Maroons of the Caribbean

September 25, 2007

Caribbean slave society. Slaves resisted in myriad
ways-from the subtle and passive, acted out on a routin-
ized daily basis, to the violent, whether singly or collec-
tively, planned or spontaneous. But for the slave owners,
perhaps the most vexing form of slave resistance was the
flight from servitude to establish autonomous communi-
ties outside the bounds of slave plantations: maroon soci-
Not surprisingly, marronage began in Hispaniola, the
first European settlement in the New World.' As early as
1503, two years after the start of the slave traffic to the
Caribbean, the runaway problem had become so great that
the governor of the island urged the Spanish Crown to
suspend the trade-which, in fact, was done for a short
time. By the middle of the sixteenth century, runaways
outnumbered Hispaniola's white male population seven
to one. Bands of them had established themselves in the
mountains, descending at intervals to attack the settle-
ments below. 2 Such guerrilla warfare-surprise attacks
and retreats and ingenious ambuscades, thereby avoiding
direct confrontations-was to become the pattern through-
out the Caribbean.
As the slave systems in the area developed, some of the
harshest punishments were reserved for the "skulking
runaways," or "sneaking and treacherous rogues," or
"desperate villains," or "pernicious scum," as one Euro-
pean power or another described the maroons. Laws were
passed that gave every citizen the power to capture
maroons, dead or alive, and generous rewards were prof-
fered. Even slaves were granted freedom for capturing or
killing maroons. After all, in the capital accounts of the
slave owner, a maroon was both capital and labor, and a
prime slave-the one more apt to run off-could fetch up
to 350 pounds sterling, a tidy sum, especially in times of
The Spaniards trained bloodhounds and organized
hunting parties called rancheadores to capture runaways.
The Portuguese, fearing the example of Palmares, Brazil' s
largest maroon settlement, organized units called capitdos-
do-mato or bush captains to conduct their search. The
Spanish Church joined in, and the Inquisition, never shy
in dispensing punishment, viewed the attempt to escape
Mavis C. Campbell teaches history at Amherst College.
This article was adapted from The Maroons of Jamaica
1655-1796 by Mavis C. Campbell (Bergin & Garvey,
1988). Abridgement by permission of Greenwood Pub-
lishing Group, Inc., Westport, CT. Copyright(c) 1988 by
Bergin & Garvey Publishers Inc.
from slavery as apostasy, for which slaves should be made
to atone in this world or the hereafter. 3 Despite such
deterrents, maroon societies remained ubiquitous.
Maroon societies were based on African sociopolitical
and military formations, adapted to fit New World condi-
tions. This is not to imply that each group shared a
homogeneous African cultural heritage. Indeed fragmen-
tary evidence suggests that there was ethnic plurality
within most communities, although one group might be in
a dominant demographic or military position. Most ma-
roon leaders, especially in Jamaica, were of the Akan-
speaking group, but the ethnic make-up of the rank-and-
file is less clear. In order to prevent ethnic cleavages that
could be damaging to his authoritarian leadership, Cudjoe
of Jamaica, perhaps the best known maroon leader in the
hemisphere, insisted that his people speak the enemy's
language-English-in his community. Ironically, the
slave masters also insisted on the use of the colonial
tongue among plantation slaves for the same security
roon societies, cultural commonalities seemed to
take precedence over particularism. Roger Bastide, in
reference to the quilombo maroons of Brazil, said, "[I]t
would seem that in most cases, as in Palmares, we are
dealing with 'tribal regression,' a kind of return to Af-
rica." This "Africanness" that transcended regionalism
and ethnic or linguistic affinities was reflected, for the
most part, in sex roles, attitude toward warfare, familial
arrangements, attitude toward hierarchy, and above all
religion, which was pivotal to all resistance in the area.
