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Great Dismal Swamp maroons
Maroons are descendants of Africans in the Americas who formed settlements away from slavery. They often mixed with indigenous peoples, eventually evolving into separate creole cultures such as the Garifuna and the Mascogos.
Maroon, which can have a more general sense of being abandoned without resources, entered English around the 1590s, from the French adjective marron, meaning 'feral' or 'fugitive'.
The American Spanish word cimarrón is often given as the source of the English word maroon, used to describe the runaway slave communities in Florida, in the Great Dismal Swamp on the border of Virginia and North Carolina, on colonial islands of the Caribbean, and in other parts of the New World. Lyle Campbell says the Spanish word cimarrón means 'wild, unruly' or 'runaway slave'. The linguist Leo Spitzer, writing in the journal Language, says: "If there is a connection between Eng. maroon, Fr. marron, and Sp. cimarrón, Spain (or Spanish America) probably gave the word directly to England (or English America)." The Cuban philologist José Juan Arrom has traced the origins of the word maroon further than the Spanish cimarrón, used first in Hispaniola to refer to feral cattle, then to enslaved Indians who escaped to the hills, and by the early 1530s to enslaved Africans who did the same. He proposes that the American Spanish word derives ultimately from the Arawakan root word simarabo, construed as 'fugitive', in the Arawakan language spoken by the Taíno people native to the island.
In the New World, as early as 1512, enslaved Africans escaped from Spanish captors and either joined indigenous peoples or eked out a living on their own. Sir Francis Drake enlisted several cimarrones during his raids on the Spanish. As early as 1655, escaped Africans had formed their communities in inland Jamaica, and by the 18th century, Nanny Town and other villages began to fight for independent recognition.
When runaway enslaved people and Amerindians banded together and subsisted independently they were called maroons. On the Caribbean islands, they formed bands and on some islands, armed camps. Maroon communities faced great odds against their surviving attacks by hostile colonists, obtaining food for subsistence living, as well as reproducing and increasing their numbers. As the planters took over more land for crops, the maroons began to lose ground on the small islands. Only on some of the larger islands were organized maroon communities able to thrive by growing crops and hunting. Here they grew in number as more enslaved people escaped from plantations and joined their bands. Seeking to separate themselves from colonizers, the maroons gained in power and amid increasing hostilities, they raided and pillaged plantations and harassed planters until the planters began to fear a massive revolt of the enslaved people of colour.
The early maroon communities were usually displaced. By 1700, maroons had disappeared from the smaller islands. Survival was always difficult, as the maroons had to fight off attackers as well as grow food. One of the most influential maroons was François Mackandal, a houngan or voodoo priest, who led a six-year rebellion against the white plantation owners in Haiti that preceded the Haitian Revolution.
In Cuba, there were maroon communities in the mountains, where African refugees had escaped the brutality of slavery and joined refugee Taínos. Before roads were built into the mountains of Puerto Rico, heavy brush kept many escaped maroons hidden in the southwestern hills where many also intermarried with the natives. Escaped slaves sought refuge away from the coastal plantations of Ponce. Remnants of these communities remain to this day (2006) for example in Viñales, Cuba, and Adjuntas, Puerto Rico.
Maroon communities emerged in many places in the Caribbean (St Vincent and Dominica, for example), but none were seen as such a great threat to the British as the Jamaican Maroons. The British governor of the Colony of Jamaica, Edward Trelawny signed treaties in 1739 and 1740 promising them 2,500 acres (1,012 ha) in two locations, at Cudjoe's Town (Trelawny Town) in western Jamaica and Crawford's Town in eastern Jamaica, to bring an end to the warfare between the communities. In exchange, they were to agree to capture other escaped slaves. They were initially paid a bounty of two dollars for each African returned.
Beginning in the late 17th century, Jamaican Maroons fought British colonists to a draw and eventually signed treaties in the mid-18th century, that effectively freed them a century before the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, which came into effect in 1838. To this day, the Jamaican Maroons are to a significant extent autonomous and separate from Jamaican society. The physical isolation used to their advantage by their ancestors has today led to their communities remaining among the most inaccessible on the island. In their largest town, Accompong, in the parish of St Elizabeth, the Leeward Maroons still possess a vibrant community of about 600. Tours of the village are offered to foreigners and a large festival is put on every January 6 to commemorate the signing of the peace treaty with the British after the First Maroon War.
