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Maroon Military Challenges to the Slavery Regime

  • Alvin Thompson Department of History and Philosophy University of the West Indies (UWI), Barbados

Surinamese Maroon 1790

Historically, the role of Maroons in challenging and undermining the slavery regime in the Caribbean has not been given the attention that it deserves. It is true that from the 1970s a number of excellent studies have emerged. Among these are Richard Price’s Maroon Societies (1979). After careful investigation, I have concluded that Maroons played the greatest single role in challenging the slavery system in the Caribbean and Latin America. This is especially true of such jurisdictions as Brazil, Jamaica, Haiti and Suriname. 

Maroons challenged the system in at least three specific ways: ideologically, organizationally and militarily. Ideologically, desertion was a clear expression of Maroon rejection of the slavery system and the control of their lives by the enslavers. Organizationally, through the establishment of often viable administrative and political systems (settlements that ranged from a few dozen to several thousand persons) they demonstrated that they were able to develop meaningful alternatives to the slavery system. The fact that many of these communities lasted for several decades indicates their viability and attractiveness to would-be deserters. Militarily, the Maroons demonstrated their ability not only to defend their polities but also to attack plantation and other settlements, destroying several of them, forcing the enslavers to spend large sums of money to counter such attacks, and limiting the spread of the plantations geographically in several instances. The rest of this short essay will develop the main points made in this paragraph.

Through various systems of control, including promotion to positions of authority (if not power) within the slavery system, and in some instances granting freedom to faithful enslaved persons, particularly those who betrayed revolts, the authoritarian state sought to get the enslaved people to accept the fiat of the enslavers. They also often pursued a policy of brainwashing by setting up a hierarchy of power and control based on ethnic stereotypes, in which they sought to get the enslaved people to accept that they were the persons who should logically rule the subordinate groups, and especially the enslaved field people whom they relegated to bottom of the social hierarchy. They also used religion in several instances to enforce such subordination—the established Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and Dutch Reformed Churches being employed in such efforts, especially when other efforts at containment of the enslaved population failed to achieve the desired results.

Of course, people under bondage are not easily persuaded either by religion or the sword that their divine lot was to remain under such bondage or that the Almighty had a larger plan for them by keeping them in such a situation. When, for instance, in the 1730s Count Nickolaus Ludwig Von Zinzendorf, founder of the Moravian Mission in Europe, told a group of enslaved persons in the Danish West Indies that conversion to Christianity would not deliver them from their physical bondage, because they were being punished for the sins of their fathers, it is doubtful that the enslaved people understood this message. Slave unrest continued in that jurisdiction even after that address. In the case of Haiti, Santiago, leader of the Le Maniel Maroons in the 1780s, used Christianity as a revolutionary tool. The same is true of Gaspar Yanga, leader of the Cofre de Perote Maroons in Mexico in the early decades of the seventeenth century. Nat Turner of the United States is by far the most noted Black leader who used Christianity as an important revolutionary ideology. Under draconian forms of bondage people are always likely to revolt, in spite of whatever ideology or forms of brainwashing their oppressors use to reinforce that bondage. 

As stated above, the desertion of large numbers of enslaved people from the slavery system constituted implicit rejection of the ideologically of slavery. Sometimes that rejection was also explicit, in the sense that in several instances Maroons verbally indicated to military groups sent to being them to heel why they would never return to enslavement. It was their sense of freedom, indeed, their absolute right to it, which made many of them brave the hazards of life in the jungle among a large number of animal, insect and other forces. It was also the reason why the ages of deserters ranged from as low as pre-teens to persons in their sixties and occasionally much older.

Of course, in several instances it was a simple matter to desert, but an entirely different one to survive indefinitely or even for a short period under the conditions that we have mentioned above. Thus many deserters lost their way in the unchartered jungles, wildernesses, mountains and other harsh topography of the environment into which they had fled. However, a significant number of them managed to survive, to create viable settlements, or to join already established ones. It was the attraction that many of the settlements held for would-be deserters that caused a constant flow to them. This is true, for instance, of the Leeward and Windward Maroon communities of Jamaica; the Saramaka, Ndjuka, Matawais, and Aluku (Boni) in Suriname; Le Maniel in Haiti, and Palmares in Brazil (though the last one is outside the scope of this article). 

In all of these instances mentioned immediately above, the communities survived for several decades, had highly established forms of government and armed forces with a hierarchy of official personnel, system of defence and attack, and sound food economies that offered a much more amply and varied diet than the enslaved people enjoyed under plantation slavery. Large Maroon communities therefore offered much more attractive prospects of life than the plantation regimes, and societies in which parents could raise their children without fear of the little ones being grabbed from them and reduced to slavery by the Maroon leaders. In many instances, people were born and died within these communities without ever having been shackled with iron chains or experiencing other bonds of slavery. Nevertheless, all Maroon polities had to guard against the subversion of their communities by military expeditions that the enslavers sent against them.

While enslavers lost a large number of their enslaved charges to desertion, it was the military challenges that Maroon communities, especially the large ones, offered to the slavery system that created the greatest fear among them, caused them to spend large sums of money to protect against such dangers, limited the scope of plantation and other White settlements geographically, brought forth the most draconian responses (legal and extra-legal) against captured Maroons, and led to extreme stereotypes concerning them.

