Maroon Communities

views updated

Maroon Communities

Escaped slaves often banded together for protection, especially in regions where the landscape offered them some defense. From the introduction of African slaves until the nineteenth century, from the rain forests of South and Central America to the mountains of various Caribbean islands, and to the wetlands of Florida, fugitive slaves and their descendants formed their own independent communities. These people were called maroons by the English, marrons by the French, and mawons in Haitian Kreyol—all possibly derivatives of the Spanish word cimarrón, which can loosely be translated as "wild" or "untamed." As early as the sixteenth century, Maroon groups were playing an active role in the European empires' struggles to control the New World, both by their resistance to the colonial powers who wished to re-enslave them and by forming alliances with those powers at times. In 1570 Sir Francis Drake befriended the "Cimaroons" living on the Isthmus of Panama, and the following year they helped him capture the Spanish city Nombre de Dios.


Maroons became especially prominent in Jamaica. When the English took the island from Spain in 1655, the Spanish relocated to Cuba. Many of their African slaves, however, had either run away or were left behind. Most of these now-free blacks retreated to the mountains in the north and east, while others remained near Clarendon in the south-central part of the island. Out of loyalty to one another and perhaps, to some extent, to their former Spanish masters, the Maroons carried out a guerrilla resistance against the English invaders. "At first their depredations had been carried on in small parties," Robert Charles Dallas wrote in his History of the Maroons, "and they were satisfied with killing cattle now and then; but in the course of time they habituated themselves to such excesses that frequent complaints were made to the legislature" (1803, vol.1, p. 28). In 1685 the English reached a peace settlement with the Clarendon-area Maroons and their leader Juan de Bolas.

The Maroons' ranks were replenished by newly escaped slaves whom they had liberated or who had escaped to them. By the early eighteenth century, a family of Africans who had escaped soon after being brought to the island had assumed control of several Maroon bands. Cudjoe, whom Dallas described as "a bold, skillful, enterprising man" (1803, vol.1, p. 28), led one of the largest groups. His brothers Accompong, Johnny, Cuffy, and Quao and their sister Nanny also assumed positions of leadership. After a decade-long revolt against the British known as the First Maroon War, Cudjoe signed a treaty with them in 1739. The Maroons retained their freedom and remained in their five principal towns under their own leaders (under the supervision of a British agent); in return they agreed not only to cease harboring runaway slaves but to help recapture them.

In 1795 the Maroons of Trelawney Town became incensed over the whipping of two Maroons for stealing pigs. British officials, nervous over the slave revolution in St. Domingue, responded to the Maroons' anger by instituting even stronger measures against them, thus increasing the tension. It soon escalated into the Second Maroon War. Trelawney Town Maroons raided several plantations, killing the whites and releasing the slaves. They were then beset by British forces, including Maroon groups from other towns. The British also acquired bloodhounds and handlers, or chasseurs, from Cuba. "It would be better, and more for the interest of humanity," British officials believed, "that some of the rebels should be thus destroyed, than that the most barbarous massacres should be committed" (Dallas 1803, vol. 2, p. 6). The rebels were defeated within a few months, and many of them were later deported, first to Nova Scotia and ultimately to Sierra Leone.

The continuing fear of rebelling Maroons—augmented by white paranoia over the successful slave revolt in what became Haiti—is demonstrated by this letter from a resident of Montego Bay, Jamaica, to Boston, published in the Raleigh Register on October 4, 1811:

It is expected Martial Law will be put in force on account of the Maroons, and other negroes. It is now supposed they intend making another St. Domingo of this Island … I hope it may all blow over, still I have no doubt but at a future period, this will be a scene of horror. The negroes are very bold and impudent.


Below is a description of a Jamaican Maroon stronghold:

Such are the natural fortifications with in which the Maroons secured themselves, and from which it has been ever found so difficult to dislodge them. Having but one common entrance, the way to it was so trodden by the frequent egress and ingress of their parties who go in quest of provisions and plunder, that when a distant track was observed by a sharp-sighted guide, it hardly ever failed to lead to the mouth of the defile. At this mouth, which looks like a great fissure made through a rock by some extraordinary convulsion of Nature, from two hundred yards to half a mile in length, and through which men can pass only in a single file, the Maroons, whenever they expected an attack, disposed of themselves on the ledges of the rock on both sides. Sometimes they advanced a party beyond the entrance to the defile, frequently in a line on each side, if the ground would admit, and lay covered by the underwood, and behind rocks and the roots of trees, waiting in silent ambush for their pursuers, of whose approach they had always information from their out-scouts. These, after a long march, oppressed by fatigue and thirst, advance toward the mouth of the defile, through the track obscured by trees and underwood, in an approach of many windings, which are either occasioned by the irregularity of the ground, or designedly made for the purpose of exposing the assailants to the attacks of the different parties in ambush (Dallas 1803, pp. 41-42).

