slavery and Abolition 15 (1994): 151–180.
  3. “Malê Rebellion.” Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Retrieved August 10, 2018