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Maroons’ Daily Life under Colonialism

  • Richard Price www.richandsally.net

Surinamese Maroon 1790

Maroons throughout the Caribbean built their communities in a state of war, constantly on the lookout for colonial troops, militias, and bounty-hunting slave catchers. In some cases, particularly on small islands, such communities appeared and disappeared with regularity until general emancipation. In others, such as Jamaica or in the mainland colony of Suriname, they managed to survive and flourish and, eventually, force the colonists to make peace with them and grant them territory and freedom, decades before general emancipation.

The initial maroons in any New World colony hailed from a wide range of societies in West and Central Africa – at 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 interAfrican 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 provenience – they reveal rather their hybrid composition, forged in the early meeting of peoples of diverse African, European, and Amerindian origins in the dynamic setting of the New World.

When we look back, for example, at the development of the kinship system of the Ndyuka Maroons of Suriname, “undoubtedly their West-African heritage 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” (André Köbben, in Price 1996:324). 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, AfroAmerican art “for which it would be pointless to seek the origin through direct transmission of any particular African style” (Jean Hurault, in Price 1996:29). And detailed investigations – both in museums and in the field – of a range of cultural phenomena among the Saamaka Maroons of Suriname have confirmed the dynamic, creative processes that continue to animate these societies (Price 2008).

If we examine the economic adaptations of Maroons to their new environments, we find that they were just as impressive as their military achievements (see “Maroon Resistance” and “Maroon Military Challenges to the Slavery Regime”). Swidden horticulture quickly became the mainstay of most Maroon economies, with a similar list of crops appearing from almost all areas – cassava, yams, sweet potatoes, and other root crops, bananas and plantains, dry rice, maize, groundnuts, squash, beans, chile, sugar cane, assorted other vegetables, and tobacco and cotton. These were generally planted by intercropping – for example, vegetables scattered in a field of rice. Making gardens was one of the first tasks for each newly formed Maroon group. In certain cases, however (whether on small islands or simply by choice), Maroon communities chose to live less independently and instead became directly parasitic on the plantations for their sustenance. Many of the Maroons’ techniques for dealing with the environment were learned from neighboring Amerindians and much of it was learned when Africans and Indians cohabited during early slavery on the plantations.

Yet despite the remarkable achievements of Maroons in wresting a living from an alien environment, they remained unable to manufacture certain items that were essential to their continuing existence. As the wars against the colonists went on, the need for such things as guns, tools, pots, and cloth (as well as for new recruits, especially women) kept Maroon communities unavoidably dependent upon the very plantation societies from which they were trying so desperately to isolate themselves. Throughout the Caribbean, there was collusion, by members of all social classes, with Maroons – when it suited their advantage – and Maroons profited by obtaining the goods they needed. For example, in Guadeloupe, slaves smuggled arms to Maroons; in Cuba, slaves and freedmen served as their middlemen, selling the Maroons’ beeswax, honey, and leather in urban markets and supplying them, in return, with firearms and tools; and in Jamaica, not only did the slaves help the Maroons economically, but they provided crucial intelligence information as well. After the general emancipation in the colonies, Maroon men frequently engaged in wage labor in order to buy the Western goods they had previously gotten in raids or by trading.

To assure the absolute loyalty of its members, each early Maroon community had to guard against the betrayal of its location to the colonists. New members commonly served a probationary period in which they were not permitted to bear arms. And desertion from a Maroon community was typically punished by death. Internal dissension could not be tolerated and developing systems of justice were harsh. In Suriname Maroon societies, people judged to be witches were burned at the stake. But the most frequent cause of dissension was trouble over women. Almost all early Maroon societies had an imbalance of men to women yet, following frequent African custom, polygyny was generally permitted for important men, further reducing the number of eligible women. Many groups captured Amerindian women to ease the pressure. But fights over women remained the most common kind of dispute within Maroon societies well into the twentieth century.

Our richest documentation on the daily lives of Maroons under colonialism comes from those long-surviving communities that persist into the present. Beginning in the mid eighteenth century just after the signing of peace treaties, for example, both German missionaries and Dutch officials were sent to live among the Saamaka Maroons in Suriname, where they reported nearly daily on what they saw and heard. At the same time, Saamakas today maintain rich oral accounts of important events from this same period, permitting a juxtaposition of written and oral records about daily life – birth, marriage, death and burial, politics, hunting, farming, and more. Alabi’s World (Price 1990), based on these two kinds of sources, presents a full picture of what is known about eighteenth-century Maroon life during the colonial period, including a great deal of political interactions between Maroon leaders and the colonial government. Somewhat similar materials that present a rich historical picture of political and social life have now been published for the Ndyuka Maroons of Suriname during the eighteenth century, but in Dutch (Thoden van Velzen and Hoogbergen 2011). And True-Born Maroons, which combines oral and archival materials, with an emphasis on the perspective of Maroons themselves, offers a panorama of life under colonialism for Jamaica Maroons, with a great deal on language, religion, and the wars against the colonists (Bilby 2005).

Recent anthropological research has focused on the ongoing debate about “creolization” and the extent to which (and the ways in which) Maroons have drawn, on the one hand, upon their diverse African heritages and, on the other hand, upon their New World experiences and their own creativity in building their cultural worlds. Researchers have been asking how, in each New World colony, enslaved Africans, coming from a variety of nations and languages, became African Americans. Scholars have found that to begin to explore these processes, across the many regions where Africans were landed as captive laborers, we must first ask: How “ethnically” homogeneous (or heterogeneous) were the Africans who arrived in a particular New World locality – in other words, to what extent was there a clearly dominant group – and what were the cultural consequences? How quickly and in what ways did they and their African American offspring begin thinking and acting as members of new communities? In what ways did the African arrivants choose – and to what extent were they able – to continue particular ways of thinking and doing things that came from the Old World? What did “Africa” (or its sub-regions and peoples) mean at different times to African arrivants and their descendants? And how did the various demographic profiles and social conditions of particular New World settings encourage or inhibit these cultural processes? In short, what is it that made what Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot calls “the miracle of creolization” possible, across the Americas, over and over again?

Maroons societies play a privileged role in such discussions, in part owing to their relative isolation and, in the case of Suriname, their persistence into the present. The most detailed ethnographic of creolization study to date (Price 2008) analyzes extensive data from esoteric Maroon languages, as well as other ritual materials, to demonstrate the complexity of these issues from both an ethnohistorical perspective and that of Maroons themselves.

 In many parts of the Caribbean, colonialism lasted well into the twentieth century, with Suriname, for example – where the largest concentration of Maroons live today – attaining its independence from the Netherlands only in 1975. For Maroons in Jamaica, Belize, or Suriname, the shift from living in a European colony to a postcolonial nation has not brought sharp changes, as the generally condescending and integrationist attitudes of urban elites has remained largely the same. Ironically, throughout the Caribbean today, the historical maroon—often mythologized into a larger-than-life figure—has become a touchstone of identity for the region's writers, artists, intellectuals, and politicians, the ultimate symbol of resistance to oppression and the fight for freedom. Yet the attitude toward living Maroons in these new nations has not changed apace and often includes the same kinds of condescension and prejudice that prevailed under colonialism.

Catégorie : Daily lives of caribbean people under colonialism

Pour citer l'article : Price, R. (2013). "Maroons’ Daily Life under Colonialism" in Cruse & Rhiney (Eds.), Caribbean Atlas, http://www.caribbean-atlas.com/en/themes/waves-of-colonization-and-control-in-the-caribbean/daily-lives-of-caribbean-people-under-colonialism/maroons-daily-life-under-colonialism.html.


Bilby, Kenneth M. True-Born Maroons. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005.

Price, Richard. First-Time: The Historical Vision of an African American People. Second edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. [orig. 1983] Price, Richard. Alabi's World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Price, Richard. Travels with Tooy : History, Memory, and the African American Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. [Voyages avec Tooy : Histoire, mémoire, imaginaire des Amériques noires. La Roque d'Anthéron: Vents d’ailleurs, 2010].

Price, Richard (ed.). Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas. Third edition, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Thoden van Velzen, H. U. E., and Wim Hoogbergen. Een zwarte vrijstaat in Suriname: De Okaanse samenleving in de achttiende eeuw. Leiden: KITLV Press, 2011.