Jamaican Maroon origins and the treaties (part 2)
The appellation of “Maroon” was not self-chosen but was rather a derivation of the Spanish word “cimarron” meaning “wild”, which was first applied in the Spanish colonies to runaway indigenous people; only later was it used of runaway enslaved Africans.
Verene Shepherd notes an alternate lesser-known etymology for maroon — the Taino word Samara, meaning arrow, signifying the unerring flight of an arrow, clearly a metaphor for their intentionally removing themselves from the oppression of enslavement.
Wallace Sterling, colonel of the Moore Town Maroons, has rejected the description of Maroons as “runaway slaves”, which he deems derogatory. He argues that Maroons were free people, who resisted slavery.
Carla Gardina Pestana similarly maintained that the first Maroons were not runaway slaves, but rather refugees from the British invasion of the island (both slave and free), who defied the authority of Ysassi by withdrawing into the interior to form their own communities away from the Europeans. To these were added later enslaved Africans, who escaped in small groups or individually, as the system of enslavement expanded. Gardina Pestana maintains that Jamaica’s Maroon communities, therefore, emerged out of a complex mix of backgrounds — refugee and runaways. She, like Sterling, therefore argues against using the single category of runaway slave to describe Maroons as it “reduces the range of African experiences of freedom and struggle in the Americas”.
Undoubtedly, the origins of Jamaican Maroons are complex; however, the English conquest of Jamaica in 1655, when many of the Africans enslaved by the Spanish secured their freedom and escaped into the hills where they fought a decades-long guerilla war against the British, marks a significant point of origin. The first reference by Europeans to these early Maroons was in a letter to Oliver Cromwell, written in 1655/6 by two of the leading officers in the English Army — Sedgwicke and Goodson — who were fighting the Spanish to acquire Jamaica:
“As for the Negroes, we understand, and to satisfaction, that they, for the most part of them, are at distance with the Spaniards, and live by themselves in several parties, near our quarters, and do very often, as our men go into the woods to seek provisions, destroy and kill them with their launces. We now and then find one or two of our men killed, stripped and naked, and these rogues begin to be bold, our English rarely, or seldom, killing any of them.”
Some of these “Spanish Negroes”, such as Juan de Bolas, did make peace with the British. Others did not, forming the basis of a future Maroon enclave, augmented by runaways after the English began introducing increasing numbers of enslaved Africans and Indians. It was not until after Tacky’s Revolt in 1760 that the first official reference to “marooned negroes” appears in the journals of the Jamaica Assembly, noting the support they provided in suppressing the revolt.
“Maroon” was used to distinguish those Africans who had come to terms with the British, from those in Tacky’s Revolt, who were termed “rebellious and runaway negroes”. The colonial government in Jamaica viewed the Maroons as “late rebellious negroes that submitted in 1739”, as written in a 1746 anonymous pamphlet widely believed to have been written by Governor Edward Trelawny. It also became the fashion for the colonials to speak of them as “our faithful and affectionate Maroons”. Recognising that there had always been communities of runaways, many who did not come to any terms with the colonial State as did the Maroons, to avoid confusion, these escapees are simply referred to as “runaways”.
Maroon Treaty Obligations
It was very difficult for enslaved people to escape slavery in 18th-century Jamaica, yet many sought freedom through marronage. No doubt, flight from the plantation was a most pressing problem for the enslavers, for whom each enslaved person was a costly chattel. The early Maroons established themselves firmly in the hilly interior of central and eastern Jamaica, thereby preventing the English from gaining control over the entire island for almost a hundred years. They raided plantations for food, ammunition, animals, and additions to their numbers (especially women), destroying what they did not take with them, driving fear into planters in the process.
In the first 40 years of the First Maroon War, the Jamaica Assembly passed 44 Acts regarding them; at least a quarter of a million pounds was disbursed to fund the war against them. Their knowledge of the terrain along with their ability to use fighting tactics that took advantage of the thick forest cover made them a formidable force.