Large and often well-equipped expeditions were sent out against Maroon settlements, reaching its most extreme form in the specially recruited mercenaries from various European countries who were dispatched against the Aluku and other Maroons in Suriname in the late eighteenth century. John Stedman, a Captain of one of these mercenary groups, wrote in his classic work, Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes in Suriname, 1772-1777, about the extreme hazards and sufferings which his group experienced without much success in terms of their objective.

The prevailing view among scholars is that most large Maroon communities were geared for aggressive warfare and took the fight to their enemies. Indeed, a few of them seem to have been fully dedicated to destroying the White settlements, with their internal organizations geared as much to aggressive and persistent war against the enslavers as to the protection of their occupants. The Aluku community in Suriname and the Cofre de Perote one in Mexico exemplified this kind of structure.

The passion for revenge was a powerful motive for Maroon attacks on the plantocracy. Such a motive, for instance, has been attributed to Baron, a much feared Suriname Maroon in the late eighteenth century, who was treated badly by his overlord and once whipped below the public gallows. It is said that from that moment he swore the he would wreak vengeance on all Europeans, and that he would never die in peace until he had washed his hands in the tyrant’s blood. It is also said that before Joli Coeur (Jolicoeur), another Maroon in the same country, severed his former enslaver’s head from his body, he reminded the latter of having ravished his (i.e. Joli Coeur’s) mother and flogged his father who had sought to rescue her. Among the many acts of reprisal that Guillermo Rivas of Venezuela is said to have carried out against White enslavers and their cohorts is tying up a White corporal and inflicting the punishment of the Spanish whip (a life-threatening punishment) on him in the town centre, thus giving him a share of his own medicine. 

Scholars believe that in several instances Maroon military organization was facilitated by a number of soldiers were among the prisoners of war taken in African military engagements and sold into transatlantic slavery. The average Maroon fought the enemy with “traditional” weapons in their possession rather than with rifles or the more sophisticated weapons that their enslavers possessed. The machete, that they had used to cut canes and with which very many of them fled, was their most common weapon of defence, offence and survival. They also used knives, swords, lances, razors, and sickles. Occasionally, an elite group of warriors among them were equipped with firearms, which was always in critically short supply. These were acquired through plunder from the White arsenals, trade with ‘renegade’ Whites, or weapons won in encounters with the enemy. Perhaps uniquely, Baron’s community in Suriname is said to have possessed an unspecified number of swivel guns plundered from their enemies. While generally the colonial forces held an important and sometimes a decisive advantage over the Maroons in terms of weaponry, the latter often reduced the disadvantage through their skilful use of the terrain with which they became very familiar, and their camouflages.

A major problem that all White expeditions experienced was the difficult natural terrain that they had to overcome, often coupled with the fortifications that Maroon communities built, the innovate guerrilla warfare that Maroons often employed, and the contingency forms of escape that they had prepared for situations in which it appeared that they could no longer defend a particular site. In the case of Jamaica, Mavis Campbell informs us that the main Maroon communities built several settlements at various levels on the mountains, with the most strategic ones being built at the highest levels, and at virtually inaccessible points which almost no White expeditionary force ever reached. Moreover, the high elevation of the towns gave them a panoramic view of the surrounding areas, so that it was almost impossible to launch a surprise attack against them. The Blue Mountain and the John Crow summit of the Windward Maroons of Jamaica have become legendary in the history and lore of Maroon resistance in that country. 

Some communities, such as those in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, were protected by a combination of rugged mountains and dense forests. The Baoruco, Higuey, Cotuy, Buenaventura, Samana, Puerta Plata, San Francisco, Azua and San Juan de la Maguana areas were preferred sites for Maroons from the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The Baoruco Mountains constitute some of the loftiest mountain chains in the Caribbean, and were steep and difficult to compass. In Cuba, the peaks of the Sierra Maestra Range became the haunt of many Maroons of the eastern region. Estimated at a little more than 150 miles long, most of the area at the time consisted of virgin forests, with paths too steep and narrow for beasts of burden. The entire area was threaded with rivers whose courses were sometimes very steep, plunging down to the sea. In the case of Suriname and other flat lands, the settlements were surrounded by wide ditches in which the Maroons had implanted stakes with sharp edges well below the surface of the water, and also erected a series of palisades. In that country also, but not unique to it, the micro-parasites included mosquitoes, chigoes, sand flies, horseflies, ring worms, lice, wild bees, bats, spiders, scorpions, and centipedes. Infection of one kind or another often resulted in dry gripes, fevers, the bloody flux and dropsy.

From the eighteenth century the main plantation colonies sought to recruit Africans, usually enslaved persons, into fighting forces to combat what they viewed as the Maroon menace. French policy in Haiti was to confer freedom on enslaved persons after three years of devoted service as members of the militia, captains or scouts. The Black Rangers of Suriname are perhaps the most well known of such groups. They received provisional freedom before undertaking service for the slavocratic state, and proved their worth by their loyalty and the fierceness and fearlessness with which they engaged the Maroons in combat. On the other hand, the Black Shots of Jamaica were used as servile cohorts but not guaranteed freedom for faithful service. No wonder several of them took the opportunity of deserting when circumstances allowed them to do so.

Most slaveholders understood the need for accommodation, especially in relation to the large and long-established Maroon communities; others went through a kind of schizophrenia, wanting and yet not wanting to reach such an accommodation. However, the fact remains that marronage was a very expensive business, especially to the planters. It entailed the loss of a number of their labour hands, often the most hardy and robust, and depredations against the plantations and sometimes the towns. The cost of military expeditions also had to be borne ultimately by taxes and other levies on the slaveholders. In the 1730s the Jamaican Government declared that the Maroon wars had drained its coffers, while the Suriname Government declared bankruptcy in the 1770s because of the same kind of problem. The latter Government was forced to build a line of forts to keep out the Maroons from the northern plantations settlements but such an initiative did not solve the problem.

The enterprises especially of small planters and business persons often collapsed under the weight of the financial burdens that they had to bear in suppressing marronage and other forms of Black insurrection. Maroon activities, of course, not only impacted financially and politically, but also socially, on the slave societies. Along with other forms of resistance to slavery, they influenced the incidence of planter absenteeism in the slave colonies, and also the number of White females who were brought out to, or brought up in, the colonies. Thus Maroon depredations helped to destabilize slave society in significant ways. Therefore, it was not surprising that planters sought some accommodation with Maroon leaders.

The challenges which Maroon activities posed to the slavocracy can also be gauged through the many overtures that the latter made to reach a peaceful and negotiated settlement with them. Though such initiatives sometimes emanated from Maroon leaders, far more often they came from the colonial governments. This happened, for instance, in relation to treaties signed with Maroons in Jamaica, Suriname, and Guyana. These treaties were generally based on earlier ones that colonial governments had signed with Maroons in Mexico, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Dominica, French Guiana, Colombia and elsewhere. They usually involved recognizing the freedom of the members of the Maroon settlements, guaranteeing their lands or locating them on other lands over which they were to exercise autonomy, but subject to allowing a colonial officer to reside among them (ostensibly to be a liaison between them and the colonial authorities, but really to spy on their activities), laying down their arms, agreeing not to give shelter to future runaways, and assisting the colonial administration to apprehend runaways. Treaties signed with the Suriname Maroons also provided annual supplies of large quantities of goods which the Maroons formerly acquired either through surreptitious trade with free or enslaved persons in the colony, or from raiding European plantations and other settlements. These payments amounted to a veiled form of tribute to the Maroons. At other times, individuals within the plantation or rural communities openly paid tribute to Maroon groups to stop depredations by them. 

Treaties that the colonial authorities and Maroon leaders signed were never honoured faithfully by either party, but maintained an uncertain peace, punctuated periodically by discontent and allegations on both sides, and threats to abrogate the treaties. Treaty Maroons in Suriname were known to take in runaways surreptitiously, while the colonial authorities were known to be frequently late in dispatching the goods that they had promised to deliver at specific times. Several Maroons who were dissatisfied with the terms of the treaty or with post-treaty relations between the two parties hived off on their own and formed new Maroon communities or joined with existing ones. Interestingly, the greatest Maroon wars in Suriname occurred about a decade or so after the signing of significant treaties with Maroons in the 1760s. Thus, while the treaties offered some respite to planters, the Maroon problem for the slavocratic regimes was only finally resolved with the abolition of slavery. While the main Haitian Maroon groups refused to sign treaties with the colonial authorities, they pledged their word to cease attacks against the slavocracy once the pledge was reciprocated by the colonial regime.

A related factor in the colonial regime’s decision to reach some accommodation with the main Maroon communities was that in several instances large stretches of fertile land lay unoccupied by the plantocracy and often became part of the Maroon hunting grounds. This occurred in Jamaica in the early eighteenth century; they roved over some of the most fertile lands in the parishes of St Thomas, St George, and Portland. The same is true of large stretches of land in Haiti over which Le Maniel and other Maroon groups ranged. In Brazil, the large areas of land that the Palmares Maroons controlled directly and indirectly became a target of many land grabbers and speculators, and was one of the main reasons why they wanted to subvert that Maroon polity. In all three instances mentioned above, the destruction of the Maroon community or the negotiated peace led to considerable elaboration of White settlements in the adjoining areas. 

Clearly, neither Maroon insurgency nor any other aspect of slave resistance brought down the colonial regimes, with the notable exception of Haiti during the period of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. However, marronage was an important equation in the balance or distribution of power within the slavocratic societies. In several jurisdictions such activity helped to determine the spread of White settlements, the profit margins of particular planters, the social character of the societies, and the budgets of colonial regimes. They were an essential aspect of the discourse and later the debate on slavery, which ultimately led to the demise of the system.

Catégorie : Resistance to imperialism and emancipation

Pour citer l'article : Thompson, A. (2013). "Maroon Military Challenges to the Slavery Regime" 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/maroon-military-challenges-to-the-slavery-regime.html.


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