Runaway Slaves in Latin America and the Caribbean

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Runaway Slaves in Latin America and the Caribbean

Throughout the colonial Americas, runaway slaves were called "Maroons." The English word Maroon comes from Spanish cimarrón, itself based on a Taíno Indian root. Cimarrón originally referred to domestic cattle that had taken to the hills in Hispaniola, and soon after to American Indian slaves who had escaped from the Spaniards. By the end of the 1530s the word was being used primarily to refer to Afro-American runaways and already had strong connotations of "fierceness," of being "wild" and "unbroken," of being indomitable.

In 1502 the man who would become the first Afro-American Maroon arrived on the first ship carrying enslaved Africans to the New World. In the 1970s one of the last surviving runaway slaves in the hemisphere was still alive in Cuba. For more than four centuries, the communities formed by Maroons dotted the fringes of plantation America from Brazil to Florida, from Peru to Texas. Usually called palenques in the Spanish colonies and mocambos or quilombos in Brazil, they ranged from tiny bands that survived less than a year to powerful states encompassing thousands of members and lasting for generations or even centuries. Today their descendants still form semi-independent enclaves in several parts of the hemispherefor example, in Jamaica, Brazil, Colombia, Belize, Suriname, and French Guianaremaining fiercely proud of their Maroon origins and, in some cases at least, faithful to unique cultural traditions that were forged during the earliest days of Afro-American history.

During the past several decades anthropological field-work has underlined the strength of historical consciousness among the descendants of these rebel slaves and the dynamism and originality of their cultural institutions. Meanwhile, historical scholarship on Maroons has flourished, as new research has done much to dispel the myth of the docile slave. Marronage represented a major form of slave resistance, whether accomplished by lone individuals, by small groups, or in great collective rebellions. Throughout the Americas Maroon communities stood out as a heroic challenge to white authority, as living proof of the existence of a slave consciousness that refused to be limited by the whites' conception or manipulation of it. It is no accident that in much of the Caribbean and Latin America today, the historical Maroonoften mythologized into a larger-than-life figurehas become a touchstone of identity for the region's writers, artists, and intellectuals,

the ultimate symbol of resistance and the fight for freedom.

More generally, Maroons and their communities can be seen to hold a special significance for the study of Afro-American societies. For while they were, from one perspective, the antithesis of all that slavery stood for; they were also a widespread and embarrassingly visible part of this system. Just as the very nature of plantation slavery implied violence and resistance, the wilderness setting of early New World plantations made marronage and the existence of organized Maroon communities a ubiquitous reality. And in Haiti Maroons played a signal role as catalysts in the Haitian Revolution that created the first nation in the Americas where all citizens were free (for the scholarly debates on this issue, see Manigat [1977]).

The meaning of marronage differed for enslaved people in different social positions, varying with their perception of themselves and their situation, which was influenced by such diverse factors as their country of birth, the period of time they had been in the New World, their task assignment as slaves, their family responsibilities, and the particular treatment they were receiving from overseers or masters, as well as more general considerations such as the proportion of blacks to whites in the region, the proportion of freedmen in the population, and the opportunities for manumission. Many African runaways, particularly men, escaped during their first hours or days in the Americas. Enslaved Africans who had already spent some time in the New World seem to have been less prone to flight. But enslaved Africans or Creole slaves who were particularly acculturated, who had learned the ways of the plantation best, seem to have been highly represented among runaways, often escaping to urban areas where they could pass as free because of their independent skills and ability to speak the colonial language.

Planters generally tolerated petit marronage truancy with temporary goals such as visiting a friend or lover on a neighboring plantation. But in most slaveholding colonies, the most brutal punishmentsamputation of a leg, castration, suspension from a meathook through the ribs, slow roasting to deathwere reserved for long-term, recidivist Maroons, and in many cases these were quickly written into law. Marronage on the grand scale (grand marronage ), with individual fugitives banding together to create communities, struck directly at the foundations of the plantation system, presenting military and economic threats that often taxed the colonists to their very limits. Maroon communities, whether hidden near the fringes of the plantations or deep in the forest or swamps, periodically raided plantations for firearms, tools, and women, often permitting families that had formed during slavery to be reunited in freedom.

To be viable, Maroon communities had to be inaccessible, and villages were typically located in remote, inhospitable areas. In Jamaica some of the most famous Maroon groups lived in the intricately accidented "cockpit country," where deep canyons and limestone sinkholes abound but water and good soil are scarce; in Suriname and Brazil, seemingly impenetrable jungles provided Maroons with a safe haven. Throughout the hemisphere Maroons developed extraordinary skills in guerrilla warfare. To the bewilderment of their colonial enemies, whose rigid and conventional tactics were learned on the open battlefields

of Europe, these highly adaptable and mobile warriors took maximum advantage of local environments, striking and withdrawing with great rapidity, making extensive use of ambushes to catch their adversaries in crossfire, fighting only when and where they chose, depending on reliable intelligence networks among non-Maroons (both slaves and white settlers), and often communicating by drums and horns.