In the plantation colony of Suriname, which England ceded to the Netherlands in the Treaty of Breda (1667), escaped slaves revolted and started to build their villages from the end of the 17th century. As most of the plantations existed in the eastern part of the country, near the Commewijne River and Marowijne River, the Marronage (i.e., running away) took place along the river borders and sometimes across the borders of French Guiana. By 1740, the maroons had formed clans and felt strong enough to challenge the Dutch colonists, forcing them to sign peace treaties. On October 10, 1760, the Ndyuka signed such a treaty, drafted by Adyáko Benti Basiton of Boston, a former enslaved African from Jamaica who had learned to read and write and knew about the Jamaican treaty. The treaty is still important, as it defines the territorial rights of the Maroons in the gold-rich inlands of Suriname.
Enslaved people escaped frequently within the first generation of their arrival from Africa and often preserved their African languages and much of their culture and religion. African traditions included such things as the use of certain medicinal herbs together with special drums and dances when the herbs are administered to a sick person. Other African healing traditions and rites have survived through the centuries.
The jungles around the Caribbean Sea offered food, shelter, and isolation for the escaped enslaved people. Maroons sustained themselves by growing vegetables and hunting. Their survival depended upon their cultures, and their military abilities, using guerrilla tactics and heavily fortified dwellings involving traps and diversions. Some defined leaving the community as desertion and therefore punishable by death. They also originally raided plantations. During these attacks, the maroons would burn crops, steal livestock and tools, kill slavemasters, and invite other enslaved people to join their communities. Individual groups of maroons often allied themselves with the local indigenous tribes and occasionally assimilated into these populations. Maroons played an important role in the histories of Brazil, Suriname, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Jamaica.
Maroon settlements often possessed a clannish, outsider identity. They sometimes developed Creole languages by mixing European tongues with their original African languages. One such maroon creole language, in Suriname, is Saramaccan. At other times, the maroons would adopt variations of a local European language (creolization) as a common tongue, for members of the community frequently spoke a variety of mother tongues.
The maroons created their own independent communities, which in some cases have survived for centuries, and until recently remained separate from mainstream society. In the 19th and 20th centuries, maroon communities began to disappear as forests were razed, although some countries, such as Guyana and Suriname, still have large maroon populations living in the forests. Recently, many of them moved to cities and towns as the process of urbanization accelerates.
A typical maroon community in the early stage usually consists of three types of people.
Maroonage was a constant threat to New World plantation societies. Punishments for recaptured maroons were severe, like removing the Achilles tendon, amputating a leg, castration, and being roasted to death.
Maroon communities had to be inaccessible and were located in inhospitable environments to be sustainable. For example, maroon communities were established in remote swamps in the southern United States; in deep canyons with sinkholes but little water or fertile soil in Jamaica; and in deep jungles of the Guianas.
Maroon communities turned the severity of their environments to their advantage to hide and defend their communities. Disguised pathways, false trails, booby traps, underwater paths, quagmires and quicksand, and natural features were all used to conceal maroon villages.
Maroons utilized exemplary guerrilla warfare skills to fight their European enemies. Nanny, the famous Jamaican maroon, developed guerrilla warfare tactics that are still used today by many militaries around the world. European troops used strict and established strategies while maroons attacked and retracted quickly, used ambush tactics, and fought when and where they wanted to.
Even though colonial governments were in a perpetual state of hatred toward the maroon communities, individuals in the colonial system traded goods and services with them. Maroons also traded with isolated white settlers and Native American communities. Maroon communities played interest groups off of one another. At the same time, maroon communities were also used as pawns when colonial powers clashed.
Absolute secrecy and loyalty of members were crucial to the survival of maroon communities. To ensure this loyalty, maroon communities used severe methods to protect against desertion and spies. New members were brought to communities by way of detours so they could not find their way back and served probationary periods, often as enslaved people. Crimes such as desertion and adultery were punishable by death.
In Cuba, escaped enslaved people had joined refugee Taínos in the mountains to form maroon communities. There are 28 identified archaeological sites in the Viñales Valley related to runaway African slaves or maroons of the early 19th century; the material evidence of their presence is found in caves of the region, where groups settled for various lengths of time. Oral tradition tells that maroons took refuge on the slopes of the mogotes and in the caves; the Viñales Municipal Museum has archaeological exhibits that depict the life of runaway slaves, as deduced through archeological research. Cultural traditions reenacted during the Semana de la Cultura (Week of Culture) celebrate the town's founding in 1607.
Similar maroon communities developed on islands across the Caribbean, such as those of the Garifuna people. Many of the Garifuna were deported to the mainland, where some eventually settled along the Mosquito Coast or in Belize. From their original landing place in Roatan Island, the maroons moved to Trujillo. Gradually groups migrated south into the Miskito Kingdom and north into Belize.
In Dominica, escaped slaves joined Kalinago refugees in the island's densely forested interior to create maroon communities, which were constantly in conflict with the British empire throughout the period of formal chattel slavery.
