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Maroons in the Americas

Monday, November 26, 2012

Flight to Freedom: African Runaways and Maroons in the Americas by Alvin O Thompson (published by the University of the West Indies) just might be the definitive work on marronage.  Every West Indian student knows about the maroons, and they usually associate them with Jamaican slaves who escaped and hid in the mountains.  


But maroons, individuals who achieved freedom through flight and hid alone in the wilderness or joined other maroons,  were not only slaves. As Thompson, a history professor at UWI, Cave Hill writes, the first maroons were Amerindians fleeing enslavement by the Spanish. Even though many West Indians are aware of the Garifunas (Black Caribs), they still don’t realise how common it was for African slaves and Amerindians to unite as maroons.  


Thompson tells us that even Europeans became maroons. Soldiers sent to the West Indies quickly realised how tough their lives would be. Some, accused of being drunk or insubordinate, fled their low-paying, demeaning jobs to join the maroons. It seemed a better choice than facing the harsh life they had been offered or the punishment they were sure to get for even the slightest infractions.  


Thompson examines maroon life throughout the Americas including Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, the Guyanas, the Caribbean and even the US, where maroons operating out of Florida were used by the Spanish to terrorise British colonists in Georgia.


Flight to Freedom shows just how difficult maroon life was. On one hand, maroons had to be constantly vigilant. The penalty for being caught was extreme humiliation, mutilation, torture, castration or even a slow, agonising death yet some maroons managed to terrorise slave-holders by pillaging plantations for much-needed supplies.


Maroons certainly did not cower in fright from slave owners. In some areas they slipped in and out of plantations to visit relatives. If anyone wonders how maroons managed to survive, Thompson addresses this too. Finding maroons proved difficult for white militiamen, who did not fare well in the wilderness. Expeditions proved costly and dangerous.  


Colonial masters tried to use Amerindians and enslaved blacks to find maroons, but this often resulted in desertion by the very people the white militia depended on. If they didn’t succumb to exhaustion or disease, white hunters were harassed by lice and mosquitoes. Another interesting point was the concept of freedom among maroons.



Freedom for most maroons  meant escape from slavery. It became a personal quest more than a philosophical movement and yet it symbolised a grand idea of independence at a time when slaves couldn’t even dream of an end to their torture.  


“The uplifting aspect of the Maroons’ story,” writes Thompson, “is that it describes a group of people who determined not to be killed off completely as a people and then adopted numerous aggressive and defensive strategies, first to survive and then to improve the quality of their lives.


Over time they created a culture of their own that, while bearing resemblances to those of Europe and Africa, was distinctly Maroon in its combination of features, including the triumphs, tragedies and mythologies that inform human societies.” Marronage evolved into a creative form of survival for, as Thompson writes, maroons were “thinking, planning people.”


Their life depended on evading the authorities. In the course of their struggle they represented hope for the oppressed. In their own way, they helped to chip away at the foundation of slavery.


“It is clear that without the continuous resistance of enslaved persons, of whom the maroons were at the top of the class, the white abolitionists would have been largely ineffective, and slavery would certainly not have been abolished in the 19th century, even when the slave mode of production had become anachronistic,” says Thompson.


Any serious history student, especially students in search of a school-based assesment (SBA) project for history, should read the book. Although this is a scholarly work, Flight to Freedom is not a heavy read, perhaps because the subject matter is so fascinating.


Here are two Websites that deal with marronage.
1. Marronage in Saint-Domingue (Haiti)—a project supported by the French Atlantic History Group of McGill University, Mellon Foundation in collaboration with a French university . This site includes original newspaper articles about slaves from 1766 to 1790—all in French. Students can query words in ads to pull up information about slaves.



There are 10,863 ads that include information about the slave trade, body marks and  prison lists. This is a great site for history and French students.


2. Smithsonian Institution’s web site on marronage—The museum’s web site features information about maroons in the Americas and West Indies including a section on maroon food and recipes for the food maroons ate.   The web site includes the Palenqueros of Colombia, the Aluku, Ndjuka, and Sarmaka of French Guiana and Suriname, The Windward and Leeward Maroons of Jamaica and the Seminole maroons of Texas and Mexico.


The site shows how maroons influenced culture, including food. It attributes bammies, coconut drops, ginger beer, jerk pork, vegetable pies and other food to the West Indian maroons.


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