In many cases the beleaguered colonists were eventually forced to sue their former slaves for peace. In Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela, for example, whites reluctantly offered treaties granting Maroon communities their freedom, recognizing their territorial integrity, and making some provision for meeting their economic needs, in return for an end to hostilities toward the plantations and an agreement to return future runaways. Of course, many Maroon societies were crushed by massive force of arms, and even when treaties were proposed they were sometimes refused or quickly violated. Nevertheless, new Maroon communities seemed to appear almost as quickly as the old ones were exterminated, and they remained, from a colonial perspective, the "chronic plague" and "gangrene" of many plantation societies right up to final emancipation.

African Origins, New World Creativity

The initial Maroons in any New World colony hailed from a wide range of societies in West and Central Africaat the outset, they shared neither language nor other major aspects of culture. Their collective task, once off in the forests or mountains or swamplands, was nothing less than to create new communities and institutions, largely via a process of inter-African cultural syncretism or blending. Those scholars, mainly anthropologists, who have examined contemporary Maroon life most closely seem to agree that such societies are often uncannily "African" in feeling but at the same time largely devoid of directly transplanted systems. However "African" in character, no Maroon social, political, religious, or aesthetic system can be reliably traced to a specific African ethnic proveniencethey reveal rather their syncretistic composition, forged in the early meeting of peoples of diverse African, European, and Amerindian origins in the dynamic setting of the New World.

The political system of the great seventeenth-century Brazilian Maroon kingdom of Palmares, for example, which historian R. K. Kent (1965) has characterized as an "African" state, did not (he tells us) derive from a particular Central African model but from several. In the development of the kinship system of the Ndyuka Maroons of Suriname, argues anthropologist André Köbben (1996), their West African heritage undoubtedly played a part and the influence of the matrilineal Akan tribes is unmistakable, but so is that of patrilineal tribes, and there are significant differences between the Akan and Ndyuka matrilineal systems. Historical and anthropological research has revealed that the magnificent woodcarving of the Suriname Maroons, long considered "an African art in the Americas" on the basis of formal resemblances, is in fact a fundamentally new, Afro-American art for which it would be pointless, argues Jean Hurault (1970), to seek the origin through direct transmission of any particular African style. And detailed investigationsboth in museums and in the fieldof a range of cultural phenomena among the Sara-maka Maroons of Suriname have confirmed the dynamic, creative processes that continue to animate these societies.

Maroon cultures do possess direct and sometimes spectacular continuities from particular African peoples, from military techniques for defense to recipes for warding off sorcery. These are, however, of the same type as those that can be found, if with lesser frequency, in Afro-American communities throughout the hemisphere. In stressing these isolated African "retentions," there is a danger of neglecting cultural continuities of a more significant kind. Roger Bastide (1972, pp. 128151) divided Afro-American religions into those he considered "preserved" or "canned," like Brazilian Candomblé, and those that he considered "alive," like Haitian vodou. The former, he argued, manifest a kind of "defense mechanism" or "cultural fossilization," a fear that any small change may bring on the end, while the latter are more secure of their future and freer to adapt to the changing needs of their adherents. And indeed, tenacious fidelity to "African" forms seems, in many cases, to indicate a culture finally having lost meaningful touch with the vital African past. Certainly, one of the most striking features of West and Central African cultural systems is their internal dynamism, their ability to grow and change. The cultural uniqueness of the more developed Maroon societies (e.g., those in Suriname) rests firmly on their fidelity to "African" cultural principles at these deeper levelswhether aesthetic, political, religious, or domesticrather than on the frequency of their isolated "retentions." With a rare freedom to extrapolate ideas from a variety of African societies and adapt them to changing circumstances, Maroon groups included (and continue to include today) what are in many respects at once the most meaningfully African and the most truly "alive" and culturally dynamic of all Afro-American cultures.

Famous Runaway Communities

Some of the best known Maroon societies are Palmares in Brazil, Palenque de San Basilio in Colombia, the Maroons of Esmeraldas in Ecuador, San Lorenzo de los Negros in Mexico, the Maroons of Jamaica, and the Saramaka, Ndyuka, and other Maroons of Suriname.

Because Palmares, in northeastern Brazil, was finally crushed by a massive colonial army in 1695 after a century of success and growth, actual knowledge of its internal affairs remains limited, based as it is on soldiers' reports, the testimony of a captive under torture, official documents, modern archaeological work, and the like. But as a modern symbol of black (and anticolonial) heroism, Palmares continues to evoke strong emotions throughout Brazil, as do the names of its great leaders, first Ganga Zumba and, later, Zumbi. (For a compilation of historical scholarship, including work in archaeology and anthropology, see Reis and Santos Gomes [1996].)

Palenque de San Basilio, near the Atlantic coast of Colombia, boasts a history stretching back to the seventeenth century. In recent years historians, anthropologists, and linguistsworking in collaboration with palenqueroshave uncovered a great deal about continuities and changes in the life of these early Colombian freedom fighters. (For an illustrated introduction to this community, see de Friedemann and Cross [1979].)

In Esmeraldas, on the Pacific coast of Ecuador, Maroon history began in the early sixteenth century, when Spanish ships carrying slaves from Panama to Guayaquil and Lima were wrecked amid strong currents and shifting sandbars. A number of slave survivors sought freedom in the unconquered interior, where they allied with indigenous peoples. In the 1580s, having beaten back military expeditions sent to capture them, several Maroon bands tried to make peace in Quito. All were guaranteed continued autonomy in exchange for safe passage of further shipwreck victims and promises not to ally with English and later Dutch pirates. A 1599 portrait of one such Maroon leader, Don Francisco de Arobe, and his two sons was commissioned in Quito and sent to Philip III of Spain to commemorate these negotiations. (For more on this story, see Lane [2002].)

San Lorenzo de los Negros, in Veracruz, is probably the best known of the seventeenth-century Maroon towns in Mexico. Under their leader Yanga, the Maroons attempted to make peace as early as 1608, but it was not until 1630, after years of intermittent warfare, that the Viceroy and the crown finally agreed to establish the town of free Maroons. (For a summary of Maroon communities in Mexico, see Pereira [1994].)

The Jamaica Maroons, who continue to live in two main groups centered in Accompong (in the hills above Montego Bay) and in Moore Town (deep in the Blue Mountains), maintain strong traditions about their days as freedom fighters, when the former group was led by Cudjoe and the latter by the redoubtable woman warrior Nanny. Two centuries of scholarship, some written by Maroons themselves, offers diverse windows on the ways these men and women managed to survive and build a vibrant culture within the confines of a relatively small island. (A useful entree to Jamaica Maroon literature is provided in Agorsah [1994].)

The Suriname Maroons now constitute the most fully documented case of how former slaves built new societies and cultures, under conditions of extreme deprivation, in the Americasand how they developed and maintained semi-independent societies that persist into the present. From their late seventeenth-century origins and the details of their wars and treaty making to their current struggles with multinational mining and timber companies, much is now known about these peoples' achievements, in large part because of the extensive recent collaboration by Sara-maka and Ndyuka Maroons with anthropologists. Today, Suriname Maroonswho number some 120,000 peoplelive in the interior of the country in and around the capital Paramaribo, and in neighboring French Guiana. (The relevant bibliography on Suriname Maroons numbers in the thousands of references; useful points of entry are Price and Price [1999] and Thoden van Velzen and van Wetering [2004].) Because of their numerical importance as well as the unusually rich scholarship devoted to them, Suriname Maroons merit expanded discussion here.

Suriname (formerly known also as Dutch Guiana) is in northeastern South America and gained its independence in 1975. Suriname's Maroons (formerly known also as "Bush Negroes") have long been the hemisphere's largest Maroon population, representing one extreme in the range of cultural adaptations that Afro-Americans have made in the New World. Between the mid-seventeenth and late eighteenth centuries, the ancestors of the present-day Maroons escaped, in many cases soon after their arrival from Africa, from the coastal plantations on which they were enslaved and fled into the forested interior, where they regrouped into small bands. Their hardships in forging an existence in a new and inhospitable environment were compounded by the persistent and massive efforts of the colonial government to eliminate this threat to the plantation colony.

The Dutch colonists reserved special punishments for recaptured slaveshamstringing, amputation of limbs, and a variety of deaths by torture. The organized pursuit of Maroons and expeditions to destroy their settlements date at least from the 1670s, but these rarely met with success, for the Maroons had established and protected their settlements with great ingenuity and had become expert at all aspects of guerrilla warfare. By the middle of the eighteenth century, when, in the words of a prominent planter, "the colony had become the theater of a perpetual war," (Nassy, 1788, p. 87) the colonists finally sued the Maroons for peace. In 1760 and 1762 peace treaties were successfully concluded with the two largest Maroon peoples, the Ndyukas and the Saramakas, and in 1767 with the much smaller Matawai, guaranteeing Maroons their freedom and territory (even though slavery persisted for another hundred years on the coast) in return for nonaggression and an agreement not to harbor posttreaty escaped slaves. New slave revolts and the large-scale war of subsequent decades, for which an army of mercenaries was imported from Europe, eventually led to the formation of the Aluku (Boni), as well as the smaller Paramaka and Kwinti groups.

