Printer Friendly

The Maroon culture of endurance.

The History of Jamacia's runaway Maroons is as old as the history of slavery in the Americas. Maroons, from the Spanish "cimmaron", meaning wild or untamed, existed wherever slavery did. But only in Jamaica, where courage, cunning and audacious guerilla tactics couples with a forbidding terrain, did Maroons evade capture for nearly a century and force the enactment of a treaty which, like the Maroon culture, still exists after two hundred fifty years.

Columbus suggested to King Ferdinand in the first letter from his voyage of discovery, "I can bring slaves that are captured people, as many as are wanted." Disease and overwork killed many of the peaceable, indigenous Arawaks. Others hanged themselves, drank poisonous cassava juice, murdered and aborted their children rathen than be enslaved. A few, the first Maroons, escaped into the craggy hills.

When Penn and Venable's fleet of 38 ships with 8,000 men entered Kingston Harbor in 1665, African slavery had passed its first century. Jamaica's last Spanish official, a fifth generation Jamaican born Don Cristoval Arnaldo Ysasi, gathered slaves whose masters had fled, promised them clothes, money and freedom and hastily trained and armed them to harass the British while he gathered reinforcements from Cuba.

British Major General Sedgewick recognized the Marron threat in his first year in Jamaica. "Of the Blacks there are many who are like to prove thorns and pricks in our sides," he predicted. "They will be a great discouragement to the settling of a people here."

After two unsuccessful attempts by the Spanish to retake Jamaica, the British also promised freedom and money to the Maroons. A small group, led by Juan Lubola (Juan de Bolas) accepted and was trained as a black regiment.

The Maroons' alliance with the British dashed any remaining hopes Ysasi had of reclaiming his homeland. "This was very serious news," Ysasi reported. "All these negroes are very capable and experienced, not only as to the roads but as to all the mountains and most remote places, are hunters and handy for everything."

General Sedgewick was relieved to have some Maroons on his side. "The negroes are now become our bloodhounds, and they are in our behalf more violent and fierce against their fellows than we can possibly be." Recalcitrant Marrons proved Sedgewick's point by waylaying Lubola and hacking him to pieces. "As we grew secure, they grew bold and bloddy," Sedgewick lamented.

From their remote mountain retreats, the Maroons needed no Paul Revere to inform them the British were coming. Clad in highly visible, heavy European uniforms, lumbered with weapons and supplies, the soldiers marched noisily and single file to their doom. "Sick, lame and almost starved," they managed barely five miles per day.

The mournful note of the abeng, a cured cow horn instrument, and gombay drum signals relayed up the steep mountain passes, gave the rebels ample time to prepare their speciality: the ambush. Many a frightened soldier found to his horror that the small tree trembling in the distance was suddenly at his side with a cutlass at his throat. The Maroons had mystery, surprise and fear on their side, especially fear of the African practice of Obeah, an "Occult science" which continues underground in contemporary Jaimaica much as Voodoo persists in Haiti and elsewhere. Maroon feats like disappearing behind a waterfall into solid rock walls appeared magical. Actually, the Maroons, with the advantage of generations of experience, knew which fissure led to a well-supplied retreat in the next valley.

The roving bands' common bond was the soldiers' relentless pursuit; the Maroons were by no means a homogeneous group. They were influenced by many cultures; the various Gold Coast tribes, the now extinct Arawaks, the Spanish-speaking Maroons, runaways from Barbados, refugees from shipwrecked slavers, and a few Madagascans. Eventually they found a common language: broken English utilizing African grammar.

Becoming a Maroon was not always voluntary. Fieldworkers and women, always in short supply in Maroon societies, would find themselves recruited into a very difficult life. The Maroon settlements and provision grounds were frequently destroyed. Despite drenching seasonal rains, a relentless sun, diseases and no medical care, their numbers grew and they grew bolder, making raids on remote plantations for food, supplies, munitions and new recruits.

In 1673, two hundred slaves killed 114 Europeans and escaped into the hills of St. Ann. In 1686, the Widow Grey lost 150 slaves in one night. In 1690, 400 Coromantes in Clarendon killed their masters, then stopped at the next plantation to persuade more to join them. The militica caught up with them and only 30 to 40 escaped recapture. But this group became the nucleus of a second large group, the western Maroons. They entrenched themselves in the Cockpit Country, a forbidding limestone landscape of steep conical hills punctuated by deep basins, a rocky wilderness which shifted unpredictably underfoot, where days of difficult traveling got you nowhere.