Runaway slaves and fugitive French republican soldiers formed the so-called Armée Française dans les bois (French army in the woods), which comprised about 6,000 men who fought a guerilla war against the British army occupying Santa Lucia. Led by the French Commissioner, Gaspard Goyrand, they succeeded in taking back most of the island from the British, but on 26 May 1796, their forces defending the fort at Morne Fortune, about 2,000 men, surrendered to a British division under the command of General John Moore. After the capitulation, over 2,500 prisoners of war, mostly black or mixed-race, as well as ninety-nine women and children, were transported from St Lucia to Portchester Castle.
American marronage began in Spain's colony on the island of Hispaniola. Governor Nicolás de Ovando was already complaining of escaped slaves and their interactions with the Taino Indians by 1503. Maroons joined the natives in their wars against the Spanish and hid with the rebel chieftain Enriquillo in the Bahoruco Mountains. When Archdeacon Alonso de Castro toured Hispaniola in 1542, he estimated the maroon population at 2,000-3,000 persons.
The French encountered many forms of slave resistance during the 17th and 18th centuries. Enslaved Africans who fled to remote mountainous areas were called marron (French) or mawon (Haitian Creole), meaning 'escaped slave'. The maroons formed close-knit communities that practised small-scale agriculture and hunting. They were known to return to plantations to free family members and friends. On a few occasions, they also joined the Taíno settlements, who had escaped the Spanish in the 17th century. Other slave resistance efforts against the French plantation system were more direct. The maroon leader Mackandal led a movement to poison the drinking water of the plantation owners in the 1750s. Boukman declared war on the French plantation owners in 1791, setting off the Haitian Revolution. A statue called the Le Nègre Marron or the Nèg Mawon is an iconic bronze bust that was erected in the heart of Port-au-Prince to commemorate the role of maroons in Haitian independence.
People who escaped from slavery during the Spanish occupation of the island of Jamaica fled to the interior and joined the Taíno living there, forming refugee communities. Later, many of them gained freedom during the confusion surrounding the 1655 English Invasion of Jamaica. Some refugee enslaved people continued to join them through the decades until the abolition of slavery in 1838, but in the main, after the signing of the treaties of 1739 and 1740, the Maroons hunted runaway slaves in return for payment from the British colonial authorities.
During the late 17th and 18th centuries, the British tried to capture the maroons because they occasionally raided plantations, and made expansion into the interior more difficult. An increase in armed confrontations over decades led to the First Maroon War in the 1730s, but the British were unable to defeat the maroons. They finally settled with the groups by treaty in 1739 and 1740, allowing them to have autonomy in their communities in exchange for agreeing to be called to military service with the colonists if needed. Certain maroon factions became so formidable that they made treaties with local colonial authorities, sometimes negotiating their independence in exchange for helping to hunt down other enslaved people who escaped.
Due to tensions and repeated conflicts with maroons from Trelawny Town, the Second Maroon War erupted in 1795. After the governor tricked the Trelawny Maroons into surrendering, the colonial government deported approximately 600 captive maroons to Nova Scotia. Due to their difficulties and those of Black Loyalists settled at Nova Scotia and England after the American Revolution, Great Britain established a colony in West Africa, Sierra Leone. It offered ethnic Africans a chance to set up their community there, beginning in 1792. Around 1800, several hundred Jamaican maroons were transported to Freetown, the first settlement of Sierra Leone. Eventually, in the 1840s, about 200 Trelawny Maroons returned to Jamaica, and settled in the village of Flagstaff in the parish of St James, not far from Trelawny Town, which is now named Maroon Town, Jamaica.
The only Leeward Maroon settlement that retained formal autonomy in Jamaica after the Second Maroon War was Accompong, in Saint Elizabeth Parish, whose people had abided by their 1739 treaty with the British. A Windward Maroon community is also located at Charles Town, Jamaica, on Buff Bay River in Portland Parish. Another is at Moore Town (formerly Nanny Town), also in the parish of Portland. In 2005, the music of the Moore Town Maroons was declared by UNESCO as a 'Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.' A fourth community is at Scott's Hall, Jamaica, in the parish of St Mary. Accompong's autonomy was ratified by the government of Jamaica when the island gained independence in 1962.
The government has tried to encourage the survival of the other maroon settlements. The Jamaican government and the maroon communities organized the Annual International Maroon Conference, initially to be held at rotating communities around the island, but the conference has been held at Charles Town since 2009. Maroons from other Caribbean, Central, and South America nations are invited. In 2016, Accompong's colonel and a delegation traveled to the Kingdom of Ashanti in Ghana to renew ties with the Akan and Asante people of their ancestors.