African religious beliefs gave the unifying force and the
rallying point to mobilize, motivate, inspire, and design
strategies. Religion gave the ideology, the mystique, and
the courage and leadership to maroon societies to con-
front the awesome power of the slave society. Indeed
maroon leaders were expected to be imbued with tran-
scendental knowledge, which could be used for the ben-
efit of the whole community.
Resistance and African religions are clearly linked in
both slave rebellions (for instance, in Haiti) and maroon
societies. Regardless of ethnicity, Africans would invari-
ably invoke the right loa (spirit) before going to war.
Devotees, after taking oaths of allegiance and fidelity to
the cause, rubbed themselves with certain magical con-
coctions prepared by the religio-military leader, or wore
an assortment of charms or amulets to war. The Jamaican
maroon heroine Nanny, Makandal of pre-revolutionary
St. Domingue, Jean Franqois of revolutionary Haiti and
REPORT ON THE AMERICAStheir followers believed that these preparations rendered
them impervious to the enemy's bullets.
Women played multifaceted roles in maroon commu-
nities in Jamaica. In African fashion, they were the
agriculturists, but some were priestesses or warriors, like
the celebrated maroon leader Nanny, now a national hero
of Jamaica. To be sure the very early maroon societies had
a preponderance of men, reflecting not only the sexual
imbalance on the plantations but also the hazardous
nature of marronage and the peculiar dangers it held for
females. But as marronage developed, some of the com-
munities achieved a parity of men and women, and by the
1730s, women and children outnumbered men among the
windward groups. A few women managed to run away
singly or in pairs with their lovers or "husbands." How-
ever, the incidence of female fugitives did not develop
significantly until the first decade of the nineteenth cen-
tury up to emancipation. Growth in the female population
can be accounted for by natural procreation within the
communities and early depredations on plantations not
only for provisions and arms, but also for women.
Jamaica's maroons were also the first agriculturists of
the island oriented to the domestic market. Following the
British occupation in 1655, British planters cultivated the
monoculture of sugar, geared to the expanding export
markets of Europe. The maroons planted other crops, and
their diversified surplus soon became accessible in the
local marketplaces for the larger population, especially
during periods of drought and other cataclysmic events
peculiar to the tropics. Long before peace treaties were
signed, maroons would disguise themselves as free blacks
to enter the marketplaces both as buyers and sellers.
wrought havoc with the island's plantation econo-
my. Their communities in the hills tempted many estate
slaves to join them or set up similar communities. The
maroons preyed on plantations, advancing at intervals to
inveigle away slaves (especially women) to carry off or
kill cattle and horses, to help themselves to ammunition
and weaponry, or to kill or wound whites.
The period of greatest danger to Jamaican planters was
from the 1720s to 1738. There was an exodus of planters
from the island, who abandoned their estates because of
maroon intrusions. In addition, maroon proximity to
arable land either prevented owners with patents from
settling or deterred the parceling out of lands in such
areas-particularly in the northeast. And in these years of
crisis, the slaves, always alert to any weakness in the
social structure of the masters' world, deserted the planta-
tions in large numbers.A dialectical relationship devel-
oped between marronage and absenteeism, in which cause
and effect soon became entangled. The urgency with
which the plantocratic legislature passed deficiency laws
aimed at increasing the number of whites on the island
attests to the slaveowners' awareness of the severity of the
crisis. With the signing of peace treaties in 1738-1739, the
country became economically buoyant once again almost
The cimarrones (maroons) wreaked their greatest dev-
astation on the Spanish Empire in Panama, especially
between the 1540s and the 1570s. Their depredations
were directed against the brutal slave portage (the trajin)
of vast quantities of silver and gold, particularly between
Nombre de Dios and Panama City. The situation became
even more alarming to the Spaniards when the cimarrones
became "confederated" with British pirates and, in some
cases, with French corsairs as well. Spanish officials
complained incessantly that the runaways, being so "thor-
