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The Maroons of Jamaica & the Fierce Story of Independence

Hidden within the rugged mountains of Jamaica are the proud African Maroon communities who continue a 500-year-long way of life replete with a unique story of fierce independence and nobility; a story which contradicts the myth of English invincibility, superiority, and power.

This is a brief overview of their story:

The indigenous Yamaye (Taino) people called their island XAYMACA: “the Land of Wood and Water.” The high Windward mountains in the east of the Island average 3,300 mm of rain annually, capturing much of the Jamaican rainfall and sending it cascading through waterfalls and down mountain slopes into ten rivers that rush it back into the sea again.

The rugged mountains are lush with thick vegetation of all kinds and range in heights from 900 to 2256 meters (7400’). The high mountain forests are often shrouded in misty clouds. Access, even to this day, is difficult.

The mountain area was first inhabited by Yamaye peoples fleeing Spanish-imposed captive labor. When the Yamayes died from diseases the Spaniards brought with them, the Spanish began importing kidnapped black African workers to serve as skilled labor, servants, cowboys, herders, and hunters. The numbers were never great. Unsurprisingly, these enslaved black laborers also fled captivity and joined together with Yamaye people hiding in the mountains. The remoteness of the mountains made an ideal refuge which was easily defensible by guerilla warfare tactics. 

The Spanish called these people cimarrones: “fugitives who lived in the wild.” (From this word we get both the noun and the verb in English: Maroon.)

To the Spanish, Jamaica was useful only as a re-supply point for their shipments of gold and silver between Central America/Mexico and Spain; Jamaica wasn’t that important to Spain. Which left Jamaica vulnerable to the English lusting to expand their sugar-growing territory after the enormous lucrative success of their sugar prison entrepreneurs in Barbados in the 1640s.

In 1655, the English sent a considerable force to acquire Hispaniola, but finding it too well defended, hopped over to instead invade Jamaica, conquering it and expelling the Spanish. Most of the black prison laborers escaped from the Spanish haciendas and fled to the mountains, first to the Leeward mountains in western Jamaica and later relocating to the Windward mountains. They formed independent communities with their own governing structures, militia, agriculture, and defenses. We don’t know how many black escapees formed these first Maroon communities; probably only a few hundred or less.

The English brought in from Barbados, as the first governor of Jamaica, the wealthy and successful sugar prison entrepreneur Thomas Modyford, who promptly partitioned the island and doled out free land estates to other wannabe sugar prison entrepreneurs (aristocrats’ offspring from Barbados and England … and his own family).

“During its first 200 years of British rule, Jamaica became one of the world’s leading sugar-exporting, slave-dependent colonies, producing more than 77,000 tons of sugar annually between 1820 and 1824.”

“For centuries, sugar was Jamaica’s most important crop. Jamaica was once considered the ‘jewel’ in Britain’s crown. In 1805, the island’s peak of sugar production, it produced 101,600 tonnes of sugar. It was the world’s leading individual sugar producer.”,

“In 1000 AD, few Europeans knew of the existence of sucrose, or cane sugar. … by 1650, in England, the nobility and the wealthy had become inveterate sugar eaters, and sugar figured in their medicine, literary imagery, and displays of rank. By no later than 1800, sugar had become a necessity — albeit a costly and rare one — in the diet of every English person; by 1900, it was supplying nearly one-fifth of the calories in the English diet.”

The English transformed the sleepy Spanish hacienda slavery into industrial-level slavery. They leveraged debt to purchase hundreds of thousands of kidnapped black African laborers and forced them into lifelong bondage in their Caribbean sugar prison colonies. By 1834, the population of Jamaica was 371,070 including 311,070 black enslaved laborers on the sugar prison labor camps.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the proximity of the wild rugged mountains made it easier for enslaved prison laborers to run away and flee to the Maroon communities. Between 1673 and 1690 there were several major rebellions by the enslaved laborers prompted by militant Coromantee groups of enslaved workers who had been kidnapped from the Ashanti Empire in Western Africa. A group of about 500 of them successfully fought the English at the Sutton Sugar Labor Camp. Many were killed but more than 200 escaped to the Leeward mountains (Cockpit Country mountains), forming Ashanti style communities under the chieftainship of Cudjoe, an Ashanti leader. This group formed the nucleus of the Leeward Maroons. (Image courtesy of Face2Face Africa)

More runaways made their way to the Windward Maroon communities which eventually coalesced under the leadership of Queen Nanny, an Ashanti woman, who is said to have helped free 800 black enslaved prison laborers over a thirty-year period. 

“She was known for her exceptional leadership skills, especially in guerrilla warfare during the First Maroon War. One tactic particular to the Jamaican Maroons involved the art of camouflage using plants.” (image courtesy of thecaribbeancurrent.com)

The British battled the groups of Maroons. They sought to divide and weaken them. But by the mid-1730s, the wars were draining resources and manpower on both sides. Together they negotiated a treaty in 1739 ending hostilities, granting the Maroons 1500 acres of land in the Cockpit Mountains, political autonomy (except for the death penalty), self-rule, their own militia, and economic freedom. In return, the Maroons were expected to provide militia to defend against invasions or rebellions, return fugitive black slave prisoners, and have a white British “liaison” officer stationed at each of the five Maroon communities. 

