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Maroon Resistance

Marronage represented a major form of slave resistance, whether accomplished by lone individuals, by small groups, or in great collective rebellions. Throughout the Americas, maroon communities stood out as an heroic challenge to white authority, as the living proof of the existence of a slave consciousness that refused to be limited by the whites' conception or manipulation of it.

Enslaved people were well aware of the sanctions in place for those caught attempting to escape. Within the first decade of the existence of most slave-holding colonies in the Caribbean, the most brutal punishments—amputation of a leg, castration, suspension from a meathook through the ribs, slow roasting to death—were reserved for long-term, recidivist maroons, and in many cases these draconian punishments were quickly written into law.

Marronage on the grand scale, with individual fugitives banding together to create communities, struck directly at the foundations of the plantation system, presenting military and economic threats that often taxed the colonists to their very limits. Maroon communities, whether hidden near the fringes of the plantations or deep in the forest, periodically raided plantations for firearms, tools, and enslaved women, often permitting families that had formed during slavery to be reunited in freedom.

To be viable, maroon communities had to be inaccessible, and villages were typically located in remote, inhospitable areas. In the southern United States, isolated swamps were a favorite setting, and maroons often became part of Native American communities. In Jamaica, some of the most famous maroon groups lived in the intricately accidented “cockpit country,” where water and good soil are scarce but deep canyons and limestone sinkholes abound. And in the Guianas, seemingly impenetrable jungles provided maroons with a safe haven.

Successful Maroon communities learned quickly to turn the harshness of their immediate surroundings to their own advantage for purposes of concealment and defense. Paths leading to the villages were carefully disguised, and much use was made of false trails replete with dangerous booby traps. In the Guianas, villages set in swamps were approachable only by an underwater path, with other, false, paths carefully mined with pointed spikes or leading only to fatal quagmires or quicksand. In many regions, man traps, or even dog traps, were used in village defenses. 

Throughout the Caribbean, maroons developed extraordinary skills in guerrilla warfare. To the bewilderment of their colonial enemies, who attempted to employ rigid and conventional tactics learned on the open battlefields of Europe, these highly adaptable and mobile warriors took maximum advantage of confined environments, striking and withdrawing with great rapidity, making extensive use of ambushes to catch their adversaries in crossfire, fighting only when and where they chose, depending on reliable intelligence networks among non-maroons (both slaves and white settlers), and often communicating by drums and horns.

In many cases, the beleaguered colonists were eventually forced to sue their former slaves for peace. In Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela, for example, the whites reluctantly offered treaties granting maroon communities their freedom, recognizing their territorial integrity, and making some provision for meeting their economic needs, in return for an end to hostilities toward the plantations and an agreement to return future runaways. Of course, many maroon societies were crushed by massive force of arms, and even when treaties were proposed they were sometimes refused or quickly violated. Nevertheless, new maroon communities seemed to appear almost as quickly as the old ones were exterminated, and they remained, from a colonial perspective, the “chronic plague” and “gangrene” of many plantation societies right up to final Emancipation. 

Many of the treaties that granted Maroons their freedom included the stipulation that they return any new runaways who came to them after the treaty (or in some cases, such as Jamaica, that they actively aid the colonists in catching and returning to slavery all new maroons). Careful study of the post-treaty aftermaths, however, shows that in many cases post-treaty Maroons continued to resist the colonial order by receiving (and in some cases actually liberating) new maroons, integrating them into their nascent communities, and dissimulating their presence. The Saamaka Maroons of Suriname provide the best studied case of such integration of new Maroons, while effectively hiding them from the colonists. In the fifty years following their mid seventeenth-century treaty with the whites, the issue of new maroons – whether, where, and in what numbers the Saamaka were harboring them and trying to get the Saamaka to return them – was a constant tension. In the end, the Saamaka returned only a handful of the many hundreds of new Maroons they received in their midst, and these were people whom they judged undesirable, in their eyes criminals or witches.

Much of the recent research among Maroons has focused on historiography and historical consciousness – how Maroons themselves conceptualize and transmit knowledge about their early years of resistance – and it has privileged the voices of individual Maroon historians. First-Time presents oral historical accounts by Saamakas of the early years of their society’s formation, three hundred years ago, including their rebellions from slavery and their battles against the colonists (Price 2002[orig 1983). Alabi’s World supplements these Saamaka accounts with archival materials from German missionaries and Dutch administrators who lived in Saamaka villages beginning right after the 1762 peace treaties with the colonists, directly juxtaposing ever more complex written and oral materials about the same events (Price 1990). True-Born Maroons combined oral and archival materials, with an emphasis on the perspective of Maroons themselves, for Jamaica, uncovering a remarkable number of African practices as well as a great deal of early New World creolization, involving language, religious practices, and much else during the wars against the colonists (Bilby 2005). A recent history in Dutch of the first century of Ndyuka Maroon resistance presents alternating chapters based on oral and archival materials, creating a rich historical picture of politics and social life in this Suriname Maroon society (Thoden van Velzen and Hoogbergen 2011). 

Since the turn of the 21st century, Maroons have taken center stage in the struggle for territory and sovereignty within nation states, continuing the kinds of resistance they displayed during the colonial period. Brazil and Suriname provide banner examples. Following promulgation of the new constitution of Brazil in 1988 (and subsequent reforms), the descendants of historical quilombos (which originally meant “maroon communities”) have, under certain conditions, had the right to claim collective title to the lands on which their ancestors lived. In the process of the ensuing legal battles, the definition of quilombo has expanded to include almost any landless black Brazilian community – rural or urban – whose members can claim a history of resistance to state power – not just descendants of maroons. Today, many young Brazilian anthropologists are trained explicitly to help such quilombo-descendant communities in their quest for title to lands and related rights. Large numbers of such communities have already received collective titles to land.

In 1990s’ Suriname, the Saamaka Maroons – some 55,000 people – found the lands that their ancestors had lived on since the late seventeenth century invaded by Chinese loggers and other multinational mining and extraction companies that had received permits from the national government. Suriname’s postcolonial constitution grants ownership of the forest, which is inhabited by a number of Indigenous peoples as well as six Maroon peoples, to the State, which during that decade began doling out mining and logging concessions to foreign multinationals. Organizing themselves and obtaining legal aid, the Saamaka People fought a decade-long legal battle with the Republic of Suriname. This struggle culminated in a landmark 2007 judgment by the Inter-American Court for Human Rights (the case of Saramaka People v Suriname), requiring the nation to change its laws to grant the Saamaka People collective title to their traditional territory as well as considerable sovereignty over it – a judgment that establishes jurisprudence for Indigenous Peoples and Maroons throughout the Americas.

Catégorie : Resistance to imperialism and emancipation

Pour citer l'article : (2013). "Maroon Resistance" 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-resistance.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.

Price, Richard. Alabi's World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Price, Richard. Rainforest Warriors: Human Rights on Trial. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. 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.