Although the Maroons numbered a thousand or fewer by 1700, they seemed to be everywhere at once, posing a constant threat. The sound of drums or the haunting abeng struck dread in the plantation greathouses. the European population was outnumbered by more than ten to one by their slaves. Breezes rustling the impenetrable fields of towering sugar cane bespoke impending ambush to frightened overssers and accountants, while the prosperous plantation owners enjoyed the comfort and safety of England.

One Jamaican governor wrote the King, pleading for more help. "The teror (sic) of them spreads itself everywhere and the ravages and barbarities they commit have determined several planters to abandon their settlements. The evil is daily increasing. Our other slaves are continually deserting to them in great numbers and the insolence of them gives us cause to fear a general defection."

The Jamaican Assembly passed forty-four acts concerning the Maroons and spent nearly a quarter million British pounds which disappeared like water down a Cockpit Country sinkhole, with no appreciable effect.

Not only were there fearsome Ashanti and coromante warriors to worry about, but their women were derocious too, and famous for their skill in Obeah. Maroon towns bore the names of Diana, Molly and Nanny. Nanny was of particular concern as a respected leader of her people and as a military tactican of no small repute. Her very appearance was terrifying. Thickness' journal, published in 1788, described an encounter with a woman who may have been Nanny herself, wearing bracelets and anklets made from the teeth of British soldiers. "The old Hagg had a girdle around her waste (sic) with nine or ten different knives hanging in sheaths to it, many of which I have no doubt have been plunged in human flesh and blood." Nanny's reputed powers included the unlikely ability to catch cannon and rifle balls between her buttocks and return fire.

Decades of intermittent skirmishes intensified into the 14-year First Maroon War. Infantry, sailors and swivel guns dragged into the hills had destroyed settlements but failed to break the Maroon spirit or their determination to remain free. Even Mosquito Indians brought as trackers from Panama succumbed to disease or the lure of Maroon life. It was time to negotiate a settlement.

In 1738, Governor Trelawney assigned Col. John Guthrie and Captain Francis Sadler to march west to meet with the authoritarian Coromante leader, Cudjoe, described as a strange, wild, squat man. But Cudjoe would not come to terms.

Guthrie wrote the Governor, explaining that his men, "finding it impracticable to maintain the (Maroon) town on account of the many ambushes surrounding it," had burned it. The next day, following some volleys of shot, Guthrie reported, he had found Cudjoe "very well dispod'd to acknowledge your excellency with all deference due your character."

A treaty was drawn up, promising the western Marrons perpetual freedom and land in return for recapturing future runaways, clearing roads and defending Jamaica in case of attack. The Maroons were forbidden to hunt wild pigs, from which they made the fiery deicacy, jerk pork, within three miles of settlements. The 1739 treaty also imposed resident government superintendents in their settlements. The following year, a more restrictive treaty was signed by Cuffee of the eastern Maroons, yet five hundered acres of land were granted to the infamous Nanny by patent.

Fifty years of relative peace passed. Freed from forced labor, swaggering Maroons haunted those still enslaved, had children with the plantation women and sold a lot of jerk pork in the market-places. As required by the terms of the treaty, they quelled the bloody 1760 Easter Rebellion led by a slave named Tacky, and returned runaway slaves for a bounty, including the internationally known Three Fingered Jack Mansong. A towering Congo, Mansong's gallantry with lady travellers was legendary--he removed only their dresses, which he carried home to please his wives. He had a 300 pounds price on his head, and books and plays about him were famous in London.

A humiliating incident sparked a second Maroon war in 1795, which lsted four months. Two Maroons were arrested for stealing hogs. Instead of being punished by the British or freedmen, they were publicly whipped by one of the slaves they had recaptured, and mocked and jeered by other runaways they had returned to the Crown's control. In anger, the Maroons expelled their white superintendent, threatened his life should he return and disappeared again into the wildst of the Cockpit Country.

The newly arrived Governor, the Earl of Balcarres, feared the Marrons might ally themselves with the French. He assigned General Walpole to establish outposts in the mountains to keep the Maroons on the run, while 1,500 European trained troops, and 3,000 local militia were pressed into service to forstall another bloody century of Maroon warfare. Walpole reported to Balcarres that his quarry was so well hidden, "There was little chance of any but a Maroon discovering a Maroon."

Governor Balcarres ordered one hundred ferocious blood hounds and forty trained handlers from Cuba to reinforce Walpole's troops. Walpole was trepidacious, especially when he was chased and attacked and his horse nearly torn apart by the dogs. A steer was overpowered and killed by four dogs within a minute, and a negro cook, defending her pot, was seized by the throat. By the time the dog handlers had decapitated the hound to free the woman, death had already freed her.

