Abeng Central

News and background stories on maroon communities in the Americas.

A general history of Maroons

Below is an excerpt of an article written by anthropologists Kenneth Bilby and Diana Baird N’Diaye. You can find the full article here: Smithsonian Institution and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

Creativity and Resistance: Maroon Cultures in the Americas

Peace negotiations between Maroons and British soldiers on the island of St. Vincent, 1773. Engraving from an original painting by Agostino Brunias, about 1786. Courtesy of National Library of Jamaica

Peace negotiations between Maroons and British soldiers on the island of St. Vincent, 1773. Engraving from an original painting by Agostino Brunias, about 1786. Courtesy of National Library of Jamaica

In 1739 the British government concluded two peace treaties on the island of Jamaica. Those with whom the British treated were neither European generals nor Native American chieftains. They were, rather, enslaved Africans who had managed to escape plantations and form new societies in the wilderness. For nearly a century, these communities had waged a devastating war against the colonists from their strongholds in the Jamaican hills. Unable to defeat them, the British were forced to propose treaties recognizing the freedom that those they had once held in bondage had already seized, and granting them land and partial political autonomy.

The Jamaican treaties were not the first of their kind. Similar pacts had been made, for example, between colonial governments and communities of enslaved Africans in Hispaniola, Panama, Venezuela and Ecuador during the 16th century and in Mexico, Colombia and Brazil during the 17th century. Yet other treaties were to follow the Jamaican ones, such as those made in Dutch Guiana during the 18th century.

The story of the maroons (The authors have chosen to spell “maroon” in lower case when it is used to refer to individuals who escaped from slavery. It is capitalized only when used generically to refer to contemporary peoples or ethnic groups.)–as those who fled from bondage and their descendants became known–does not begin with these colonial treaties, but goes back to the very earliest days of European settlement and slavery in the Americas.

'Massacre of the Whites by the Indians and Blacks in Florida, 1836'. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Propagandist wood engravings like this one illustrating the Dade Massacre (1835-36) and the onset of the Second Seminole War (1835-42) were intended to inflame European and Euro-American fears of both Native Americans and Africans. The drawing is titled: Massacre of the Whites by the Indians and Blacks in Florida, 1836. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Runaways

In 1502, a mere 10 years after Columbus’ first voyage, the first known African maroon escaped his captors and fled into the interior of the island of Hispaniola. No one can say with certainty when the first maroon community in the Americas was established, although there exists a written document confirming that by the early 1500s a settlement of Africans who escaped enslavement had already formed on Samaná, an island off the northeastern coast of Hispaniola.

Over the next three and a half centuries, hundreds more such maroon communities were to emerge throughout the Americas, as slaves took their chances and broke away from the mines and plantations of the European colonizers in a bid for freedom and independence. Their exact numbers will never be known. The societies they created ranged in size from small bands of 10 or 20 individuals to powerful kingdoms with thousands of members, such as Palmares in Brazil, which spanned more than 1,000 square miles.

Mann Rowe, secretary of the Leeward Maroons, holding a copy of the 1739 Maroon Treaty of Jamaica, which ended hostilities between the Maroons and the British, Accompong, Jamaica, about 1980. Courtesy of National Library of Jamaica

Mann Rowe, secretary of the Leeward Maroons, holding a copy of the 1739 Maroon Treaty of Jamaica, which ended hostilities between the Maroons and the British, Accompong, Jamaica, about 1980. Courtesy of National Library of Jamaica

No colony in the Western Hemisphere, no slaveholding area, was immune to the growth of such alternative maroon societies. Wherever large expanses of inaccessible and uninhabited terrain permitted, as in the vast Guianese rainforest or the mountainous Jamaican interior, these communities proliferated. Even in the British North American colonies, and later the United States, where unoccupied yet habitable spaces were not as plentiful, more than 50 maroon settlements are known to have come into being between 1672 and 1864. We have no way of estimating how many others may have escaped the notice of historians.

In many ways the maroon experience is emblematic of broader processes that helped shape the Western Hemisphere. Not only were maroons in the forefront of resistance to slavery, they were among the first pioneers to explore and adapt to the more remote, unsettled spaces in both American continents and the Caribbean.

Toussaint Louverture

Maroons were among the first Americans in the wake of 1492 to resist colonial domination, striving for independence, forging new cultures and identities, and developing solidarity out of diversity–processes which only later took place, on a much larger scale, in emerging nation-states. In the French colony of Saint-Domingue, maroons helped to launch the Haitian Revolution, which gave birth to one of the first independent republics in the Americas in 1804.

Although there is a large and growing body of scholarly writing about maroons based on solid archival research, relatively few people today are aware that such communities ever existed. Few history books used in schools in the western world give attention to the societies and cultures that maroons successfully built away from the plantations.

Contemporary Maroons

Although many withstood military assaults for years, most maroon communities were eventually destroyed by colonial troops, who usually outnumbered them and were much better armed. After the abolition of slavery, many maroon groups were assimilated into the larger societies that surrounded them. Of the hundreds of such communities once spread across the hemisphere, only a few still exist.

Present-day Maroon peoples include the Saramaka, Ndjuka, Paramaka, Matawai and Kwinti of Suriname; the Aluku of French Guiana; the Palenqueros of Colombia; the Windward and Leeward Maroons of Jamaica; the Garífuna of the Atlantic coast of Central America; the Maroons of the Costa Chica region in Mexico; and the Seminole Maroons of Texas, Oklahoma, Mexico and the Bahamas….Read the rest of the article here: Smithsonian Institution and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.