Most people know the word “maroon” as a color, a dark shade of red, something like the color burgundy. Other people know that the word ‘maroon’ is a verb, meaning to put someone ashore on a deserted island, where there is little hope of escape—Alexander Selkirk, the real person behind the fictional character ‘Robinson Crusoe’ is an example.
There is another, darker meaning. ‘Maroon’ means an escaped slave. The word comes from the Spanish ‘cimarron,’ originally used to describe feral cattle (escaped cattle, gone wild) on the island of Hispaniola. Related to that is the word ‘buccaneer,’ pirates who sometimes visited the island to use the wild cattle to build food supplies. The meat was often preserved by smoking over a fire, which in French (most of the pirates were French) was called ‘boucan.’
Slaves began escaping almost as soon as slaves were imported to the Americas from Africa. When a few escaped, they often came together as a community of escapees, called Maroon communities. Maroon communities occurred every place in the Americans where slaves were used. The communities might be a few people and last only for a few months, or they might be rather large and last for decades. In most cases they were formed by escaped slaves who spoke many languages and came from different cultures. Slaveholders were careful not to assemble any numbers of people who spoke a common language or who were from the same African peoples, because it prevented escape plots and uprisings.
Over the four centuries of slavery in the Americas, there were hundreds of maroon communities. Some of them defended themselves well and have survived into the present. Many were destroyed by war. The communities represented a threat to slave plantations, which they often raided. War was ruthless, and recaptured former slaves were often treated with extreme cruelty. The Maroon communities were usually in remote regions and in rough terrain. In many cases, the colonial authorities could not eradicate the communities, so they would make treaties recognizing their independence in return for the community’s agreement to not accept any new escapees.
The largest maroon community was probably Palmares in Brazil’s northeast. Palmares was a kind of federation of several villages, estimated to be some 11,000 people at the peak. The people in Palmares were typically born in Angola (both Angola and Brazil were Portuguese colonies), but they also included Indians, poor whites and sometimes deserters from the army. Palmares was militarily formidable and repeatedly turned back Portuguese and Dutch armies (the Dutch made a serious attempt to conquer Brazil). The settlement lasted almost a century until it was defeated in 1694-95.
Probably the most famous maroon communities are the Maroons in Jamaica. The Jamaican Maroons originated with slaves escaping into the mountainous and difficult terrain in interior Jamaica.
The British had overrun most of the island in 1655, ousting the Spanish, and beginning the slave plantation system. Slaves escaped into the rugged interior, and proved very difficult to deal with. In the years 1728-39 the British tried to eradicate the settlements in what came to be called the First Maroon War. The Maroons were tough enough so that the British decided to make peace with a formal agreement. The Second Maroon War occurred in 1795-96 and lasted only a few months. The 5,000 British soldiers could not defeat the 500 Maroon fighters, and ended in a draw. The descendants of these formidable Maroons remain a distinct Jamaican community today.
The largest overall communities of Maroons are those originating in the Dutch colony of Suriname. They have existed for centuries and came to form distinct cultures. There are two main groups, called the Saramaka Maroons and the Ndyuka Maroons, today numbering about 200,000 people. They are found mainly in Suriname, but some have settled in Guyana and in French Guiana, and also in the Netherlands.
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