Thursday, May 14, 2009

Jamaica's Maroons: Rebels Against Slavery

The legacy of slavery has shaped American society until today.The desire of African American historians to reconstruct ties to specific parts of Africa is a daunting one. Documentary evidence that would provide conclusive answers is often fragmentary at best.

One of the most stirring chapters in the history of the struggle against slavery is that of the Maroons. The Maroons today are descendants of passengers on slave ships that docked in Jamaica. Some of their ancestors took to the hills as soon as they could in the 1600's when they were brought to Jamaica by the Spanish. Others fled when the Spanish left the Island to the English in 1655. The Maroons intermarried with indigenous Indians known as Taino. They lived in a self governing manner, supporting themselves through subsistence farming and through raiding plantations. This actually led to war. The Maroons were a power to be reckoned with. The British were not able to subjugate them.

Eventually in 1739 and 1740, the British Governor on Jamaica established a peace treaty with the Maroons. The agreement gave them five towns split between two locations. They had their own chief but accepted the appointment of a British supervisor. The most unfortunate concession made by the Maroons was a treaty pledge to return slaves who had escaped from plantations. A bounty was paid to the Maroons of two dollars per escaped slave. At that time, a dollar was a very substantial amount of money.

Despite the treaty, tensions continued to build between the Maroons and the plantation owners. In 1795 there was a second Maroon war. The Maroons suffered an unfortunate defeat. This time about 600 Maroons were deported to Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was hoped that they would take to a life of farming in their new surroundings. They were not happy in their new surroundings. It was eventually decided to resettle them in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone, like Liberia was a country in West Africa that was established as a homeland for repatriated slaves. It was a deeply flawed idea, kind of like taking someone from Texas and repatriating them to Montana. Not all the deported Maroons took to life in Sierra Leone. Some returned to Jamaica to work on plantations there.

Although depleted by the deportations, the Maroons were by no means wiped out. They live today in the same region where they started out on Jamaican soil. They remain autonomous and separate from the rest of Jamaican society. Their largest town, Accompong remains a focal point of Maroon culture and celebrations. The Maroons still maintain religious traditions of ancestor worship and other rituals that can be tied to their distant past back in Ghana. Their religious orientation differs markedly from other Jamaicans who are mostly fervent in their practice of Christianity..

The Maroons and their inspiring history make their community a subject of fascination to Jamaicans and to visitors from abroad, some of whom make it to the regions in which the Maroons live today.

Jamaica as an independent country has accorded proper respect to the Maroons. Their leader "Queen Nanny" appears on the 500 dollar bill that is in circulation in Jamaica today. Nanny was herself an escapee from slavery along with her brother Cudjoe, who led raids against plantations to free slaves. Although her birth date is not known, it is inferred from historical records that she was born in the 1600's. Queen Nanny, who reputed to be a practitioner of magic somewhat comparable to Voudun or Santeria. She never returned escaped slaves and is in fact credited with aiding in the escape of about 800 slaves during her lifetime. Nanny's tragic death and betrayal is documented as follows in the "Journal of the Assembly of Jamaica."

"In the Journal of the Assembly of Jamaica, 29–30 March 1733, we find a citation for "resolution, bravery and fidelity" awarded to "loyal slaves . . . under the command of Captain Sambo," namely William Cuffee, who was rewarded for having fought the Maroons in the First Maroon War and who is called "a very good party Negro, having killed Nanny, the rebels (sic) old obeah woman" (quoted in Campbell 177). These hired soldiers were known as "Black Shots" (Campbell 37). Some scholars raise the possibility that more than one leader named Nanny existed, along with the possibility that Cuffee was lying to get a reward, this gives us an approximate death date for Nanny of the Maroons. Considering the use of the word "old," we can only assume that Nanny was born in the seventeenth century."

The story of the Maroons is an inspiring one. Like Harriet Tubman, Queen Nanny would make a good subject of study. I hope that more information will come to light about the Maroons and their fascinating history.

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