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Jamaica’s Troubled Past

‘The Maroons’

Ted Finkenauer

Jamaica’s fighting spirit can be seen even in its early days with the Maroons. The fighting spirit is not uncommon with people who are oppressed or forced against their will. The Maroons came in two waves, the first are slaves that fled during the Spanish rule, the second wave was during British control. The Maroons used the highlands of Jamaica to seek refuge, establish colonies and attack plantations when needed. Even today the beliefs and herbal practices of the Maroons are still evident in Jamaican culture. Their trouble past has made their life difficult but even today they are a presence in Jamaica.

The First Deserters

The idea of runaways did not take long in the Caribbean islands. Jamaica was not the only island experiencing runaways, Haiti, Cuba, and many Latin American countries were all falling victim to these guerilla style warfare tribes. During the first years of Spanish control the island of Hispaniola (Spanish Jamaica) experienced many problems with slaves. Columbus suggested to King Ferdinand in the first letter from his voyage of discovery, "I can bring slaves that are captured people, as many as are wanted." Disease and overwork killed many of the peaceable, indigenous Arawaks. Others hanged themselves, drank poisonous cassava juice, murdered and aborted their children rather than be enslaved. A few, the first Maroons, escaped into the craggy hills. (Olson, pg.234) Recent excavations at Nanny Town, the most important early Maroon settlement, support Maroon oral traditions that the first African refugees found accommodation among the Arawak. (Olson, pg.234) Correspondence from the last decade of the sixteenth century also suggests that Spanish colonial officials were aware of indigenous settlements in the Rio Grande Valley. (Olson, pg.234) From these first Arawak Maroons the standard was being set that slavery was unacceptable for the indigenous people and any forms of rebellion were acceptable.

Frequently employed as hunters of wild cattle and hogs (Cimarron, in Spanish), the free-ranging Africans formed small armed bands that attacked Spanish overland commerce. Their numbers grew as they abducted slaves and gathered runaways. Adapting to the environment under the guidence of Arawak Indians, themselves victims of ruthless exploitation and enslavement by Spanish overlords, the Maroons settled into established communities high in the mountains. (Olson, pg.234) By the mid sixteenth century runaways outnumbered whites 7 to 1. (Campbell, pg. 2) This proved to be very frightening for the Spanish planters because the Maroons would strike with stealth and speed, and retreat just as quickly. This poem by Anon gives an image of the power and fear the Maroons embeded in the Spanish planters.

"The wild Maroons, impregnable and free

Among the mountain-holds of liberty

Sudden as lightning darted on their foe

Seen like the flash, remember like the blow.

(Campbell, pg. 44)

All over the European controlled Caribbean governments were trying to control these threats to their establishments. Trained hunting parties were assembled to attempt to hunt down and destroy the maroons. The Spanish called theirs Rancheadores. (Campbell, pg. 3) The Spanish church also joined in the attempt to recapture slaves. They claimed that slaves who tried to escape would be found guilty of apostasy, for which slaves would be made to atone in this world or hereafter. (Campbell, pg.3) This didn’t bother the Africans much because they didn’t share the same views of damnation as their white counterparts. (Campbell, pg.3)

Becoming a member of the Maroon society was not always an option the enslaved person had. Eventhough many slaves would flee in an attempt to find these maroon societies, raids would be sent out to plantations in efforts to acquire provisions, powder, guns, and people. Female slaves were abducted for reason of procreation. This would be very dangerous for the female slaves because the maroon communities were predominantly male. But once the communities realized the importance of women among them a balance was created. The men needed the women for cooking and gathering and procreation, and the women needed the men for safety and animal meat. (Campbell, pg. 5) The two learned to live together quite quickly in defiance of the Spanish and British. The woman’s role was not confined to the secret settlements of the maroons some women became Priestesses and women warriors like Nanny.