SOURCE: Dallas, Robert Charles. The History of the Maroons, from Their Origin to the Establishment of Their Chief Tribe at Sierra Leone: Including the Expedition to Cuba and the Purpose of Producing Spanish Chasseurs and the State of the Island of Jamaica for the Last Ten Years, with a Succinct History of the Island Previous to that Period. London: T. N. Longman and O. Rees, 1803.

Maroons continued to live and thrive in Jamaica, however, and their descendants keep their heritage alive. Nanny, sister of Cudjoe and leader of the Windward Maroons, is revered as one of Jamaica's "seven national heroes."


Slaves from the English colony of South Carolina were escaping to the Spanish colony of Florida as early as 1687. At first Spanish officials offered them asylum; by 1693 they were guaranteeing the runaways' freedom as well, protecting them from enslavement by Spaniards as well as by Englishmen. A government proclamation issued in 1704 made the following offer: "Any negro of Carolina, Christian or not, free or slave, who wishes to come fugitive, will be [given] complete liberty, so that those who do not want to stay here may pass to other places as they see fit, with their freedom papers which I hereby grant them by word of the king." In 1739, with war looming between the two colonial powers, Florida's governor Manuel de Montiano provided fugitive blacks with an armed garrison called Fort Mose, the first known free black community in North America. Of the almost 1,000 Spanish troops stationed at nearby St. Augustine, 200 were Maroons, drawing the same pay and rations as their Spanish comrades. Blacks served in both the defense of Florida and the subsequent counterattack in Georgia. When Spain ceded Florida to Britain in 1763, the residents of Fort Mose moved to Cuba. Other free blacks, though—and those yet to escape—found new allies after the Spanish withdrew.

In the early eighteenth century, Spain had invited another group to northern Florida to serve as a buffer against the English—Creek Indians (the region's original native inhabitants were mostly gone, victims of disease and the Indian slave trade). More Creeks, and other Indians as well, moved in as the century progressed, driven from their homes by warfare. A century later, in 1814, their numbers swelled when they were joined by Creek refugees who had been on the losing side of the Red Stick War. These people, too, were fugitives in a fashion; by the late 1700s they had formed a confederation, and a new name was being applied to them. They had become Seminoles—like Maroons, a word derived from the Spanish cimarrón. The shared etymology is emblematic, for the two groups entered a unique relationship.

Maroons and Seminoles became close allies. They usually, though not always, lived in separate communities. Still, there was much cultural interchange, and some blacks did, by marriage, become members of the Seminole community. Although some Seminoles were slave owners, the slavery they practiced was of a traditional variety and was quite different from that practiced on white plantations. Seminole slaves would have appeared to a European observer to be more like feudal vassals than chattel. Indians and Africans served together in opposing U.S. incursions—in the First Seminole War (1817–1818), spurred by Americans' desire to break up the black communities on their southern border and retrieve runaway slaves, and again in the Second Seminole War (1835–1842), to defend against forced removal to Indian Territory. Joshua Giddings, in his 1858 book The Exiles of Florida, noted that the "forces of the United States were engaged in throwing shot and shells for the purpose of murdering those friendless Exiles, those women and children, who had committed no other offense than that of being born of parents who, a century previously, had been held in bondage" (p. 41).

Maroon leaders John Caesar and John Horse spearheaded black resistance to Removal. About 500 of them were forced to accompany their Indian comrades to their new home across the Mississippi; once there they were soon beset by slave catchers. John Horse led over 100 "Black Seminoles" across the border to Mexico, where they served for years in the Mexican military. Many returned after Emancipation and rejoined the black communities they had helped found in what is now Oklahoma.


Beckford, William. A Descriptive Account of the Island of Jamaica: With Remarks upon the Cultivation of the Sugar-Cane, throughout the Different Seasons of the Year, and Chiefly Considered in a Picturesque Point of View … 2 vols. London: Printed for T. and J. Egerton, 1790.

Dallas, Robert Charles. The History of the Maroons, from Their Origin to the Establishment of Their Chief Tribe at Sierra Leone … [1803]. 2 vols. London: Cass, [1968].

Giddings, Joshua Reed. The Exiles of Florida, or, The Crimes Committed by Our Government against the Maroons: Who Fled from South Carolina and Other Slave States, Seeking Protection under Spanish Law [1858]. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, [1964].

Lockett, James D. "The Deportation of the Maroons of Trelawny Town to Nova Scotia, then Back to Africa." Journal of Black Studies 30, no. 1 (1995): 5-14.

Mulroy, Kevin. Freedom on the Border: The Seminole Maroons in Florida, the Indian Territory, Coahuila, and Texas. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1993.

Saunt, Claudio. A New Order of Things: Property, Power, and the Transformation of the Creek Indians, 1733–1816. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Sources in U.S. History Online: Slavery in America. Gale. Available from

                                            Troy D. Smith