African Hairstyles Used as Maps To Escape Slavery


In modern times, people still value their hair as much as the traditional people did. They even copy some of the traditional hairstyles. However, according to history, it seems that the ancient people valued their hair much more to the point of it representing some aspect of their spirituality.

During the African slave trade, Africans did their hairs in various styles and each style had a meaning behind it. In the African oral traditions, some of the enslaved people even used their hair as a map to escape from the harsh slavery.

A Brief History of African Slavery

Historically, slavery has been widespread in the African region. Systems of slavery were very common in areas of Africa in old times. When the Arab and Atlantic slave trades started, many of the pre-existing native African slave systems started providing prisoners for slave markets outside the African region.

Slavery was in various forms and among them are debt slavery, military slavery, prostitution slavery, and slavery for criminal acts. Plantation slavery happened on the eastern coast of the African continent and in different regions of the western part of Africa.

African Hair Culture and Various Hairstyles

African hair culture goes back thousands of years ago. Hair played a critical role in the identity of the African people. When Africans were in slavery, the slave traders would shave them off to separate them from any former identity. Different ancient African hairstyles represented or symbolized different meanings.

Some hairstyles were simply an expression of beauty while others symbolized religiousness or an individual’s social status. Other hairstyles among various ethnic groups revealed a person’s age, birthplace, clan membership, marital status, and occupation.

The fascinating part about the African hairstyles is during the enslavement era. The Africans from South America drew from ancient knowledge supposedly creating road maps to freedom via cornrow patterns. The technique of using hair as a key to escape slavery was a secret among the enslaved people.


Cornrows are a design of hair braiding in which a person braids the hair close to the scalp. Both genders wear cornrows that people on a few occasions decorate with beads or cowry shells. Cornrows are a customary way of styling hair in various world regions. People have found portrayals of women with cornrows in the Stone Age paintings. The old-style hairstyle of Roman Vestal Virgins included the cornrows. As mentioned above, people used cornrows during American slavery to depict maps of the region to aid escaping slaves.


Who is Bencoseze?

Bencoseze was an enslaved African who created a maroon community of formerly enslaved people. The slave employed cornrows as a way to send messages and spot markers or landmarks for freedom.

What is Xiomara Garcia saying?

Xiomara Asprilla Garcia is a native oral historian and a hair braider in the Colombian region. She explained the history of how people used hair braiding to send messages.

She said:

“In the time of slavery in Colombia, people used hair braiding to relay messages. For example, to signal that they wanted to escape. Woman with braided hairstyle called De partes, 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 signify the roads they would use to escape, and in the braids, they also kept gold and hid seeds that in the long run helped them survive after they escaped”.

More Interesting Facts about African Hairstyles

Apart from knowing about African hairstyles that enslaved Africans used to create maps to escape slavery, there are other great facts about African hairstyles. Traditionally, people recognized and identified priests using their hairstyles.

Another interesting fact about African hairstyles is with the Edo girls. They used clay and palm oil to design their hairs into a horn-like shape that curves towards their eyebrows. The Senegal girls, mostly wear braids and whimsical designs.

In Kenya, young Turkana men spent a long-time getting people to style their hair to indicate that they had finished the initiation for manhood.

In ancient societies, African men wore their hair in a unique style when they were about to go to war. This signaled their loved ones to prepare for a possible demise.



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