They fought the English, at that point the world’s most formidable fighting force, to a standstill before they signed the treaties, which guaranteed their freedom and certain rights and obligations before the Crown, including the return of runaways for which a bounty was paid.
Treaty Maroons destroyed the communities established by “runaways”, preventing the emergence of new Maroon societies. They also agreed to act as an auxiliary militia for the colonial State, responsible to assist in quelling rebellions and uprisings. Their handiwork included quelling the Tacky Revolt, the 1831-32 Christmas Rebellion led by enslaved Baptist Deacon Sam Sharpe, and the capture of Paul Bogle, during the suppression of the 1865 Morant Bay Uprising; their role in suppressing these rebellions continues to be a source of contention between Jamaicans and contemporary Maroons.
Maroon involvement in acts of refoulement is often viewed as an inexcusable moral failing. Throughout, the Maroons’ chief goal was freedom; they could not survive in a state of perpetual war with the colonials, so the signing of the treaties was a means of ensuring their survival, albeit at the expense of the freedom of other enslaved Africans. As Ruma Chopra describes it… by preserving slavery, the Maroons lived a life of “freedom”, which meant that they had enough food for their families, they escaped the whip, and they lived longer lives than most slaves. The Maroons knew the humiliation of slavery as well as its possibilities. Most Maroons used Christian names such as “Andrew Smith”, “Sophia Ricketts” or “Charles Shaw”. Some became slaveholders.
This pragmatism is seen in the events of the 18th and 19th centuries as they acted to preserve the independence of their communities, while cementing their Maroon identity, through accepting the idea of being different from the enslaved.
Kojo, according to Accompong tradition, united the disparate ethnic groups among the Maroons in a gathering under a mango tree, where he exhorted them to make a pact that they were kin and would unite to fight the British, hence the continued reverence for the Kindah Tree — kin de ya (kin is here.).
Lance J Parker Jr argues that the Maroons recreated their understanding of Africa in order to unite as Maroons, putting aside the ethnic divisions which travelled with them across the Atlantic. In the act of reinventing themselves, they separated their identity from that of the enslaved population. This is captured by a story of two sisters told among the Moore Town Maroons — one willing to die for her freedom (representing the Maroons), the other willing to return to enslavement (representing those remaining on the plantations).
By not viewing the enslaved as the same as themselves, the early Maroons were able to justify their acts of refoulment after the peace treaty. The self-interested posture of the Jamaican Maroons was not unique to them, however. Maroon communities throughout the Americas have been critiqued for such a position. A singular contrast appears to be the Maroon community in Dominica, who were “universal emancipationists”. According to Neil Vaz, they attempted to remove all traces of the existence of slavery from their nation, through forming covert and overt alliances with the enslaved residing on plantations.
Notably, they maintained a philosophy separate from that of the French Revolution, which was in full swing during the time of their existence. Their separate philosophy and ideas may well have come from their Igbo traditions. Paradoxically, this independent philosophy may well have been the reason for their success as well as their eventual downfall.
James Lockett claims that the treaties signed by the early Maroons were the only ones in Latin America and the Caribbean that involved capturing runaways. Joe Pereira has demonstrated to the contrary that the Dutch and others included similar clauses in the treaties they signed with their Maroon communities.
These “first-time” Maroons effectively transitioned to upholding the system of enslavement, from which they themselves sought to escape. As a result, one historian calls for an apology from the current Maroons on behalf of those who “did oppress enslaved and newly freed Africans” in order “to heal the wounds of the past and all of us to reconcile our differences and sign a realistic 21st-century ‘Peace Treaty'”.
Even as the current Maroons’ own retelling of these events diverges significantly from the official narrative, calls have been made for Maroon leadership to be “more forthcoming in seeking a rapprochement with the Jamaican people about this regrettable part of their history; something akin to a truth and reconciliation process may be needed”.