Today, there are six politically distinct Maroon peoples in Suriname and neighboring French Guiana; the Ndyuka and Saramaka each have a population of about fifty thousand, the Aluku (Boni) and Paramaka are each closer to six thousand, the Matawai are some four thousand, and the Kwinti number fewer than five hundred. Their traditional territories are deep in the forests of the country, although today large numbers of Maroons live outside of these areas, mainly in Paramaribo and the coastal towns of French Guiana. Although formed under broadly similar historical and ecological conditions, these societies display significant variation in everything from language, diet, and dress to patterns of marriage, residence, and migratory wage labor. From a cultural point of view, the greatest differences are between the Maroons of central Suriname (Saramaka, Matawai, and Kwinti) on the one hand, and those of eastern Suriname and western French Guiana (Ndyuka, Aluku, and Paramaka) on the other.

Since the colonial government of Suriname signed treaties with the Ndyuka, Saramaka, and Matawai in the 1760s and later recognized the Aluku, Paramaka, and Kwinti, a loose framework of indirect rule has obtained. Except for the Kwinti, each group has a paramount chief (who from an internal perspective might better be described as a "king"), as well as a series of headmen and other village-based officials. Traditionally, the role of these people in political and social control has been exercised in a context replete with oracles, spirit possession, and other forms of divination. Until the mid-twentieth century almost all Maroons lived by a combination of, on the one hand, forest horticulture, hunting, and fishing, and on the other, men doing wage labor on the coast to buy and bring back Western-manufactured goods. But rapid change began in the 1960s, as the widespread use of out-board motors and the development of air service to the interior encouraged increased traffic of people and goods between Maroon villages and the coast. At the same time the construction, by Alcoa and the Suriname government, of a giant hydroelectric project brought a dramatic migration toward the coast, with some six thousand people forced to abandon their homes as an artificial lake gradually flooded almost half of Saramaka territory. Meanwhile in French Guiana, beginning in the 1970s, the Aluku were subjected to intense pressures for "francisation," which caused wrenching economic, cultural, and political transformations. Suriname's independence in 1975 changed life for most Maroons less than for the coastal population, but a civil war (19861992), which pitted the national army of Suriname against the "Jungle Commandos" (largely made up of Ndyukas but with a significant number of Saramakas as well), annihilated the Ndyuka villages along the Cottica River and sent some ten thousand Maroons fleeing to French Guiana. Today, continuing battles over the control of the valuable gold mining and timber rights in the interior affect every aspect of contemporary Maroon life in Suriname, with the national government claiming sovereignty over the territories the Maroons' ancestors died for. Many outside observers now fear the government has embarked on a policy of ethnocide toward the Maroons.

The Suriname Maroons, whose ancestors came from a wide variety of West and Central African societies, created new, vibrant Afro-American cultures in the rainforest, drawing primarily on their diverse African backgrounds but with lesser contributions as well from Amerindians (primarily subsistence techniques) and Europeans. Their enormously rich religious systems, their unique Creole languages, and their vibrant artistic and performance achievements are remarkably African in feeling yet unlike those of any particular culture or society in Africa. In building creatively upon their collective past, the early Maroons synthesized African cultural principles and adapted, played with, and reshaped cultural forms into ones that were new, yet still organically related to that past. The culture of the Suriname Maroons, forged in an inhospitable rainforest by people under constant threat of annihilation, stands as enduring testimony to African-American resilience and creativity and to the exuberance of the Maroon imagination working itself out within the rich, broad framework of African cultural ideas.

Current Issues

Since the fieldwork of pioneer Afro-Americanists Melville and Frances Herskovits in Suriname in the 1920s (see their 1934 book and the Prices' 2003 pamphlet), Maroons have moved to the center of scholarly debates, ranging from the origins of Creole languages and the "accuracy" of oral history to the nature of the African heritage in the Americas and the very definition of Afro-American anthropology. Indeed, David Scott argues that the Saramaka Maroons have by now become "a sort of anthropological metonym providing the exemplary arena in which to argue out certain anthropological claims about a discursive domain called Afro-America" (1991, p. 269). Much of the most recent anthropological research has focused on Maroon historiographyhow Maroons themselves conceptualize and transmit knowledge about the pastand has privileged the voices of individual Maroon historians. Eric Hobsbawm, commenting on this work in the more general context of the social sciences, notes that "Maroon societies raise fundamental questions. How do casual collections of fugitives of widely different origins, possessing nothing in common but the experience of transportation in slave ships and of plantation slavery, come to form structured communities? How, one might say more generally, are societies founded from scratch? What exactly did or could such refugee communities derive from the old continent?" (1990, p. 46). Questions such as these are sure to keep students of Maroon societies engaged in active research for many years to come.

See also Maroon Societies in the Caribbean; Nanny of the Maroons; Palenque San Basilio; Palmares; Runaway Slaves in the United States


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richard price (2005)