In Puerto Rico, Taíno families from neighboring Utuado moved into the southwestern mountain ranges, along with escaped African enslaved people who intermarried with them. The DNA analysis of contemporary persons from this area shows maternal ancestry from the Mandinka, Wolof, and Fulani peoples through the mtDNA African haplotype associated with them, L1b, which is present here. This was carried by African enslaved people who escaped from plantations around Ponce and formed communities with the Arawak (Taíno and Kalinago) in the mountains. Arawak lineages (Taíno people represented within haplogroups A and Kalinago people represented within haplogroups C) can also be found in this area.
Several different maroon societies developed around the Gulf of Honduras. Some were found in the interior of modern-day Honduras, along the trade routes by which silver mined on the Pacific side of the isthmus was carried by enslaved people down to coastal towns such as Trujillo or Puerto Caballos to be shipped to Europe. When enslaved people escaped, they went to the mountains for safety. In 1648, the English bishop of Guatemala, Thomas Gage, reported active bands of maroons numbering in the hundreds along these routes.
The Miskito Sambu were a maroon group who formed from enslaved people who revolted on a Portuguese ship around 1640, wrecking the vessel on the coast of Honduras-Nicaragua and escaping into the interior. They intermarried with the indigenous people over the next half-century. They eventually rose to leadership of the Mosquito Coast and led extensive slave raids against Spanish-held territories in the first half of the 18th century.
Bayano, a Mandinka man who had been enslaved and taken to Panama in 1552, led a rebellion that year against the Spanish in Panama. He and his followers escaped to found villages in the lowlands. Later these people, known as the Cimarrón, assisted Sir Francis Drake in fighting against the Spanish.
Gaspar Yanga was an African leader of a Maroon colony in the Veracruz highlands in what is now Mexico. In 1609, after having been a fugitive for 38 years, Yanga negotiated with the Spanish colonists to establish a self-ruled maroon settlement called San Lorenzo de los Negros, (later renamed Yanga).
In the 1790s, about 600 Jamaican Maroons were deported to British settlements in Nova Scotia, where British slaves who had escaped from the United States were also resettled. Being unhappy with conditions, in 1800, a majority emigrated to what is now Sierra Leone in Africa.
Lakeview was established as a Freedmen's town by a group of African-American runaway slaves and freedmen who immigrated from North Carolina shortly after the War of 1812. They arrived between 1818 and 1820. This area was ideal for the remaining Native Americans who lived, hunted, fished, and farmed this region and the black community integrated with the Natives.
Maroons who escaped from British colonies and allied with Seminole Indians were one of the largest and most successful maroon communities in what is now Florida due to more rights and freedoms granted by the Spanish Empire. Some intermarried and were culturally Seminole; others maintained a more African culture. Descendants of those who were removed with the Seminole to Indian Territory in the 1830s are recognized as Black Seminoles. Many were formerly part of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, but have been excluded since the late 20th century by new membership rules that require proving Native American descent from historic documents.
Until the mid-1760s, maroon colonies lined the shores of Lake Borgne, just downriver of New Orleans, Louisiana. These fugitive enslaved people controlled many of the canals and back-country passages from Lake Pontchartrain to the Gulf, including the Rigolets. These colonies were eventually eradicated by militia from Spanish-controlled New Orleans led by Francisco Bouligny. Free people of color aided in the capture of these fugitives.
The Great Dismal Swamp maroons inhabited the marshlands of the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina. Although conditions were harsh, research suggests that thousands lived there between about 1700 and the 1860s.
Robeson County, North Carolina was a place where Blacks, Native Americans, and even some outlaw whites lived together and intermingled producing a people of great genetic mixture.
One of the best-known quilombos (maroon settlements) in Brazil was Palmares (the Palm Nation), which was founded in the early 17th century. At its height, it had a population of over 30,000 free people and was ruled by king Zumbi. Palmares maintained its independent existence for almost a hundred years until it was conquered by the Portuguese in 1694.
Escaped enslaved people established independent communities along the remote Pacific coast, outside of the reach of the colonial administration. In Colombia, the Caribbean coast still sees maroon communities like San Basilio de Palenque, where the creole Palenquero language is spoken.
Through the region of Barlovento, many free and escaped enslaved people founded communities, known as a Cumbe. One of the most well-known of these settlements is Curiepe, where the annual Fiesta de San Juan is celebrated.
In addition to escaped enslaved people, survivors from shipwrecks that formed independent communities along rivers of the northern coast and mingled with indigenous communities in areas beyond the reach of the colonial administration. Separate communities can be distinguished from the cantones Cojimies y Tababuela, Esmeraldas, Limones.