Over time, the Maroons were enlisted to suppress black and other Maroon rebellions, and to return fugitive slaves, which they did with alarming willingness. But the British grew annoyed by the Maroon African tribal cultural traditions (singing, dancing and drumming!) and felt the white English could better organize the Maroon militia into dependable units. So the liaison British officer in each village grew more assertive and projected colonial power, leading to a weakening of Maroon control over villages.

Over the next six decades, the population of the Maroons almost tripled to about 1800 people by the year 1796.  Maroons need for land began clashing with the colonial government. At the same time, the white sugar prison labor camp owners (“plantocracy”) were panicked by the revolutions in Saint Domingue (which led to Haitian independence in 1804). A new hardline Governor had been appointed who ignored the advice of local landowners and took a combative approach to the Maroons, provoking an armed battle with the Maroons. When the Trelawny Town Maroons rejected and ejected their “liaison” white guy, the fuse was lit and the Governor went into 18th-century shock & awe mode.

This was the Second Maroon War with the Brits, with neither side winning yet again. A large group of the fighting Leeward Maroons (Trelawny Town) surrendered with the understanding that they would not be deported. But the Governor reneged on his promise and shipped 600 of them off to Nova Scotia in Canada. Most of whom eventually emigrated to the newly (British-) formed nation of Sierra Leone in West Africa and eventually some of whom came back to the Leeward Maroons and then eventually some of those went back again to Sierra Leone.

Over the next fifty years, the Maroon militia would be called on several more times to suppress major rebellions by the black enslaved sugar prison laborers. After 1835 when Parliament abolished using enslaved prison labor to mine cane sugar, the Brits had no more use for the Maroons who were then left in peace to manage their own affairs.

“Today, the four official Maroon towns still in existence in Jamaica are Accompong Town, Moore Town, Charles Town, and Scott’s Hall. They hold lands allotted to them in the 1739–1740 treaties with the British.”

The Maroons developed their own cultural amalgamation based on members from several tribes from West Africa who banded together, despite the English overt attempts to prevent assimilation by forcing enslaved laborers to work together without a common language. The Maroon community structure is heavily influenced by Ashanti structure. The Chief, termed Colonal, governs with an appointed council of elders in charge of agriculture, music, culture (education), defense, and nowadays, tourism. They have a detailed knowledge of medicinal healing herbs and food sources growing wild in the mountains.

They maintained their own language for communicating with their ancestors, the Maroon Spirit language called Kromanti, and developed a deep Patwa as both their ritual and mother tongue. 

“It is an English-based creole with a strong Akan component, specifically from the Asante language of the Ashanti Region of Ghana. It is distinct from usual Jamaican Creole, [which is] similar to the creoles of Sierra Leone (Krio) and Suriname such as Sranan and Ndyuka. It is also more purely Akan than regular Patois, with little to no contribution from other African languages.”

There are several YouTube videos now available if you’d like to learn more from Maroons themselves (see references below). Watching these videos, I was struck by the strength, pride, and vigor of their communities. They regard themselves as an African nation in Jamaica with a proud and noble history of survival and independence from the British. When reading the histories of the Caribbean Islands, one often sees fleeting references to the Maroons, but not the full story of their noble accomplishments.

Too often historians present a pathetic view of attempts by the enslaved black prison laborers on the Caribbean sugar prison labor camps (“plantations,” “estates”) to escape, when there are actually many noble stories of both successful mass escapes and heroic martyrs who chose to fight for their freedom and nobility despite the torture, brainwashing, and degradations of the greedy and cruel industrial sugar (and cotton) entrepreneurs who aggrandized enormous wealth off the backs of kidnapped and enslaved black prison labor.

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references below

References and Suggestions for further reading

YouTube videos

  1. CaribNews interview with Maroon elders in Accompong Town
    https://youtu.be/-US3_OxhEsk 
  2. VagaBrothers visit to Maroon village: https://youtu.be/LJfVfH09SK8 (FYI: great views of the remote mountainous Maroon areas; but too much time with the Brothers filming themselves talking.)
  3. Trelawny Town: https://youtu.be/zSzd3K4LE28 

References for this article:

General Reading on Sugar & Cotton Slave Labor Prison Camps in the Americas:

  • The Making of New World Slavery, by Robin Blackburn
  • Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies, 1623-1775, by Richard B. Sheridan
  • The Sugar Barons, Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies, by Matthew Parker
  • No God but Gain: The Untold Story of Cuban Slavery, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Making of the United States, by  Stephen Chambers
  • Capitalism and Slavery, by Eric Williams
  • The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward E. Baptist
  • The Beckford’s, Slavery in Jamaica: docu-drama of the rise & collapse of the Beckford Sugar Empire in Jamaica/England, told using participant’s own words; oriented however from their viewpoint, it doesn’t begin to tell the horrors, torture and death that their black prison laborers endured over a century to give them their wealth. https://youtu.be/RTReDD0RaPs 

Featured photo courtesy of Trip Advisor

Submitted July 20th, 2019: by David Anderson who lives in Oakland, CA and is the founder of DarkFire Photography. David is fluent in Japanese, speaks Swahili, and also does photography for State of the Territory News for special projects.