Maroon Warfare

All Maroon Communities were based on African sociopolitical and military formations. (Campbell, pg.3) Roger Bastide in reference to Quilombos (Maroon Societies) of Brazil said, " It would seem that in most cases, as in Palmores, we are dealing with ‘tribal regressions’, a kind of return to Africa." (Campbell, pg. 3) Many of the maroon tribes would fight with the guerrilla tactics that helped them hunt back in the bush of Africa. These tactics involved stealth, patience, speed, and surprise, to attack the enemy. The inhospitable mountain terrain of Jamaica proved to be beneficial for these tactics. European armies were not trained or experienced in this type of warfare. British Major General Sedgewick recognized the Maroon threat in his first year in Jamaica. "Of the Blacks there are many who are like to prove thorns and pricks in our sides," he predicted. "They will be a great discouragement to the settling of a people here."(Reidell, pg. 42)

Europeans fought in a more formal manner. From their remote mountain retreats, the Maroons needed no Paul Revere to inform them the British were coming. Clad in highly visible, heavy European uniforms, lumbered with weapons and supplies, the soldiers marched noisily and single file to their doom. "Sick, lame and almost starved," they managed barely five miles per day. (Reidell, pg. 42)

The mournful note of the abeng, a cured cow horn instrument, and gombay drum signals relayed up the steep mountain passes, gave the rebels ample time to prepare their specialty: the ambush. (Reidell, pg.42) Many a frightened soldier found to his horror that the small tree trembling in the distance was suddenly at his side with a cutlass at his throat. The Maroons had mystery, surprise and fear on their side, especially fear of the African practice of Obeah, an "Occult science" which continues underground in contemporary Jamaica much as Voodoo persists in Haiti and elsewhere. (Reidell, pg. 3) Maroon feats like disappearing behind a waterfall into solid rock walls appeared magical. Actually, the Maroons, with the advantage of generations of experience, knew which fissure led to a well-supplied retreat in the next valley. (Reidell, pg.42)

The African slaves had many practices that the Europeans were either unaware or afraid of. One of the biggest fears of the Europeans was the ability of Africans to call upon spirits or magical powers in times of Battle. The resistance of the slaves was aided by such spirits. The ethnicity of the slaves was not an issue. Yoruba, Ebo, Fon, or Akan were all able to evoke the proper spirit to fight. (Campbell, pg.5) They would rub special oils and magical concoctions prepared by religio-military leaders that would make them impervious to British or Spanish bullets. (Campbell, pg.5) The best known example of the supernatural power is Nanny. Nanny was of particular concern as a respected leader of her people and as a military tactician genius. Her very appearance was terrifying. Thickness' journal, published in 1788, described an encounter with a woman who may have been Nanny herself, wearing bracelets and anklets made from the teeth of British soldiers. "The old Hagg had a girdle around her waste with nine or ten different knives hanging in sheaths to it, many of which I have no doubt have been plunged in human flesh and blood." (Reidell, pg. 49) Nanny's reputed powers included the unlikely ability to catch cannon and rifle balls between her buttocks and return fire. (Reidell, pg.49) Nanny was later, much later, named as one of the seven National Hero’s of Jamaica. (Campbell, pg.5)


The British used slaves mainly from the Gold Coast. The group they most favored was the Akans. (Campbell, pg. 45) Bryan Edwards wrote, "Circumstances which distinguished the Koromantyn, or the Gold Coast Negroes, from all others, are firmness both of body and mind; a ferociousness of disposition; but withal, activity, courage, and a stubbornness, or what an ancient Roman would have deemed an elevation o soul which prompts them to enterprises of difficulty and danger an enables them to meet death, in its most horrible shape, with fortitude and indifference." (Campbell, pg. 45) The Akans strength and courage which, proved to make great slaves, also would prove to make great enemies. The Akan slaves would become extremely strong leaders of the maroon groups. In fact almost all of the leaders of maroon groups were of Akan decent because of the attributes stated above by Bryan Edwards.


Maroon Groups

Two major groups formed on the island. The Leeward and Windward Maroon groups. (Campbell, pg.44) Named for the sides of the island they took refuge on. Cudjoe was the leader of the Leeward Maroons.

The Cudjoe Maroon camps were run much like the Spartan camps in Greece; the main employment of men was warfare. The types of warfare for men were broken down even further. There were specialists in attacking plantations for provisions, other slaves, especially women; and still others were part of the hunting class. (Campbell, pg.47) Those not skilled in warfare would remain behind to clear grounds for the women to plant. The plantings would consist of sweet corn, cocoa, pineapples, cassava, and sugarcane. (Campbell, pg.47)

The makeup of the towns on the hillside was strategic. The outer towns were easily accessible to anyone. Inner towns became harder to find as they would go up higher on the mountain. All the towns were stocked with provisions so if on was to be captured the Maroons would move to another that was just as stocked with provisions. (Campbell, pg.47) The great heights of some towns allowed for well-positioned lookout posts that could warn lower towns by use of an abeng of incoming danger. (Campbell, pg.47)

