It’s officially been 400 years in the United States; more than 500 years in South America since Europeans transported Africans by force to build their “New World” colonial empires.
In the years since abolition, many stories about the way our ancestors survived, resisted and ran away have been told. Very often, these memories are told from an American point of view even though less than 1 per cent of enslaved Africans were brought to this country.
All across the Western hemisphere, however, the story of Maroons is not highlighted. In some places like the United States, it is barely discussed at all.
Maroons were a special class of “runaways.” For various reasons, they did not seek refuge in “sanctuary cities” as they would be known today — parts of the colonial empire that did not enforce slavery or allowed runaways to live as free people.
Instead, they left the cities and towns created by whites and chose to create settlements, big and small, in harsh climates where the whites were unlikely to pursue them. Swamps and bayous, mountains and forests became their new homes.
In America, they were first called outlyers, presumably because they were “lying out” in hidden places, away from white control. This refusal to be controlled also led to the name “maroon,” which comes from the Spanish word cimmarón, meaning “wild, untamable.”
The Spanish word may itself be an adaptation of a word for “fugitive” in the language of the Caribbean islands’ indigenous Arawaks.
The Maroons of Jamaica and Brazil are probably the best known because they actually fought wars against the British and Portuguese, respectively, held their former enslavers at bay, and created organized societies of their own.
However, Africans and their descendants practised marronage all over the Western hemisphere, including the Caribbean islands of Cuba, Haiti and Guadeloupe. Here’s a closer look at some of the countries where maroon communities lived:
Palenque is also the name of a town in Colombia, which was formed by Maroons back in the early 1600s when a slave ship crashed and the Africans aboard escaped into the hills 50 kilometers from the present-day capital, Cartageña. They were led by another royal captive, this time Benkos Biohosof the Angola-Congo region. Over the next century, their numbers swelled as they liberated other enslaved people, both newly arrived Africans and those born in Colombia. By the early 1700s, these Maroons had formed their town, San Basilio de Palenque and signed a peace treaty with the Spanish government.
Their settlement is one of the few maroon towns that has survived intact over the centuries, so much so that the town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. Their visible culture — cuisine, music, clothing and art — has retained much of the roots those early Africans brought from the continent while also moving along with the times. They even created a new Creole language, Palenquero, which blends Bantu, Spanish, French, English and indigenous languages. It is still spoken today in the town and by the palenqueras — market women who sell their distinctive cuisine in the capital city.
Many other smaller palenques have been documented in Colombia and neighbouring Ecuador. These are mainly connected to the gold and silver mines deeper in the country where the rainforests acted as a barrier against enslavers who would have hunted them down and forced them back into bondage.
If you are surprised to see Mexico in a list about slavery, not to mention resistance, you are not alone. Until attending an exhibit and book signing called The African Presence in Mexico a few years ago, I didn’t know some of our ancestors were taken there, either.
But sure enough, they were sailed mostly to Eastern Mexico and that is where in 1570, a Gabonese royal named Gaspar Yanga led runaways into the mountainous area of Veracruz. This area is also known for the enormous Olmec heads that some have taken to be evidence of African presence in the Americas before Columbus’ accidental explorations.
Yanga and the runaways established a palenque, a Spanish word meaning “palisade or stockade,” and lived there for more than 30 years. Like many maroons, they sustained themselves through periodic raids. This led the Spanish government to attack them in 1609, but the palenqueros fought valiantly and, in 1618, the Spanish colonizers relented, accepting the right of the palenqueros to remain free and build a town. Their town was renamed Yanga in 1932 after their first leader, who was eventually acknowledged as a Mexican culture hero.
As enslavement spread with the United States’ expansion, Mexico also became a little-known destination on the Underground Railroad. Sometime between 1849 and 1852, a group of Black Seminole families who had been pushed from Florida to Texas fled into Mexico, setting up a new community first near El Moral, and later near El Nacimiento. Known as the Mascogos, the descendants of these Maroons still live in Mexico today, as do the descendants of the Africans who founded Yanga in Veracruz.
The Maroons of Suriname are one of the few communities that have survived with their Maroon identity intact to this day. There are six distinct groups of Maroons in this South American country: the Ndyuka, Saramaka, Paramaka, Matawai, Kwinti, and Aluku. Some of these Maroons also live in the neighbouring nation of French Guiana. Together, they make up more than 100,000 people who have retained many of their ancestors’ cultural practices including spirituality, food, language and marriage habits.
The Surinamese Maroons survived brutal and lengthy attempts to either bring them into bondage or wipe them out completely, but managed to win peace treaties with the Dutch colonizers in the late 1700s. In the past few decades, the Surinamese government seems to have renewed those old efforts to reclaim the rainforest areas that have been possessed and self-ruled by the Maroons for hundreds of years.
The stories of Maroons in the United States are truly one of slavery’s best-kept secrets. One reason is that these Maroon communities were often very small, and the larger ones did not last for generations or win concessions from the American government like Maroons of other locations. Another suspected reason is suppression of evidence so others would not be encouraged to “secede” from American society.
One of the largest and most enduring Maroon outposts was the Great Dismal Swamp, which lies on the border between Virginia and North Carolina. Once covering some 2000 acres, the swamp was a hideout for up to 20,000 runaways around the 1700s towards the end of the American Civil War in 1865. Some of these runaways were passing through on the Underground Railroad; many made the Swamp their home, making their way to islands deep in the interior where they built cabins and planted gardens. Today, the swamp is a national wildlife refuge with a pavilion that educates visitors about this history.
In the book Slavery’s Exiles, Sylviane Diouf identifies numerous other maroon communities in North and South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana. Then there are the Maroons of Florida. Much of the Marronage there occurred when Florida was controlled by Spain. For a period of time, Spain actually encouraged Africans to run away to Florida where they could gain freedom. Others found their way to the Seminoles, a confederation of different Indian nations which did fight wars to maintain their independence.