In French Guiana and Suriname (where maroons account for about 15% of the population), escaped enslaved people, or Bushinengues, fled to the interior and joined with indigenous peoples and created several independent tribes, among them the Saramaka, the Paramaka, the Ndyuka (Aukan), the Kwinti, the Aluku (Boni), and the Matawai. The Ndyuka were the first to sign a peace treaty offering them territorial autonomy in 1760. In the 1770s, the Aluku also desired a peace treaty, however the Society of Suriname, started a war against them, resulting in an flight into French Guiana. The other tribes signed peace treaties with the Surinamese government, the Kwinti being the last in 1887. On 25 May 1891 the Aluku officially became French citizens.
By the 1980s the Bushinengues in Suriname had begun to fight for their land rights. Between 1986 and 1992, the Surinamese Interior War was waged by the Jungle Commando, a guerrilla group fighting for the rights of the maroon minority, against the military dictatorship of Dési Bouterse. In 2005, following a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the Suriname government agreed to compensate survivors of the 1986 Moiwana village massacre, in which soldiers had slaughtered 39 unarmed Ndyuka people, mainly women and children. On 13 June 2020, Ronnie Brunswijk was elected Vice President of Suriname by acclamation in an uncontested election. He was inaugurated on 16 July as the first Maroon in Suriname to serve as vice president.
Under governor Adriaan van der Stel in 1642 the early Dutch settlers of the Dutch East India Company brought 105 slaves from Madagascar and parts of Asia to work for them in Dutch Mauritius. However 52 of these first slaves, including women, escaped in the wilderness of Dutch Mauritius. Only 18 of these escapees were caught. On 18 June 1695 a gang of maroons of Indonesian and Chinese origins, including Aaron d'Amboine, Antoni (Bamboes) and Paul de Batavia, as well as female escapees Anna du Bengale and Espérance, set fire to the Dutch settlers' Fort Frederick Hendryk (Vieux Grand Port) in an attempt to take over control of the island. They were all caught and decapitated. In February 1706 another revolt was organised by the remaining maroons as well as disgruntled slaves. When the Dutch abandoned Dutch Mauritius in 1710 the maroons stayed behind.
When representatives of the French East India Company landed on the island in 1715 they also had to face attacks by the Mauritian maroons. Significant events were the 1724 assault on a military outpost in Savannah district, as well as the attack on a military barrack in 1732 at Poste de Flacq. Several deaths resulted from such attacks. Soon after his arrival in 1735 Mahé de La Bourdonnais assembled and equipped militia groups made of both civilians and soldiers to fight against the maroons. In 1739 gang leader Sans Souci was captured near Flacq and was burnt alive by the French settlers. A few years later a group of French settlers gave chase to Barbe Blanche, another maroon leader, but lost track of him at Le Morne. Other maroons included Diamamouve and Madame Françoise.
The Shorter Oxford Dictionary explains maroon 'fugitive negro slave' as from 'Fr. marron, said to be a corruption of Sp. cimarrón, wild, untamed'. But Eng.maroon is attested earlier (1666) than Fr. marron 'fugitive slave' (1701, in Furetiere). If there is a connection between Eng. maroon, Fr. marron, and Sp. cimarrón, Spain (or Spanish America) probably gave the word directly to England (or English America).
Y si prestamos atención al testimonio de Oviedo cuando, después de haber vivido en la Española por muchos años, asevera que cimarrón «quiere decir, en la lengua desta isla, fugitivos», quedaría demostrado que nos hallamos, en efecto, ante un temprano préstamo de la lengua taina.» English: And if we pay attention to the testimony of Oviedo when, after having lived in Hispaniola for many years, he asserts that cimarrón "means, in the language of this island, fugitives", it would be demonstrated that we are, in fact, before an early loan of the Taíno language.
En resumen, los informes que aquí aporto confirman que cimarrón es un indigenismo de origen antillano, que se usaba ya en el primer tercio de siglo xvi, y que ha venido a resultar otro de los numerosos antillanismos que la conquista extendió por todo el ámbito del continente e hizo refluir sobre la propia metrópoli. English: In short, the reports that I am contributing here confirm that cimarrón is an Indian word of Antillean origin, which was already used in the first third of the sixteenth century, and which has come to be another of the many antillanisms that the conquest extended throughout the breadth of the continent and made to reflect on the metropolis itself.
Some maroon communities became powerful enough to force the European powers into formal peace treaties designed to pacify the interior while recognizing the freedom and autonomy of the rebels. Jamaica and Surinam provided the most famous of these cases, which had counterparts in Mexico...