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Maroons in the Caribbean

Communities formed by self-liberated slaves dotted the fringes of plantation America, from Brazil to the southeastern United States, from Peru to the American Southwest for more than four centuries. Usually known in Spanish as palenques and in Brazilian as quilombos or mocambos, these new maroon societies ranged from tiny bands that survived less than a year to powerful states encompassing thousands of members that survived for generations or even centuries. (The French word “marron” derives from Spanish cimarrón, itself based on a Taíno [Amerindian] root.) Today the descendants of these early maroons still form semi-independent enclaves in several parts of the hemisphere—Suriname and French Guiana, Jamaica, Brazil, Colombia, and Belize—remaining fiercely proud of their maroon origins and, in some cases at least, faithful to unique cultural traditions that their fugitive ancestors forged during the earliest days of African American history.

In the Caribbean, the meaning and attractiveness of marronage differed for enslaved people in different social positions, varying with their perceptions of themselves and their situations, which were influenced by such diverse factors as their countries of birth, the periods of time they had been in the New World, their task assignments as slaves, their family responsibilities, and the particular treatments they were receiving from overseers or masters, as well as more general considerations such as the proportions of blacks to whites in the region, the proportions of freedmen in the population, the natures of available terrain in which to establish communities, and the opportunities for manumission. Many maroons, particularly men, escaped during their first hours or days in the Americas. Enslaved Africans who had already spent some time in the New World seem to have been less prone to flight. But Creole slaves who were particularly acculturated, who had learned the ways of the plantation best, seem to have been highly represented among runaways, often escaping to urban areas where they could pass as free because of their independent skills and ability to speak the colonial language.

 The large number of detailed newspaper advertisements for runaway slaves placed by masters attests to the high level of planter concern, while at the same time affording the critical historian an important set of sources for establishing the profiles of maroons, which varied significantly by historical period and country. Individual maroons fled not only to the hinterlands—many, especially skilled slaves, escaped to urban centers and successfully melted into the population of freedmen, while others became maritime maroons, fleeing by fishing boat or other vessel across international borders. And in Haiti, maroons played a signal role as catalysts in the Haitian Revolution (1791) that created the first nation in the Americas in which all citizens were free. 

Planters generally tolerated petit marronage—repetitive or periodic truancy with temporary goals such as visiting friends or lovers on neighboring plantations. But 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—had been 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 in remote areas to create communities of their own, 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 women, often reuniting in freedom families that had formed during slavery. In a remarkable number of cases, the beleaguered colonists were eventually forced to sue their former slaves for peace. For example, in Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, and Suriname (as well as Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Mexico) they 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 never reached such acknowledged independence, being 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 for many plantation societies right up to final Emancipation they remained, from a colonial perspective, a “chronic plague” and “gangrene.”

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. Throughout the hemisphere, 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.

The initial maroons in any New World colony hailed from a wide range of societies in West and West 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, drawing on their diverse African heritages with added input from their European masters and new Amerindian neighbors. 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 general 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 bearing diverse African, European, and Amerindian cultures in the agonized and hence dynamic settings of the New World. 

Some of the most famous maroon societies in the Caribbean are the Maroons of Jamaica and the Saamaka, Ndyuka, and other Maroons of Suriname and Guyane. The Jamaica Maroons, who continue to live in two main groups centered in Accompong (in the hills above Montego Bay) and in Moore Town (deep in the Blue Mountains), maintain strong traditions about their days as freedom fighters, when the former group was led by Cudjoe and the latter by the redoubtable woman warrior Nanny (whose likeness now graces the Jamaican 500 dollar bill). Two centuries of scholarship, some of it written by Maroons themselves, offers diverse windows on the ways these men and women managed to build a vibrant culture within the confines of a relatively small island.

The Suriname Maroons now constitute the most fully documented case of how former slaves built new societies and cultures, under conditions of extreme deprivation, in the Americas—and how they developed and maintained semi-independent societies that persist in the present. From their late seventeenth-century origins and the details of their wars and treaty-making to their current struggles with multinational mining and timber companies, much is now known about these peoples' achievements, in large part because of the extensive recent collaboration by Saamaka and Ndyuka Maroons with anthropologists. Today, Suriname Maroons—who number some 122,000 people—live in the interior of the country, in and around the capital Paramaribo, and in neighboring French Guiana as well as in the Netherlands. 

Maroons and maroon societies hold a special place within the study of Caribbean slavery. Marronage represented a major form of slave resistance, whether accomplished by lone individuals, by small groups, or in great collective rebellions. Throughout the Caribbean, maroon communities stood out as heroic challenges to colonial authority, as the living proof of the existence of a slave consciousness that refused to be limited by the whites' manipulation of it. It is no accident that 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.

Catégorie : Waves of Colonization

Pour citer l'article : (2013). "Maroons in the Caribbean" in Cruse & Rhiney (Eds.), Caribbean Atlas, http://www.caribbean-atlas.com/en/themes/waves-of-colonization-and-control-in-the-caribbean/waves-of-colonization/maroons-in-the-caribbean.html.


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