Maroon Societies in the Caribbean

views updated

Maroon Societies in the Caribbean

The term marronage derived from the Spanish word cimarron, originally applied to escaped cattle living in the wildcame to refer exclusively to the phenomenon of persons running away to escape from the bonds of enslavement, which was almost universal wherever plantation slavery existed in the Americas. From the early days of slavery, French commentators distinguished between petit marronage, a short-term and temporary running away of small numbers of slaves, and the far more serious grand marronage, involving large, self-sustaining, and often long-lasting African-American communities that were adept in guerrilla tactics of self-defense and even threatened the safety of the colonial plantation regimes.

Maroon Societies

It was almost axiomatic that grand marronage occurred whenever and wherever there was a sufficient number of willing and capable escapees and suitable refuges, and it succeeded for long periods when such persons and locations fulfilled certain basic criteria. Runaway communities established themselves in areas of forest, swamp, or mountains, which provided ample concealment and were easily defended in guerrilla warfare. These locales also provided adequate sustenance, in the way of wild fauna and flora, the running of semi-wild stock, and forms of shifting (though far from casual) cultivation. Generically referred to as Maroon settlements in the anglophone literature, such communities were variously known in different parts of Latin America as palenques, quilombos, cumbes, mocambos, mambises or ladeiras. All, however, exhibited essential similarities.

Leadership, community organization, and demographic factors were as vital as ingenuity, determination, and hardihood in keeping these settlements going. In the earliest years, and in areas where Amerindians were leading the struggle against European colonial incursions, African runaways often pooled resources and skills with the pre-Columbian natives, gradually miscegenating, and even becoming dominant, among such obdurate and effective resisters as the "Black Caribs" (Garifuna) of Dominica, St. Vincent, and Honduras; the Afro-Indians of the "Miskito Shore" of Central America; and the Seminoles of early-nineteenth-century Florida. Just as often, though, Amerindians did not mix with African-American Maroons, and at times they even allied themselves with the colonial regimes as runaway slave catchers. Accordingly, the majority of successful Maroon communities (most famously, the long-lived quilombo of Palmares in Portuguese Brazil and the Djuka and Saramaka of Dutch Suriname) as far as possible retained the lineaments of a transplanted African culture, including their language, customs, beliefs, material crafts, and foodways, as well as fighting modes and, where and when it was preferable, opportunistic diplomacy.

Given the calculated policy of the colonial regimes to mix African slaves as far as possible, the Africanness of Maroon communities was more generic than specific to any one area of origin. Large concerted groups of runaways were rarely of the same African ethnicity, and they were in the process of forging an Afro-Creole identity that, especially as time went on, owed as much to the plantations from which they had escaped and the American mainland or Caribbean environment in which they now lived. For example, they usually employed a creolized version of the language of the dominant colonial power as a lingua franca, and they showed great flexibility in adapting to American cultivation methods and cultigens. However, the leadership of runaways, warriors, and nascent Maroon polities did tend to devolve on to individuals who came from, or borrowed the characteristics, of the most stalwart and obdurate of African peoples. Most notable of these were the Akan speakers of the Ashanti region of modern Ghanausually called Coromanteeswho had a long and distinguished reputation as warriors, were adept at subsistence in the forest, and had legendary skills in the arts of guerrilla warfare, including concealment, camouflage, rapid movement, long-distance communication (by drum, conch shell, and the cowhorn abeng ), and the expert use of firearms.

No such community, however, could sustain itself in a posture of perpetual war, and the relationship between all Maroon groups and the dominant plantation regimes

was necessarily closer and more symbiotic than some commentators have been willing to acknowledge. Few, if any, Maroon communities were totally sundered from the colonial plantation economy and society. Though slave families often ran away together, the majority of slave runaways were mature males. To sustain Maroon communities over a long period, it was, of course, vital to achieve a viable demographic balance, and slave plantations were a necessary source of nubile females and children, as well as mature male warrior recruits.

