Were Cornrows Used as Maps: How Hairstyles Saved Lives

Amongst all the hairstyles in trend right now, cornrows always stand out. This hairstyle has been a symbol of African-American culture for centuries. But do you know the history behind them? How and when were they first used? Were cornrows used as maps?

Yes, by the enslaved African people. During the slavery era, enslaved Africans were prohibited from reading or writing. They couldn’t communicate in their native languages. And thus, they used cornrows as maps that would help them escape. 

They’d style their hair in particular ways to deliver messages to their other slave brethren. These messages would include routes to signal someone’s willingness to escape. 

Further on in this article, we’ll discuss how cornrows were used as maps by enslaved people to escape, the secret messages different styles of cornrows held, and so on. 

Are cornrows only in African culture

While cornrows primarily originated in Africa and is a part of the African culture, they can now be seen being worn by people of all backgrounds. These hairstyles were first seen in the Horn and West coasts of Africa.

Why do Africans have cornrows

In cultures across Africa, cornrows symbolize community, age, marital status, wealth, power, and social position. African people of different cultures identify people of their own societies and hierarchy by seeing the patterns of their hair-do.

Vikings cornrow their hair

While the Vikings didn’t exactly wear cornrows, they adorned a similar hairstyle known as dreadlocks. The difference between cornrows and dreadlocks is that the former is temporary and can be undone, while the latter can be semi-permanent or permanent.

Secret Meaning of The African Cornrows and What They Were Used for 

Secret Meaning of The African Cornrows

1. Why did slaves have to shave their heads

Hair is a big part of African culture. A lot of African tribes see their hair as an extension of themselves and their own culture. The enslaver made slaves shave their heads as a method of stripping the slaves of their cultural and personal identity.

During the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, most enslaved people were forced to shave their heads to keep a clean and sanitary appearance. But the enslaved people found a workaround and tightly tied their hair in braids to keep a neat look without detaching themselves from their culture. 

The millions of African people who were stolen from their places and families were forced to work extremely hard. They were used in cotton fields and gardens to feed and care for their master’s livestock. 

But compared to the work that they were made to do, they weren’t appropriately treated – not the least as human beings. 

ideas to escape their masters

So, to escape from their lives as enslaved people and to have the chance to live as proper human beings, the enslaved people came up with ideas to escape their masters by using their cornrows. 

2. What did slaves use on their hair

After they lost access to the natural herbs they used to take care of their hair, slaves turned to bacon grease, butter, and kerosene, which they used as conditioners, shampoo, and moisturizers for their hair.

Although these cornrows were mostly linear, the enslaved people came up with myriad geometric shapes and curves to send messages and create maps. They made intricate maps out of these cornrows and used them to escape their masters

3. What is the true meaning of cornrows

Cornrows are seen as a sign of perseverance as slaves used them to create maps that helped them escape. Apart from that, cornrows also signify social status and wealth in African culture.

One of the ways that played a key role in helping them do so was their hair. Africans, by nature, have thick hair. The slaves used this to their advantage and made cornrows by braiding their hair tightly to communicate within themselves secretly. 

live-saving hairstyles

Since their masters couldn’t decipher the meaning of their hairstyles, it was the safest way of communication. And thus, due to their usefulness, cornrows are also known as live-saving hairstyles.

4. How did Cornrows Help Slaves Escape

 used as a method of communication

5. What cultures wore cornrows

Cornrows are predominantly seen being worn by people of African and Caribbean cultures.  According to Byrdie’s social media editor Star Donaldson, “The first thing to know about cornrows is they were made specifically for curly, coily, and tight-textured hair.” Which is the air texture of most Caribbean and African people.

Historians assume that cornrows were first used as a method of communication during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, especially in Colombia and South America. The idea originated from Benkos Bioho, an African king, who was captured by the Portuguese and sold as a slave.

Benkos Bioho

Bioho, once he escaped from his master, formed a village for other enslaved people like him. He named the village San Basilio de Palenque. San Basilio de Palenque was a safe place for escaped enslaved people, and the residents built a guerrilla army with their fellow men.

This was done to help save other enslaved people. San Basilio de Palenque has over 3500 residents and is the only city in history where all the residents are enslaved people.

Bioho came up with the idea of using the women’s hairstyles of San Basilio de Palenque village to communicate with other slaves in the late 1700s. This was Bioho’s way of standing up to the inhumane practices he and his African brethren were facing at the hands of their masters.

significant and a path to their freedom

Among African slaves, who were captured and made to do backbreaking labor against their wills, cornrows were extremely significant and a path to their freedom. They’d create intricate cornrows with their hair that symbolized how they or other slaves could escape.

Each type of cornrow held a different meaning. Some acted as maps, while other types of cornrows showed the slaves places where they could get help.

Some of the styles that helped slaves escape are listed below:

  • Straight rows: Straight rows indicated how many roads an enslaved person would have to cross and where they could meet other people for help.
  • Departes: African female slaves would sport their hair in a thick tight braid close to their scalps; this hairstyle was known as a “Departes” The “Departes” hairstyle was used as a signal for escaping.
  • Curved Braids: These curves signified which roads the enslaved people could take while escaping to avoid being captured

5. Why did they put rice in cornrows

Slaves put rice in their cornrows as a method of hiding them when they were escaping and as a sustenance for when they were imprisoned. They braided rice and seeds in their braids as a way of hiding them on their journey through the Middle passage or on their way to an imprisonment so as to be able to eat.

How did slaves take care of their hair

To take care of and keep their hair intact, slaves who worked indoors often wore a scarf over it, while slaves working outdoors cornrowed their hair so that it wouldn’t get in the way.

Did Native Americans have cornrows?

Yes, cornrows can be seen in native American art that dates back over 1,000 years.

When did cornrows start in America

Cornrows found popularity in America in the 1960s and 1970s. This happened due to a growing interest in black and African culture and the American people’s attempt at embracing them.

Related Articles:

  • Should I Oil my Cornrows


Which race invented braids

The first information on braids can be found in arts in Africa that date back to 3000 B.C.

Did Vikings have braids before Africans

No, as stated before, while braids existed in 3000 B.C., the Vikings first appeared in 800 A.D.

What are cornrows called now

After being known as “cornrows” for decades, the name of the hairstyle has now been changed to “Didi Braids”. This happened as the name “cornrows’ ‘ is based on the corps the slaves were forced to cultivate during colonialism and is seen as an extension of the inhuman predicaments the slaves went through.

Did the Aztecs have braids

Aztec women wore braids with ribbons on special occasions, while Aztec warriors wore decorated braids.

Were Native Americans forced to cut their hair

Native American see their hair as a part of them, so they were forced to cut their hair in an attempt to strip them of their identity.


Throughout the history of mankind, we’ve witnessed many things that were repulsive. If we were to make a list, slavery would always be at the top. And African slavery is tightly connected to cornrows. 

So, were cornrows used as maps? Yes, they were. The African slaves used cornrows as maps to communicate and escape, showings how intelligent they actually were. 

By Cindy Mahlangu

Hey there! I'm Cindy Mahlangu, a pro hairstylist with a serious passion for natural hair care. My mission? To inspire and educate others on the beauty and benefits of protective hairstyles. Through my creative writing, aim to empower individuals to embrace their unique hair texture and confidently care for their locks. So, whether you're rocking locs, braids, or twists, join me on this hair journey and let's achieve healthy, fabulous tresses together!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *