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Female Maroons of the West Indies

  • Gelien Matthews History Department University of the West Indies (UWI), Trinidad

Nanny

Historians are to be credited for emphasizing the important though once ignored position that enslaved Africans in the Caribbean assiduously resisted enslavement. Enslaved resistance took myriad forms including day to day acts of resistance, marronage, strikes and revolts. Some writers underscore the fact, however, that far more men than women absconded from slavery. While this claim is true, it does not negate the unique place that ought to be reserved for enslaved women in the history of West Indian marronage.

Marronage was a direct form of resistance to enslavement consisting of unauthorized leave from servile duties. It operated on two levels; petit and grand. Petit marronage was temporary and seldom included violence and destruction. It was motivated by the need to be with loved ones or to experience short term freedom or to test the prospects of permanent freedom or was in response to bad treatment such as corporal punishment, excessively hard labour or rape. Grand marronage, on the other hand, aimed at permanent desertion from the plantation accompanied by violence and was arguably the most successful attack against enslavement since it meant living a life of freedom in the midst of slavery. Flight from slavery, petit or grand, represented a deliberate disregard for the authority of the white master class to limit the mobility of the enslaved and to command their labour. It was also a nuisance to colonial plantations for maroons frequently resorted to estate raids to supply their basic need for food, tools, weapons and even women.

Several historians have concurred that the relevant invisibility of women in this truly dynamic form of resistance can be explained by the demands of child bearing and rearing, fear of reprisals, and the unwillingness and /or inability to withstand the treacherous terrain of the refugees’ hideouts relegated women to the periphery of maroon activities. 

Indeed the risks that both male and female maroons faced were intimidating. Flogging, hard labour in workhouses, hanging, transportation, separation from familial kin, imprisonment, branding, gibbeting, rape and dismemberment were some of the dreadful consequences awaiting the enslaved fugitive who was caught alive. And yet there were enslaved women who defied the odds in embarking on marronage.

In Barbados, for example, enslaved women became particularly notorious for harboring servile runaways. These maroon collaborators provided enslaved fugitives with food, housing, clothing and information. To curtail the incident, the Barbados Assembly enacted in November 1731 legislation that punished by 20 then 39 lashes, then 39 lashes and branding with the letter R on the right cheek for the first, second and third offence respectively.

Enslaved women in Barbados towards the end of the eighteenth century, according to the findings of Barry Higman, had also made their mark in petit marronage slightly surpassing the number of males participating in this form of resistance by this time. 

Another demographic rarity consists of the eyewitness testimony of two captured maroons of the Windward group in Jamaica who testified that in 1733 and 1734-35 the population of female maroons and children together greatly outnumbered that of men.

Enslaved females also joined males in maritime marronage. In St John, Danish West Indies one of the best documented episodes of maritime marronage took place on the night of May 24, 1840. Eleven enslaved persons stole a boat and set off for neighboring British Bermuda where slavery had been completely abolished since 1838. Three of these maritime maroons were women; Kitty, Polly and Katurah.

The historiographical profile of enslaved women in the maroon movement is further enhanced by the impressive list that exists consisting of such women as Lise the midwife, Romaine La Prophetesse, Marie Jeanne, Henrietta, Rosette and Zabeth all of St Domingue and Coobah of Jamaica. Coobah, according to the journal of her master, Thomas Thistlewood, was a repeat offender. She ran away on eight occasions in 1770 and five times in 1771.

The quintessential female maroon who ought to put to rest all questions about the tenacity of the enslaved female in pursuing the life of the fugitive has been Nanny, female chieftain of the Windward maroons of Jamaica.i Nanny was skilled in guerilla warfare which she and her band of brigands employed to pick off the technologically superior British military raiding parties that continually attempted to smoke out the maroons from their strong holds. According to legend, Nanny also caught bullets either with her hands or with her buttocks and ‘farted’ them back towards her enemies.ii Tradition also records Nanny’s cauldron, a legend which reinforces her role as military defender of maroons and sheds light on her skill as an herbalist.iii The pumpkin seed legend emphasizes her role as agriculturalist responsible for feeding and keeping the community alive. Nanny, the female maroon of Jamaica, was as outstanding if not more so than her male counterparts such as Juan de Bolas, Cuffy, Cudjoe and Accompong.

Women who lived in maroon camps on the whole were vital to the survival of the community. They functioned chiefly as agriculturalists ensuring that the fugitive bands had enough to eat. Their other duties included reproducing the maroon population and reviving African cultural and religious practices through their roles as priestesses and teachers of the oral traditions. Maroon women also assisted men in defending the camps against white raiding parties.

A dominant representation of maroon women that has unjustly scarred their profiling is their representation as passive captives taken in plantation raids that male maroons conducted. This is a Eurocentric interpretation of the facts. The greater point that ought to be stressed, however, is that taking the women was the ultimate act of resistance to enslavement. Their new lives in the maroon camps, even if closely circumscribed by the men who had set them free, were far better than the lives they lived in slavery. For the multiple and profound ways by which female maroons of the region, though small in number in comparison to men, used marronage to resist enslavement they deserve to be ‘historized’ as ‘sheroes’ of the African Diaspora. 


Catégorie : Resistance to imperialism and emancipation

Pour citer l'article : Matthews, G. (2013). "Female Maroons of the West Indies" in Cruse & Rhiney (Eds.), Caribbean Atlas, http://www.caribbean-atlas.com/en/themes/waves-of-colonization-and-control-in-the-caribbean/resistance-to-imperialism-and-emancipation/female-maroons-of-the-west-indies.html.

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