Plantations and colonial towns were also the necessary sources of those commodities which the Maroons could not, easily or at all, produce or manufacture for themselves, such as stock animals and other foodstuffs, salt, cloth, needles, tools, metals and (most vital and dangerous of all) firearms and gunpowder. These were often captured, looted, or rustled, but to a remarkable degree they were also obtained through trade. In any case, quite apart from the geographical limits imposed on Maroon communities situated on islands, it was inevitable that the majority of Maroon and colonial communities were located within easy reach of each other, with plantation provision grounds on the margins of estates and the marketplaces of colonial seaside towns becoming complex meeting grounds and crossing pointsconstituting what has been termed a "semi-permeable membrane" in the structure of colonial slave societies. In the Caribbean, a remarkable number of disaffected slaves "ran away" by sea, and Maroon communities often demonstrated great ingenuity and skill in moving and communicating between islands and the mainland by canoemaking a hitherto under-studied category of "maritime Maroons."

Even more complicating were the formal or informal diplomatic arrangements that Maroons and colonists forged, either from necessity or through mutual convenience. Colonial regimes attempted to extirpate Maroons wherever they could, and Maroon communities were often prepared to fight to the death rather than surrender. But in cases so numerous as almost to constitute a rule, the sides were persuaded by stalemated or unsustainable fighting to negotiate treaties of accommodation. Typically, Maroon communities that were already recognized polities under acknowledged leaders were granted lands, limited rights of self-government, minimal oversight, and permission to tradein return for promises of peace and help in the return of further runaways, and in the event of foreign attacks.

Such treaties, however superficially generous their wording, were predictably slanted in favor of the imperial regimes that wrote them, and they were notoriously reversible once the balance of power shifted once again. The Maroon communitieslike those of Jamaica, which retained their political and cultural (if not economic) autonomy through the prolonged turmoil of the Age of Revolution, slave emancipation, and plantation decline into the era of political independenceare therefore magnificent manifestations of the will and ability of oppressed peoples to resist the dominant tides of history, to make a life of their own, and to endure.

The Jamaican Maroons

Of the dozens of Maroon communities, containing thousands of individuals and lasting hundreds of years (notably in Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, the Guianas, and the islands of the Greater Antilles), and the almost innumerable lesser examples of grand marronage occurring on the margins of plantation economies throughout colonial America, those of Jamaica are probably the best known and the most quintessential. They exhibit and illustrate virtually all the general features and phases of Maroon history and society already mentioned, and they extend over the five hundred years from the coming of the first European colonists up to modern times, long after colonial independence.

Jamaica is not a huge island (some 140 miles east to west and 45 miles at most from north to south) but its topography and climate made it almost ideal as a Maroon habitat. Though its well-watered plains and interior valleys are extremely fertile and suitable for plantations, especially those growing sugar, its predominantly limestone geology provided rocky and forested refuges on the very margins of the cultivable land. Even more important than this general feature, Jamaica also possessed two major areas of awesome impenetrability; the vertiginous Blue Mountains (peaking at 7,400 feet) in the windward Northeast, and the 500 square miles of confusingly jumbled "Cockpit Country," stretching over much of the central and northwestern sections of the island. Though the one was as isolated and easily defensible as the other, it was not just the differences in these two habitats, but the difficulties of access to and communication between them, that made for subtle variations between the Jamaican Windward and Leeward Maroons, as well as the small but significant differences in their histories.

The history of Jamaican Maroons dates back to the takeover and minimal exploitation of the island by the Spaniards in the early sixteenth century, but it was substantially shaped by the English conquest of Jamaica in 1655 and the subsequent development of slave plantations. There were troublesome palenques in the Jamaican backwoods throughout the Spanish period, and the last settlements of the Amerindian aboriginals probably survived in the Blue Mountains at least until 1600. In 1655 the Spanish authorities positively encouraged their black slaves and mulatto freedmen to take to the woods to share the resistance to the English invasion. But the most notable palenquero, Juan de Bolas (alias Juan Lubolo), whose "polink" was on the southern slope of Lluidas Vale in the center of the island, set a local precedent by siding with the invaders in return for a title for himself and virtual autonomy for his followers. De Bolas assisted in the final defeat and expulsion of the Spaniards in 1660, but was himself ambushed and killed by the unyielding "Varmahaly Negroes" led by his rival Juan de Serras in 1663.