The Windward Maroons were not organized under such a unified leadership, they, on the other hand, choose to act as independent communities forming loose federations. Some of the communities took the name of their leaders, such as Nanny Town, Guy’s Town, Molly’s Town, Diana’s Town, all of which were ready to cooperate with each other to fight danger. (Campbell, pg. 49)

Nanny town is the most popular of the Windward Towns because of the legend of Nanny. Nanny Town was ruled like the Leeward towns and consisted of over 300 fighting men considered the best fighters among the windward clans. (Campbell pg.49) It was located high on the Blue Mountain. Guy’s town was also a notable town on the Windward side. This town consisted of 200 men and was located on Carrion Crow Hill. This town had plentiful plantations and grazing fields for livestock. (Campbell pg.49)

Nanny’s Powers

Nanny is a very important figure in the history of Jamaica. Unfortunately it is impossible to understand the exact extent of her powers because of the web of myth and legend that surrounds her. She is however believed to posses the power of Obeah. The possession of so much supernatural powers that she could spirit away without being seen. (Campbell, pg.51) Along with the return fire of bullets on the British, she also had a huge cauldron that boiled continuously without a fire that would suck soldiers in and kill them. This was later figured to be part of the Macungo River flowing over a 900foot precipice into the swiftly flowing Stony River giving the appearance of a bubbling cauldron. (Campbell, pg.51) But either way the event was part of Nanny’s mystique. What is true is Nanny is a Freedom Fighter and rivals the great military strategist of Nzinga a great African Queen. (Campbell, pg.51) Nanny did give all the Maroons hope and a force to rally behind and she was remembered for centuries to come.

Treaty of 1739

The problems with the maroons had escalated during the 1680-1690’s all the way up to the 1720’s. In 1673, two hundred slaves killed 114 Europeans and escaped into the hills of St. Ann. (Reidell, pg.48) In 1686, the Widow Grey lost 150 slaves in one night. In 1690, 400 Coromantes in Clarendon killed their masters, then stopped at the next plantation to persuade more to join them. The militia caught up with them and only 30 to 40 escaped recapture. (Reidell, pg. 49) But this group became the nucleus of a second large group, the western Maroons. They entrenched themselves in the Cockpit Country, a forbidding limestone landscape of steep conical hills punctuated by deep basins, a rocky wilderness which shifted unpredictably underfoot, where days of difficult traveling got you nowhere. (Reidell, pg. 49)

Although the Maroons numbered a thousand or fewer by 1700, they seemed to be everywhere at once, posing a constant threat. The sound of drums or the haunting abeng struck dread in the plantation houses. The European population was outnumbered by more than ten to one by their slaves. (Reidell, pg. 48) Breezes rustling the impenetrable fields of towering sugar cane bespoke impending ambush to frightened overseers and accountants, while the prosperous plantation owners enjoyed the comfort and safety of England. (Reidell, pg.48) During these years British rule had tried to impose what the Spanish tried earlier with the Rancheadores. The acts imposed by British rule are as follows:

1702 an "Act for more effectual raising of Parties to

pursue and destroy rebellious and runaway slaves"

(Campbell, pg53)

1705 "an Act for further Encouragement of Parties, and more

speedy Reduction of rebellious and runaway slaves" (Campbell, pg53)

1718 "And whereas the several Laws for the Purpose

have hitherto proved ineffectual, be it therefore enacted…that is shall and may be lawful to and for His Majesty’s present Governor…to commission such Person or Persons…to command and Party of Parties that will voluntarily inlist themselves to go out in the Pursuit of the said rebellious and runaway slaves." (Campbell, pg53)

Decades of intermittent skirmishes intensified into the 14-year First Maroon War. Infantry, sailors and swivel guns dragged into the hills had destroyed settlements but failed to break the Maroon spirit or their determination to remain free. Even Mosquito Indians brought as trackers from Panama succumbed to disease or the lure of Maroon life. (Reidell, pg.49) It was time to negotiate a settlement.