Walpole, appalled, gave the Marrons a chance to surrender, giving his personal word that they would not be enslaved or deported. The Maroons, however, so deep into the Cockpit Country and suffering from a measles epidemic, were unable to turn themselves in within the three day deadline set by Governor Balcarres. Yet Walpole, priding himself on his gentle relations with Maroons continued to accept them as they straggled in weeks and months later. Balcarres saw an opportunity to export his problem. He ordered the Maroons deported to Nova Scotia. Over Walpole's strenuous objection to the breech of his solemn promise, 560 Maroon men, women and children were shipped to Halifax.

There, the Duke of Kent was so impressed with the Marrons he formed some into a military unit, furnishing them with uniforms with metal buttons struck with "Jamaica To The Maroons 1796," with an image of a crocodile clenching a sheaf of wheat and an olive branch in its jaws. In Halifax, the Maroon Bastion, part of the Citadel, was built. During their fourth and particularly bitter winter, the Maroons refused to work and demanded to be sent to a warmer climate, preferably back to Jamaica. Instead, in October 1800, 550 arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Africa.

The most remarkable proof of Maroon tenacity was demonstrated by the return of 64, deported from Jamaica to Nova Scotia, from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone, then voluntarily back to Jamaica soil 44 years later. The British needed workers for Jamaica's plantations and sent abundant displays of Jamaican produce to Africa to attract them to settle in Jamaica and work for wages. In 1840, the 64 Maroons were among the first 261 free African settlers aboard the Hector.

The Jamaican Assembly attempted to assimilate Maroons into the mainstream following emancipation by passing an act in 1842 granting each man two acres and an acre to each child provided he pay the cost of surveying and taxes.

The Maroons viewed this as a violation of the century-old 'blood treaty' signed by Cudjoe's "X". They cherished the belief that the treaty had been sealed with a grisly cocktail of the co-mingled blood of Cudjoe, his brother, Accompong, Col. Guthrie and Captain Sadler, mixed with rum and drunk by all, creating a sacred bond no legislation could efface. With all their characteristic rebelliousness, the Maroons interrupted surveyors and refused to pay taxes. The government granted delays in compliance, which went unenforced, backing down repeatedly and thus strengthening Maroon resolve to retain their identity from generation to generation.

Today, one hundred thousand descendants call themselves Maroons. Living in eleven settlements, still in possession of the lands granted by treaty and to a degree self-governing, Maroons regularly elect their Colonels, Majors and Captains.

The name Juan De Bolas lives on as a mountain in Jamaica. Maroon Hill still exists in Nova Scotia. The fearsome woman Nanny is the only woman among Jamaica's seven national heroes. Any suggestion that she is a mythical figure is hotly denied. Would the British crown issue a land patent to a mythical being, they ask?

There are still differences between eastern and western Maroon communities. The Accompong Maroons, descendants of the Coromante Cudjoe, favor the more cacaphonous bull horn for their abengs, the descendants of Nanny use cow horns. Regardless of origin, it takes seven weeks and a three-day soak in white rum to produce either one. Both groups still use horns to call meetings, for celebrations or to herald the passing of a Maroon, but they cannot interpret one another's coded messages.

Most Jamaicans, Maroon or not, and the more daring visitors armed with a Red Stripe beer to quell the pepper, love jerk pork.

Each January 6, the streets of Accompong, above the Appleton Rum Estates in St. Elizabeth, fill with drummers, dancers and the aroma of spicy pork. The plaintive note of the abeng heralds the start of a 24-hour feast and commemoration of the treaty and the people who have remained intact for over 250 years.

The Maroons look ahead. The eastern Mooree town group have a 20-year lease for the island's largest forestry project. The Maroon's all island Federal House of Assembly has cordial relations with the High Commissioner of Nigeria, an honored guest at their celebrations which, he confesses, make him nostalgic for home.

The irrepressible Maroons, who do not always agree with their government or with one another, have woven a bright strand into Jamaica's dynamic social fabric, where, "hardships there are, but the land is green and the sun shineth."

Heidi Reidell, a U.S. writer residing in Jamaica, is at work on a book, Hidden Treasures, a history of Jamaica's south coast.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Organization of American States
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

 Reader Opinion

Title:

Comment:



 

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:history of Jamaica's runaway slaves
Author:Reidell, Heidi
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jan 1, 1990
Words:2495
Previous Article:Colca's elusive waters.
Next Article:Ushuaia: a hard-to-find tax break.
Topics:


Related Articles
Crossing cultures: Jamaica's arts, heritage and history transform the traditional Caribbean vacation.
BLACK CARIB BASTION of FREEDOM.
PUNISHMENT, CRIME, AND THE BODIES OF SLAVES IN EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY JAMAICA.
In Praise of Black Women, Volume 2: Heroines of the Slavery Era.
Den of world dance. (New York).

Terms of use | Copyright © 2014 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters