Maroons were Africans and their descendants in the Americas who formed settlements away from New World chattel slavery. Some had escaped from plantations, but others had always been free, like those born among them in freedom. They often mixed with indigenous peoples, thus creating distinctive creole cultures.
The American Spanish word cimarrón is often given as the source of the English word maroon used to describe the runaway slave communities of Florida and of the Great Dismal Swamp on the border of Virginia and North Carolina, on colonial islands of the Caribbean, and 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 own communities in inland Jamaica, and by the 18th century, Nanny Town and other villages began to fight for independent recognition.
When runaway Blacks 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 Blacks escaped from plantations and joined their bands. Seeking to separate themselves from Whites, 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 Blacks.
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 attempt to 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 who 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 Blacks 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. A British governor signed a treaty in 1738 and 1739 promising them 2,500 acres (1,012 ha) in two locations, to bring an end to the warfare between the communities. In exchange they were to agree to capture other escaped Blacks. They were 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 18th century that effectively freed them over 50 years before the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. 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, escaped Blacks revolted and started to build their own 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 forged 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.
Slaves 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 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 slaves. Maroons sustained themselves by growing vegetables and hunting. Their survival depended upon military abilities and culture of these communities, 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 slaves 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 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.
Most of them were slaves who ran away right after they got off the ships. They refused to accept enslavement and often tried to find ways to go back to Africa.
The second group were unskilled slaves who had been working on plantations for a while. Those slaves were usually somewhat adjusted to the slave system but had been abused by the plantation owners, with brutality excessive even when compared to the normal standards. Others ran away when they were being sold suddenly to a new owner.
The last group of maroons were usually skilled slaves with particularly strong ideals against the slave system.
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 located in inhospitable environments in order to be sustainable. For example, maroon communities were located 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 in 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.
Maroon men 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 maroon men 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 maroons. They also traded with 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 was 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 couldn't find their way back and served probationary periods, often as slaves. Crimes such as desertion and adultery were punishable by death.
Similar Maroon communities developed on islands across the Caribbean, such as the Garifuna. Many of the Garifuna were deported to the mainland, where some eventually settling along the Mosquito Coast or in Belize.
The French encountered many forms of slave resistance during the 17th and 18th centuries. The African slaves 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. Certain maroon factions became so formidable that they made treaties with local colonial authorities, sometimes negotiating their own independence in exchange for helping to hunt down other escaped slaves. .
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, sparking 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.
Escaped slaves during the Spanish occupation of the island of Jamaica fled to the interior and joined the Taíno living there, forming refugee communities. Additional slaves gained freedom during the confusion surrounding the 1655 British invasion. Refugee slaves continued to join them through the decades until the abolition of slavery in 1838. During the late 17th and 18th centuries, the British tried to capture them 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 1731, 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.
Due to tensions and repeated conflicts with Maroons, the Second Maroon War erupted in 1795. In an effort to break up the Maroon communities, 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 Sierra Leone in West Africa. It offered ethnic Africans a chance to set up their own community there, beginning in 1792. Around 1800 a number of Jamaican Maroons were transported to Freetown, the first settlement of Sierra Leone.
The only Leeward Maroon settlement that retained formal autonomy on 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, 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 Scotts Hall, also Portland Parish. Accompong's autonomy was ratified by the government of Jamaica when the island gained independence in 1962.
The government has tried to encourage survival of the other Maroon settlements. Since 2008, the Jamaican government and Maroon communities have held the Annual International Maroon Conference at rotating communities around the island. 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 slaves who intermarried with them. 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 slaves who escaped from plantations around Ponce and formed communities with the Taíno in the mountains. Taíno haplogroups A and 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 in the Pacific side of the isthmus was carried by slaves down to coastal towns such as Trujillo or Puerto Caballos to be shipped to Europe. When slaves 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 slaves 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.
The Garifuna are descendants of maroon communities that developed on the island of Saint Vincent. They were deported to the coast of Honduras in 1797. From their original landing place in Roatan Island, the maroons moved to Trujillo. Gradually groups migrated south into the Mosquito Kingdom and north into Belize.
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 Cimarron, assisted Sir Francis Drake in fighting against the Spanish.
The Black Seminoles, who allied with Seminole Indians in Florida, were one of the largest and most successful Maroon communities in the United States. 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 Seminole Freedmen. 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 slaves controlled many of the canals and back-country passages from Lake Pontchartrain to the Gulf, including the Rigolets. These colonies were finally eradicated by militia from Spanish-controlled New Orleans led by Francisco Bouligny. Free people of color aided in the capture of these fugitives.
A large settlement of the Great Dismal Swamp maroons lived in the marshlands of today's North Carolina and Virginia.
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 slaves 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.
In addition to escaped slaves, survivors from shipwrecks 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 form the cantones Cojimies y Tababuela, Esmeraldas, Limones.
In French Guiana and Suriname (where Maroons account for about 15% of the population), escaped slaves, 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. By the 1980s the Bushinengues in Suriname had begun to fight for their land rights. Between 1986 and 1991, 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.
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.
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