In 1738, Governor Trelawney assigned Col. John Guthrie and Captain Francis Sadler to march west to meet with the authoritarian Coromante leader, Cudjoe, described as a strange, wild, squat man. (Reidell, pg.49) But Cudjoe would not come to terms. (Reidell, pg.49)

Guthrie wrote the Governor, explaining that his men, "finding it impracticable to maintain the (Maroon) town on account of the many ambushes surrounding it," had burned it. The next day, following some volleys of shot, Guthrie reported he had found Cudjoe. (Reidell, pg.49)

A treaty was drawn up, promising the western Maroons perpetual freedom and land in return for recapturing future runaways, clearing roads and defending Jamaica in case of attack. (Reidell pg.49) The Maroons were forbidden to hunt wild pigs, from which they made the fiery delicacy, jerk pork, within three miles of settlements. The 1739 treaty also imposed resident government superintendents in their settlements. (Reidell, pg.49) The following year, a more restrictive treaty was signed by Cuffee of the eastern Maroons, yet five hundred acres of land were granted to the infamous Nanny by patent. (Reidell, pg.49)

This seeming collusion with colonial officials not surprisingly bred enmity among the slave population. An anonymous observer, writing some years later, noted that the terms of the treaty "dissatisfied the slaves on the plantation very much--they repined that freedom had been granted to the rebels who have fled from their masters and committed numerous crimes where they who have remained faithful were in a much worse condition." (Olson, pg. 234) This set the foundation for problems in the future when slaves would work with the plantation owners to fight the Maroons in the 1795 Trelawny Town War. (Campbell, pg.251)



Maroons Today

Today Maroons still live in their old towns in the hills, but the fighting has since stopped after the abolishment of slavery. One hundred thousand descendants call themselves Maroons. (Reidell, pg.50) Living in eleven settlements, still in possession of the lands granted to them by treaty and to a degree self-governing, Maroons regularly elect their Colonels, Majors and Captains. (Reidell, pg.50)

Ivy is a Maroon who is currently living in between the Blue Mountains and the John Crow Mountains. Eric Olson spent some time with her to catch a glimpse of the Maroon history.

"Now our history and culture are not so strong," Ivy said. "People don't recognize creation and praise what man has made. They go to the doctor and get drugs at the pharmacy, and when they don't get better they come to me. "We used the herbs for all kinds of sickness," she explained. "When we were small, we were sent out to pick some fits weed or fever grass. If someone had belly pain they would tell the kids, 'go out and pick something for the stomach.' I never see a doctor in this village when I was growing up."(Olson, pg.234)

A former senator in Jamaica's Parliament, Harris was instrumental in raising awareness of Maroon history following Jamaica's independence from Great Britain in 1968. (Olson, pg.234) An anomalous presence, the Maroons have been overlooked in conventional histories both because of the remoteness of their communities and the separate path their history took from that of mainstream Jamaica. (Olson, pg. 234)

Today the Maroons form a notable chapter in the story of Jamaica's journey to nationhood. An annual Maroon independence festival in Accompong now draws visitors from around the world, and the preeminent stature of Nanny ensures that the Maroons will not again be relegated to the margins of history. (Olson pg.234)


The Maroons are a select group in the history of this planet that fought against oppression. They had to deal with situations that I could only imaging. Their strength, courage and determination need not go unrecognized. They are the first freedom fighters of Jamaica. Even though they were not always successful their constant distractions and presence made it difficult for oppressive governments to settle in completely. The end of their story in history is not victorious and in many history books they’ve been written off, but for the hundreds of thousands alive today they are the true fighters of the slavery system.


Works Cited


Barrett, Leonard. Rastafarians. Beacon Press, Boston, 1997

Bell, Hesketh. Obeah; Witchcraft in the West Indies. Negro

Universities Press. Westport, Connecticut. 1970.

Buckley, Roger. Slaves in Red Coats. Yale University Pess, New

Haven, CT. 1979.

Campbell, Marvis. The Maroons of Jamaica 1655-1796. African

World Press, Inc. Trenton, NJ. 1990.

Drescher, Seymour. Econocide British Slavery in the Era of

Abolition. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh,

PA. 1977

Hall, Gwendolyn. Social Control in Slave Plantation Societies.

The Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, Maryland. 1971.

Olson, Eric. (Feb 2000). Mountain Rebels: The Flight from Slavery of Jamaicas’s Maroons. World and I v15:2, p234. Available: Expanded Academic Research.

Reidell, Heidi. (Jan-Feb 1990). The Maroon culture of endurance. (history of Jamaica's runaway slaves)

Americas (English Edition) v42 n1, p46(4). Available: Expanded Academic Research.