oughly acquainted with the region and so expert in the
bush," could show the British "methods and means to
accomplish any evil design they may wish to carry out and
execute." 4 Indeed maroons showed Francis Drake how to
cross the Isthmus of Panama, "a feat the English could not
have performed alone." 5
The Spaniards were the first to sign treaties with the
maroons. As early as 1545, unable to defeat the major
band in Hispaniola, they offered peace terms which were
turned down by the maroon leader, Diego de Campo. He
was later captured, but talked his way out of execution by
offering to lead expeditions against his former colleagues
in the woods. After desperate, unsuccessful efforts to curb
the power of the runaways, the Spaniards initiated peace
negotiations with the cimarrones in Panama in 1579,
which resulted in two separate treaties and the establish-
ment of two free black communities close to Nombre de
Dios. 6 These communities soon became useful to the
Spaniards in their fight with the British, the maroons'
earlier allies. The disappointment of the British was acute
when, in 1596, they returned to Panama to find the
cimarrones now part of the Spanish security system in
that country. Maroons in Jamaica also signed treaties with
the British during the seventeenth century. And the Dutch,
in 1684, made some form of peace settlement with some
of their maroons in Suriname, but "nothing more was
heard [of it]." 7
roons throughout the region to collaborate with the
colonial slave regimes after the signing of treaties was as
pervasive as their earlier resistance to such regimes.
Under the terms of the treaties, maroons were willing to
return runaways and police the woods diligently in search
of others." To explain this collaboration, some argue that
movements of this kind did not provide acommon agenda,
an organizational structure, or a unifying ideology. More-
over, some claim, because African slaves in the Americas
encompassed a multiplicity of ethnicities and languages,
the notion of pan-African solidarity was alien to their way
of thinking. (In Jamaica this divisiveness was presumably
countered to some extent by the fact that most of the
maroon leadership was in the hands of the Akan-speaking
In making treaties with the maroons in Jamaica, the
British government initially had the limited objective of
eliminating the disruptive influence maroon activities had
on the plantation economy. As an auxiliary military force
against internal and external enemies, the maroons would
help to stabilize the economy. Moreover, pacification
would create a division between the maroons and the
other blacks under slavery. This was the case with respect
to peace treaties with Lubolo in the seventeenth century,
Juan de Serras later in the same century, and with Cudjoe
and Quao in the eighteenth.
As soon as these treaties were signed, the relative
power of the parties shifted dramatically. The British
position progressed from embarrassing helplessness (1655-
1739) to condescending, albeit urbane protectiveness
(1740s to late 1770s) to cavalier disregard for the con-
cerns of maroon affairs, and eventually culminated in
arrogant control (by the 1790s).
In the final analysis, the maroon story is a study of
colonial power. A parallel emerges between governance
of the post-treaty maroons and the indirect rule practiced
by Britain in colonial Africa.' To the British, indirect rule
was indigenous local self-government conducted prima-
rily by local chiefs in situ, where "the function of the
British administrator is rather to guide by influence and
advice than to rule by direct command."' 0 For the African
principalities, even when the system could be defended on
grounds of efficiency, it was still an alien intrusion con-
ducted primarily with a view to catering to alien interests.
Indeed this efficiency often served to inculcate a feeling
of helplessness among the "natives," leading them to
negate their own cultural values and spawning a cadre of
"mimic men" with an excess of reverence for the ruler.
James, the forceful, vain, and courageous generalis-
simo of maroon affairs, was part of this intrusive alien
rule. After he was appointed superintendent of the maroon
community of Trelawny Town in 1767, James' very
dynamism nearly spelled doom for maroon hegemony.
Maroon officials under his rule soon lapsed into a state of
lethargy. By the end of his tenure, the Trelawnys seemed
to have lost their fierce independent spirit, reliance on
their own initiative and pride in their cultural heritage.
The colonial-dependency syndrome had begun.
The colonial state appointed James major-comman-
dant of all the maroons in 1779, for his good conduct "in
keeping under proper subjection"-in the words of Gov-
ernor Dalling-the maroons of Trelawny Town. Playing
the part of a latter-day seigneur, James boasted that, under
his care, the maroons had "behaved and demeaned them-
REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 36selves well...[and] rendered very great services and ben-
efits to many of the planters and other settlers in the
Historically, indirect rule was the result of conquest.
The special relationship that the maroons of Jamaica had
with the colonial power came about precisely because
they were never conquered militarily. The system ushered
in by the eighteenth-century treaties brought about de
facto direct rule by the overarching power of the colonial
apparatus-by the presence of the white residents in their
midst, by the maroons' obligations to wait on the governor
when so commanded, and even more importantly, by the
governor's authority to appoint their leaders after the
demise of those named in the documents. With the power
of administering the death sentence wrested from him,
what real power or social control could a post-treaty
maroon leader wield, given the nature of his society,
nurtured in warfare and cruel courage? And how effective
could he be when his people could now appeal over his
head to white resident officials of the local government?
In addition to the power whittled away from the
maroons under the treaties, the Jamaican government
passed laws that placed constraints on maroons' eco-
nomic earnings, their mobility, theirability to intermingle
with slaves and their traditional juridical functions. The
decline in the power of maroon leaders bore an inverse
relationship to the increased powers of the white superin-
tendents. By the 1790s, not only could the superintendents
usurp the position of the chiefs by presiding at their courts,
they now directed search parties, supervised road ser-
vices, and made sure the maroons complied with the limits
set on expenditures. They kept strict surveillance over the
movements of maroons by issuing passes to those who
wished to leave the towns. But perhaps most suffocating
to the maroons was the requirement that obliged superin-
tendents to report regularly on the maroon communities,
noting their demographic profile, the number of arms-
bearing men, the number of slaves and slave owners in
their midst, the number living outside their commun-
ities-the sum total of which could be considered official
espionage on maroon affairs.
denouement of a process that began with the signing
of treaties nearly 60 years before. That a major uprising
did not occur earlier was largely the result of a conflation
of circumstances, one of which was the patronage system
in which influential men acted as arbiters in disputes.
Under the new, weaker, more arrogant administration of
the governor, the Earl of Balcarres, and the superintendent,
Thomas Craskell, the maroons felt that their perceived
special relationship with government had been betrayed.
This war also revealed the lack of black solidarity and
the weakness of the maroons. In earlier pre-treaty wars,
slave deserters swelled the ranks of the maroons, and
fortified them with much-needed supplies, gave them
strategic information and acted as guides to recently
The Spaniards trained bloodhounds and organized
hunting parties called rancheadores to capture runaway
departed plantations for the purpose of plunder. By con-
trast, relatively few slaves deserted the government par-
ties in the Trelawny Town War, and most of those who did
established their own maroon communities. In fact, so
unpopular were the Trelawny maroons that some slaves
manhandled other slaves for having participated on the
side of the maroons. Moreover, no other maroon commu-
nityjoined the Trelawny maroons in the war. Theirclosest
neighbors, Accompong Town, aligned themselves with
the authorities against them.
Some maroon communities have survived to this day
in Jamaica-due to a remarkably stubborn resilience.
When in the 1840s the government tried to encompass
them into the wider political system of the island, the
maroons stoutly refused. The maroons have their own
reality carved out of their history. It is the abstract notion
of this history exemplified by their treaties and lands,
sacrosanct and inalienable to them, that has fed their
By any standard, the maroon story is a heroic one. A
handful of bedraggled fugitives, whose numbers planto-
cratic fear had always inflated, fought courageously for
freedom against some of Britain's best-trained soldiers,
and succeeded. Yet, especially after the cessation of
hostilities, the maroon story is also paradoxical, complex
and puzzling. The maroons kept slaves themselves. And
after the peace settlements, maroons became a major
stumbling block to others who wished to wrest freedom
from the slavocracy. Indeed, in the words of Eugene D.
Genovese, the maroon communities had a "restorationist
or isolationist, rather than a revolutionary content."12
Maroons of the Caribbean
1. The word "maroon" has come to denote fugitive slaves from plantations in
the New World, although the Iberians had their own designations. The etymology
is uncertain, but the consensus is that it derives from the Spanish cimarron, which
originally referred to domestic cattle that had escaped to live in the wild. See
Richard Price (ed.), Maroon Societies (New York: Anchor Books, 1973), pp. I,
171, 172, and passim. Other views on its origin include that of Edward Long who
felt that the word (which he rendered "Maron") is probably derived from the
Spanish marrano, a young hog of one year, which was also used to describe the
hunterofwildhogs, todistinguish themfromthebucaniers--hunters ofwild cattle
and horses. See Edward Long, The History of Jamaica... (3 vols., London: Frank
Cass, 1970), vol. 2, p. 338 n. (first published, 1774).
2. Price, Maroon Societies, p. 1; Eric Williams, From Columbus to Castro:
The History of the Caribbean, 1492-1969 (New York and Evanston: Harper &
Row, 1970), pp. 66-68.
3. Ibid., p. 67.
4. See The Municipal Council of Panama to the Spanish Crown, February
24, 1573. Document No. 21, in I.A. Wright, Documents Concerning English
Voyages to the Spanish Main, 1659-1689 (London: Hakluyt Society, 1932).
5. Kenneth R. Andrews, The Spanish Caribbean: Trade and Plunder,
1530-1630 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), p. 40.
6. Documents 68-73, in Wright, Documents.
7. Sylvia W. DeGroot, From Isolation towards Integration: The Surinam
Maroons and Their Colonial Rulers (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1977), p. 7.
8. The phenomenon of collaboration, which is not new to history, has,
however, been given much scholarly attention since World War II. It has even
generated a new pejorative word "quisling." But the collaboration of the
Jamaican maroons would not fit well under the quisling model. Nor should it
be seen as "servile" in Stanley Hoffman's term. It was also not an act of
submission, defeat, or resignation. Rather, it was "an active policy ofcoopera-
tion and compromise" as Steinhart found when dealing with collaboration in
Western Uganda. For an excellent theoretical approach to collaboration, see
Stanley Hoffman, "Self-Ensnared: Collaboration with Nazi Germany," in his
collection of essays, Decline or Renewal? France Since the 1930s (New York:
Viking Press, 1974), pp. 26-44; Edward I Steinhart, Conflict and Collabora-
tion: The Kingdoms of Western Uganda, 1890-1907 (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1977) See also John A. Petropoulos, "Forms of
Collaboration with the Enemy during the First Greek War of Liberation," in
Nikiforos P. Diamondouros et al. (eds.), Hellenism and the First Greek War of
Liberation 1821-1830: Continuity and Change (Thessaloniki: Institute for
Balkan Studies, 1976), pp. 1 3 1 - 4 3 .
9. This view was first proposed by George Cumper, although he did not
develop it. See George Cumper, "The Maroons in the 18th Century: A Note on
Indirect Rule in Jamaica," Caribbean Quarterly No. 8 (1962). It was later
adopted by Kopytoff, "The Maroons of Jamaica," pp. 3 5 0 -57.
10. Charles Jeffries, The Colonial Empire and Its Civil Service (Cam-
bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938), p. 1 3 4 .
11. Journal oftheAssembly of Jamaica No. 8, Nov. 29, 1786.
12. Eugene D. Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American
Slave Revolt in the Making of the New World (New York: Vintage Books,
1981), p. xiv. This brilliant Marxist scholar found much of the maroon story
maddening. "Relations," for instance, "between maroons and slaves after
promulgation of such treaties became maddeningly ambiguous," pp. 52-53.

Tags: Caribbean, slavery, maroons, Jamaica, race

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