An African Kingdom inside Bolivia sounds like a take-off of the Eddie Murphy film “Coming to America”, which has just been released as a sequel. Julio Bonifaz Pinedo, King of the Kingdom of Afro-Bolivians, would probably be insulted by the comparison, if he wasn’t such a humble, and unassuming, monarch. He, unlike the character in the film, is real, as is his Kingdom.
The Kingdom of Afro-Bolivians comprises approximately 2,000 subjects, who are mostly farmers. They live in the sub-tropical Yungas valleys, 100 kilometers north of La Paz, Bolivia’s capital.
All of that begs the question. What on earth is an Afro-Bolivian Kingdom, and what’s it doing in the middle of a land-locked South American country? Further, why is this first time almost anyone has heard of such an anomaly?
In the United States we tend to forget, if we ever knew, that the Spanish transported far more West Africans to South America as slaves than those that were brought to the U.S. by England and France.
The citizens of the Kingdom of Afro-Bolivians are descendants of the slaves brought to work in the mines of Potosi in the 16th to 19th centuries. Those mines claimed the lives of over 8 million South American and African slaves over a period of 300 years: The unimaginably harsh working conditions, and the extreme cold were responsible for this horrendous death toll.
The death rate among the West African slaves was so high that the Spanish authorities finally moved them to the lower and warmer Yungas valleys, where they might last a little longer. They worked on Spanish-owned plantation estates.
According to King Pinedo, one of his ancestors, Uchicho, was bathing in the river, one day in 1820, when several of his colleagues noticed he had scars on his torso that were markings of the Royal Family of the ancient Kingdom of Kongo, in Uganda. That’s when the Kingdom of Afro-Bolivians began. Today, the estimated total population of people of Afro-Bolivian descent, numbers close to 40,000. King Pinedo was crowned in 1992.
In 2007, the Government of Evo Morales expanded Bolivia’s recognition of its ethnic minorities. In 2009 he changed the name of the country to “The Plurinational State of Bolivia”. A new constitution was approved, acknowledging 36 nationalities.
King Pinedo was officially crowned in La Paz as part of that initiative.
King Pinedo’s son, Prince Rolando, is studying at Universidad de Los Andes, in La Paz, and views his future role as king as central to his ambitions. He is anxious to follow in his father’s footsteps as an advocate for the people of his Kingdom.
The future of an African kingdom inside Bolivia looks to be secure and vibrant. After two hundred years of anonymity, the Kingdom of Afro-Bolivians is finally on the map.