Ilustration of a maroon slave.

Ilustration of a maroon slave.

Until the Peace of Utrecht in 1713, two general types of societies existed in the European colonies in the Caribbean, in varying harmony and conflict. The first consisted of the boisterous and violent society of farmers, prosperous landowners, exasperated officials, aching slaves, traders and free men of color. These were the colonizers, the ones who accepted the regulations, rules and interventions of the colonizing countries and were part of the imperial political system. The second social type, created by the considerable socio-political changes of the times, was a colorful group of individuals commonly considered outcasts. This group consisted of organized societies of maroons, or escaped slaves, and the defiant, stateless collectives of buccaneers. These groups were not a threat to the organized establishment of the society, but rather they represented a temporary alternative to the colonial social structure.

The maroons were the most successful alternative to European colonial society’s organization. Born from resistance to slavery, these were essentially communities of Africans who escaped, individually or collectively, from their owners’ plantations and estates in search of freedom, following a tradition that had been established by the indigenous peoples. The word came from the Spanish word “cimarrón,” which was first used to refer to livestock that escaped during the first attempts by Spain to colonize the island of Hispaniola. Later, the Spanish used the term to refer to Indian slaves who fled, and finally, it was used to refer to fugitive African slaves. The fugitive slave communities became an intrinsic element of American slavery, as lasting as the institution of slavery itself.

Two forms of slave resistance were identified in plantation society in the Americas. The first consisted of a temporary desertion by individual slaves. It was referred to by the French term of petit marronage and reflected a strong personal inclination by the slave to resist work, to procrastinate, to defy the owner or a rule, or to visit relatives or friends without authorization. Petit marronage was punished with less severity than other infractions against local regulations or other patterns of behavior that violated the social order. The other form of resistance, gran marronage, constituted a wider, organized effort to establish autonomous communities that were socially and politically independent from the European colonial enclave. This pattern of conduct was potentially subversive to the socio-economic complex of colonial life. These communities, known as palenques in the Spanish colonies and maroon towns in the British colonies, not only survived for considerable periods of time, but also represented the response by Africans and African-Americans to the situation in which they found themselves. Organized bands of escaped slaves continued for centuries in Jamaica.

Despite the terribly disadvantaged conditions in which the escaped slaves worked and lived, a surprisingly large number of the communities survived for a long period of time and usually in close proximity to the plantations. It appears that they survived due to the nature of their social organization and the physical location of the communities, among other reasons.

The maroon settlements mostly consisted of strong adults, as was described by Bryan Edwards, a Jamaican planter. He noted that the maroon’s daily way of life unquestionably strengthened their bodies. They were agile and strongly muscled.

Leadership appeared to be based on political and military abilities and one of the most formidable of the Jamaican maroon leaders was called Nanny. Men predominated in the maroon communities, just as they did throughout the institution of slavery, but as the communities stabilized, the imbalance between the genders adjusted on its own. The most successful leaders combined religious roles with their political positions, thus reinforcing their authority over their followers. In the 18th century, many leaders were rigid, authoritarian and sometimes cruel. New members of the community had to prove themselves. Deserters and spies were brutally assassinated.

Security was a constant concern in the maroon settlements. All of the successful settlements in the Caribbean depended, at least at first, on their relative inaccessibility. The were strategically located in the dense forests of the Sierra Maestra in eastern Cuba, Cockpit Country in western Jamaica and in the Blue Mountains of eastern Jamaica, in the central mountains of Santo Domingo and in the uninhabited interiors of the small islands. In the cities, on very small islands or where the geography did not allow opportunities to hide, petit marronage was the order of the day.

Due to the unfavorable environmental conditions, only the strongest and most solid maroon communities survived. Hunger, malnutrition, dysentery and accidental poisonings from plants were the main factors that attacked and destroyed the communities. Additionally, in Cuba and Jamaica the colonists used trained dogs to hunt maroons. Despite the risks, the maroon communities recruited and trained enough men to challenge the local authorities, launching wars and achieving their own peace treaties, as occurred in Jamaica in 1739 and 1795.

The success of maroon communities required the cooperation of slaves and other benefactors. This ensured a supply of firearms, tools, utensils and, in some cases, food to establish communities in the forests. Not only the urban maroons, but also the majority of rural maroon communities, gradually developed a symbiotic relationship with the society from which they had escaped their status of servitude. Unfortunately, this symbiosis was lethal to the integrity, cultural distinction and vitality of the maroon existence. Once the maroons were successful in gaining legal or quasi-legal recognition, their structure, internal organization, methods of recruitment and political activities underwent serious changes. They accepted severely limited concessions of territory in the treaties they signed. While they obtained legal status, the price they paid was giving up internal controls and power. Some restrictions, such as not allowing newly escaped slaves to join the group, limited the size of the communities. Richard Price, referring to the treaties signed by Jamaican maroons in the introduction to Maroon Societies: rebel slave communities in the Americas, stated that these same treaties allowed them to buy, sell and own substantial numbers of slaves, hunt new fugitives for a bounty, and thereby earn the hatred of much of the slave population.

By accepting external legal control over basic aspects of their lives, the maroon communities did more harm than good. Gradually, they became virtually indistinguishable from the neighboring slave communities. In the end, the maroons were unable to overcome the limitations and internal contradictions of a state within a state.

Author: Zahira Cruz
Published: May 02, 2012.

Related Entries

This post is also available in: Español


The Puerto Rico Endowment for the Humanities welcomes the constructive comments that the readers of the Encyclopedia of Puerto Rico want to make us. Of course, these comments are entirely the responsibility of their respective authors.