Because of de Bolas's evident affinity for Jamaica and his accommodationist tactics the novelist Victor Stafford Reid characterized him as the first authentic Jamaican in 1976. However, de Bolas has, perhaps understandably, never been accorded the official modern title of Jamaican Hero. More fortunate have been the less equivocal leaders of the subsequent resistance to the spread of the colonial slave plantation economythe Coromantees Nanny, Cuffee (Kofi) and Quao (Kwahu) of the Windward Maroons, and Cudjoe (Kojo) and his brothers Accompong and Johnny of the Leeward MaroonsOf these, the almost legendary Nanny is the sole woman elected to the official pantheon of Jamaican National Heroes.

The spread of the Jamaican plantation economy was slowed both by the topography and the difficulties of preventing the necessary slave laborers from escaping and defending themselves in the interior fastnesses. Over more than a half century, the Jamaican Maroons were steadily reinforced by runaways, including some entire plantation slave populations rebelling and fleeing together, such as those of Lobby's Estate (1673), Guanaboa Vale (1685), Sutton's (1690) and Down's Estate (1725). By the 1720s the Maroons came to be numbered in their thousands rather than hundreds. In the East, a fairly loose confederacy of Maroon bands entrenched themselves on the almost unassailable northern slopes of the Blue Mountains, centered on the fortified "town" named for Nanny (alias Grandy Nanni), to whom tradition accords the combined roles of a Coromantee warrior queen and priestess. Even more formidable was the force of Ashanti-style warriors forged by the autocratic Cudjoe (son of the leader of the Sutton's revolt of 1690), whose two townships on the western edge of the Cockpit Country (named for Cudjoe and his brother Accompong) were backed by the secret recesses of Petty River Bottom deep in the Cockpits themselves.

During the lull in international fighting sometimes called the era of Walpole's Peace, the British plantocratic regime and imperial authorities determined in the 1730s to implement the forward policy against the Jamaican Maroons that constituted the First Maroon War. Nanny Town was captured with great difficulty and destroyed in 1734, but its inhabitants simply dispersed, while the resistance led by Quao and Cudjoe proved even more stubborn and successful. So effective were Maroon tactics and marksmanship (along with the other hazards of fighting in the bush) that it was said that the casualties among the white regular soldiers and militiamen outnumbered those of the Maroons by ten to one, with an almost unimaginable ratio of five soldiers killed for every one wounded.

By 1739, both sides had had enough of the fighting. Urged on by the imperial authorities, the colonial government sued for peace, though craftily skewing the written terms to their longer-term advantage. On March 1, 1739, in one of the most momentous if controversial episodes in Jamaican history, after ten days of polite but cautious negotiations, "Captain" Cudjoe signed a fifteen-clause treaty with the representatives of the colonial regime. A general amnesty was declared, even for those who had fled to Cudjoe in the previous two years, and, with some exaggeration, Cudjoe's community was promised a state of "perfect liberty and freedom." Cudjoe's followers were granted the freehold of 1,500 acres surrounding their main settlement (renamed Trelawny Town after the colonial governor), with the right to run stock and grow all but plantation crops and trade them in the colonial markets. To facilitate communications, the Maroons agreed to cut and maintain roadways into their territory. Cudjoe and his successors were accorded the status of magistrate (to judge all but capital cases), but they were to be monitored by two white superintendants, one resident in Trelawny Town, the other in Accompong Town. Most important of all, Cudjoe's people pledged not to harbor, and to return, all future runaways, to serve on the colonial side in the event of any slave insurrection or foreign invasion, and to parade once a year before the colonial governor.

Though Cudjoe's Treaty established a pattern based on the colonial regime's principle of dividing the opposition, it specifically applied only to Cudjoe's people, rather than to the Jamaican Maroons as a whole. Four months later, a similar (though slightly tougher) treaty was signed with Quao. No formal treaty was made with Nanny and her faithful adherents. Instead, in 1740 Nanny and her immediate followers were given a freehold grant of 500 acres at New Nanny Town (later renamed Moore Town after another governor), worded exactly as if Nanny had been a normal colonial immigrant with her householdwith the sole exception of a rider that Nanny, her people, and heirs "shall upon any insurrection mutiny rebellion or invasion which may happen in our island during her residence on the same be ready to serve us in arms upon Command of our Governor or Commander in Chief " (Jamaica Archives, Patents 1741, quoted in Craton, p. 94). Not surprisingly, this arrangement has been open to countervailing interpretations; on the one side it has been seen as a recognition of success and a charter of independence, and on the other as a signal of willing integration into the colonial system. The truth surely lies somewhere in the middle: a mutual agreement to seek peaceful coexistence and even cooperation in an area of Jamaica more suited to a peasant lifestyle than to slave plantations.

Despite plantocratic unease at times of internal and external threat, the Jamaican Maroons remained remarkably faithful to the terms of their treaties. Cudjoe proved a particularly trustworthy (and picturesque) character in western Jamaica, promoted to the title of colonel for his contribution to the suppression of the Coromantee uprising of 1742 and providing invaluable help in defeating the widespread rebellion led by Tacky in 1760. Edward Long gave a famous account of the annual display of acrobatic martial tactics and marksmanship by the Maroons before Governor Lyttelton in Spanish Town in 1764, though it may have seemed as much a warning as a reassurance to some spectators. As late as the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865, the descendants of Nanny called the Hayfield Maroons disappointed the rebels and sided with the authorities, actually tracking down the rebel leader Paul Bogle and handing him over to the regime for execution.

However, the Jamaican authorities demonstrated much less fidelity to the letter and spirit of the Maroon treaties than did the Maroons, most notoriously provoking the limited conflict in western Jamaica in 1795-1796 referred to as the Second Maroon War. The general cause was the competition between the western planters and the expanding population of Maroons unrealistically constrained by the original grant of 1,500 acres of indifferent land. But the situation was exacerbated by the plantocratic regime's paranoid response to the threat of revolutionary infection from the events in the Americas, Haiti, and France, and by its determination to take advantage of the division and perceived weakness of the Leeward Maroons following the death of Cudjoe and his brothers.

A first crisis occurred in 1776, when almost all the slaves in Hanover parish plotted to rebel, seizing the opportunity of the military distractions in North America, and it was rumored (by rebels and regime alike) that they were to be aided by the Trelawny Town Maroons. This panic passed and the plot was savagely repressed. However, mutual distrust and tension gradually increased over the following two decades. This reached a critical level early in 1795, when several Maroons were imprisoned and flogged (ignominiously by slaves) on the orders of the civil authorities in Montego Bay and a newly appointed superintendentreplacing one more popular and diplomaticwas driven by force from Trelawny Town. This occurred at the same time that the government was receiving word that French agents were infiltrating Jamaica to stir up a Maroon revolution in conjunction with the Haitian slaves. The choleric and militaristic Governor Lord Balcarres decided on a draconian policy, declaring martial law, recalling troops from Haiti, and clapping in irons six Leeward Maroon leaders on their way to Spanish Town to lodge complaints.

The Trelawny Maroons, chiefly under the resolute leadership of Leonard Parkinson, demonstrated that they had not lost all of their traditional guerrilla skills. They might well have prevailed had they been able to raise up the rest of the Maroons (even those of Accompong Town sided with the government), and had the regime not brought in expert slave-hunters and a hundred fierce hunting dogs from Cuba. Even then, the military commander in the field, Major General George Walpole, was so impressed by Maroon successes that he was prepared to offer terms similar to those negotiated with Cudjoe in 1739. Balcarres and the Jamaican legislators, however, decided otherwise. Parkinson and more than 500 Trelawny Maroons, over Walpole's disgusted objections, were tricked into deportation, first to Nova Scotia and then, four years later, to Sierra Leonewhere, along with shiploads of "black loyalists" from the American War of Independence, they formed part of Sierra Leone's ultimately ill-starred "Creole" elite. Thus ended the armed resistance of the Jamaican Maroons to British imperialism, but not the proud, if controversial, history of the distinctive Jamaican Maroon communities.

Jamaican Maroons Today

Those regarding themselves as true Maroons living in Jamaica at the beginning of the twenty-first century are said to total 5,000, (out of a resident Jamaican population of some 2.5 million), with perhaps twice as many relatives and descendants widely dispersed abroad, mainly in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Those Maroons still living in Jamaica remain concentrated in four scattered small villages: the Windward descendants of Nanny and Quao live mainly in three of these villages, in Moore Town and Charles Town in Portland parish and Scott's Hall in St. Mary's; while the genetic and spiritual descendants of Cudjoe and his brothers live at Accompong, in the parish of St. Elizabeth (Trelawny Town having been destroyed during the Second Maroon War). Each settlement claims a large degree of autonomy from the rest of Jamaica, including their own distinctive flag, the custom of electing their own "Colonel" and council for five year terms, the right to legislate and police themselves, and freedom from most forms of Jamaican taxation.

But the status of the Maroon villages as political and cultural enclaves within Jamaica faces ever increasing obstacles, the chief of which are the difficulties of sustaining economic self-sufficiency and an acceptable level of material well-being in a country that, though poor and overcrowded, has aspirations towards modernization. Maroons, whose settlements are at least as materially deprived as the majority of Jamaican interior villages, are attracted by the marginally better facilities and opportunities available in Jamaican towns and cities, and by the even greater promise of life in developed economies abroad.

The Jamaican Maroons have always expressed a fierce pride in having escaped from the bonds of slavery, in never having been defeated in warfare against the forces of imperialism, and in retaining strong (if creolized) vestiges of their original Afro-Caribbean culture. However, the long-term survival of Jamaican Maroon identity is seemingly more assured by at least three more or less extraneous factors. The first is the perhaps surprising, though convenient, tendency of Jamaicans as a whole (overwhelmingly the descendants of slaves) to forget that Maroon survival and autonomy were largely bought at the price of cooperation with and accommodation to the colonial regime, and to co-opt the Maroons' history as a symbol of a more general drive towards political and spiritual independence by Jamaica and Jamaicans at large. Added to this are the ever widening interest of outsiders in the Maroons and their traditional lifeways as cultural phenomena, as well as the exploitation of this heritage by the Jamaican government through tourism.

All in all, there has been a steadily escalating interest in the Jamaican Maroons among foreign visitors, as well as other Jamaicans, since the 1960s. Put most broadly, this has resulted from the confluence of a novel academic concern for the history and anthropology of resistance, and from a hunger on the part of people emerging from colonialism to recover (even to reinvent) the lives, lifestyles, and achievements of the pioneers in the struggle to avoid cultural submergence, to win freedom, and to help shape an authentic national identity. One early manifestation of this trend was the establishment of the permanent Sam Streete Maroon Museum at Moore Town in the 1960s; another is the collections of audio and visual material begun by Kenneth M. Bilby in the late 1970s. Even more important have been the comparative studies, symposia and displays sponsored by the Smithsonian Museum, the Library of Congress, and UNESCO, with the eager cooperation of the Institute of Jamaica and the Jamaican Ministries of Education and Tourism. An outstanding example of this development was the publication in July 2004 by the Smithsonian of a fascinating audiovisual presentation, hosted by the Institute of Jamaica under the title "The Musical Heritage of the Moore Town Maroons: An International Masterpiece."

Most dynamic of all, however, has been the hugely expanding popularity of the annual Cudjoe Day (or Treaty Day) celebrations held at Accompong on the weekend nearest to January 6, and the parallel but distinct Quao Day (or Kwahu Day) celebrations hosted by the Windward Maroons each year around June 23. In January 2003, no less than 25,000 persons (the great majority of them Jamaicans) were said to have ventured to remote Accompong Village (population 500) for the annual weekend celebrations. In June of the same year, the Quao Day festivities at Charles Town (more accessible than either Moore Town or Accompong to the Jamaican capital) were distinguished by the participation of thirty delegates from the Kwahu-Ashanti region of Ghana, along with a number of visitors from the Ghanaian community in the United States.

As described by its promoters in their publicity for the event, the 2003 Charles Town occasion was planned to include an interesting cultural melange of generically Afro-Jamaican as well as purely Maroon elements: "The Quao Day celebrations this year will begin at sundown on Friday, June 20 and culminate at midnight on June 23, Quao Day. The festivities will involve drumming, dancing, arts and crafts, culinary exhibitions (featuring Jamaican culinary queen Ma Mable from the Charles Town Maroons), story telling, symposiums on Maroon medicine and use of herbs, sports, nature tours, and the display of rituals and artifacts from the Maroon communities of Charles Town, Moore Town and Scotts Hall and the smaller Maroon communities in Portland, St. Mary, St. Catherine and St. Thomas. The Saturday night will feature a live concert with invited performers Michael Rose, former lead singer of Black Uhuru, Abijah, Sister Carol, Carl Dawkins, the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari and L'cadco Dance Company" (none of the latter specifically Maroons).

At the equally successful Charles Town festivities in June 2004which included presentations by Carey and Beverly Robinson, two of the leading popular historians of the Maroons; Barry Chevannes, head of the Department of Social Studies at the University of the West Indies; the Rastafarian poet Mutubaru; and Ted Emmanuel, "a well known herbalist"the Jamaican prime minister P.J. Patterson gave a careful and politic summary of the way that the Maroon experience had been incorporated into (not to say appropriated by) the history and culture of Jamaica as a whole. "The history of the Maroons in Jamaica is a significant feature of our heritage and the spirit of these ancestors is evident in many aspects of our daily lives," he declared. "It is fitting therefore that we recognize their contribution to the early development of Jamaica and shows evidence for the rich legacy that they bequeathed to us in dance, music, cuisine, craft and many other areas of natural life."

See also Emancipation in Latin America and the Caribbean; Maroon Arts; Nanny of the Maroons; Palenque San Basilio; Palmares; Runaway Slaves in Latin America and the Caribbean; San Lorenzo de los Negros


Agorsah, E. Kofi, ed. Maroon Heritage : Archaeological, Ethnographic, and Historical Perspectives. Kingston, Jamaica: Canoe Press, 1994.

Aptheker, Herbert. "Maroons within the Present Limits of the United States." Journal of Negro History, 24 (1939): 167184.

Brathwaite, Edward K. Wars of Respect: Nanny, Sam Sharpe, and the Struggle for People's Liberation. Kingston, Jamaica: Agency for Public Information, 1977.

Campbell, Mavis C. The Maroons of Jamaica, 16551796: A History of Resistance, Collaboration, and Betrayal. Granby, Mass.: Bergin & Garvey, 1988.

Craton, Michael. Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982.

Hall, Neville A.T. "Maritime Maroons: Grand Marronage from the Danish West Indies." William and Mary Quarterly 42 (1985) 476498.

Kopytoff, Barbara K. "Jamaican Maroon Political Organization: The Effects of the Treaties." Social and Economic Studies 25, no. 2 (1976): 87105.

Price, Richard. Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas, 3d ed. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Robinson, Carey. The Iron Thorn: The Defeat of the British by the Jamaican Maroons. Kingston, Jamaica: Kingston Publishers Ltd., 1993.

Schwartz, Stuart B. "Resistance and Accommodation in Eighteenth-Century Brazil." Hispanic American Historical Review 57 (1977): 6981.

Walker, James W. St. G. The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone. 17831870. New York: Africana Publishers, 1976. Reprint, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.

michael craton (2005)