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The Jamaican Maroons are descendants of Africans who fought and escaped from slavery and established free communities in the mountainous interior of Jamaica during the era of slavery. African slaves imported during the Spanish period may have provided the first runaways. Slavery continued after the English took over Jamaica. Africans in Jamaica continually fought and revolted. The revolts had the effect of disrupting the sugar economy in Jamaica and making it less profitable. The revolts simmered down only after the English government promised to free the slaves if they stopped revolting.
The First Jamaican Maroons
When the British captured Jamaica in 1655, the Spanish colonists fled, free blacks and mulattoes, former slaves and some native Taíno to coalesce into several heterogenous groups in the Jamaican interior. They created palenques, or stockaded mountain farms at Lluidas Vale in modern-day Clarendon Parish under Juan de Bolas (or Lubolo); towards the western end of Cockpit Country were the ‘Varmahaly Negroes’ under the leadership of Juan de Serras; a third group was active in the region of Porus, in modern Manchester Parish; and there was possibly a fourth in the Blue Mountains. During the first decade of British rule, these groups were active on behalf of the Spanish, but as it became increasingly obvious that the British would hold their conquest, their position shifted.
Faced with discovery and defeat in 1659, Juan de Bolas allied himself with the British and guided their troops on a raid which resulted in the final expulsion of the Spanish in 1660. In exchange, in 1663, Governor Lyttleton signed the first maroon treaty granting de Bolas and his people land on the same terms as British settlers.
The other maroon groups remained independent in the mountainous interior of Jamaica, surviving by subsistence farming and periodic raids of plantations. These initial maroon groups dwindled, migrating or merging with settlers. Others may have coalesced to form the nucleus of what would later become the Windward Maroons. Over time, runaway slaves increased the Maroon population which eventually came to control large areas of the Jamaican interior.
Establishment of the Leeward and Windward Maroons
Between 1673 and 1690 there were several major slave uprisings, mainly involving highly newly arrived, highly militarized Coromantee groups. On 31 July 1690, a rebellion involving 500 slaves from the Sutton estate in Clarendon Parish led to the formation of Jamaica’s most stable and best organized maroon group. Although some were killed, recaptured or surrendered more than 200 remained free after the rebellion was considered over, including women and children. They established an Ashanti style polity based in the eastern Cockpit Country. This group centered around Trelawny Town under rulers of whom the most famous was Cudjoe, and only incorporated outsiders following a strict probationary period. It should be noted that Cudjoe is an Akan day name, assigned to about a seventh of males in Akan-speaking cultures, including several Jamaican maroon leaders.
The Windward Maroons in the wilder parts of eastern Jamaica were always composed of separate highly mobile and culturally heterogeneous groups. From early on, their presence was perceived as an impediment to British settlement by the Jamaican Governors, who raided them to little effect in 1686 and 1702.
By about 1720 a stronger Windward focal point had developed around the culturally Africanised group of three villages known as Nanny Town, under the spiritual leadership of Nanny herself, sometimes in allegiance and sometimes in competition with other Windward groups. Queen Nanny, also known as Granny Nanny (died 1700s), is the only female listed among Jamaica's National Heroes. She has been immortalised in songs and legends. She was known for her exceptional leadership skills, especially in guerrilla warfare, during the First Maroon War. Her remains are reputedly buried at "Bump Grave" in Moore Town, the main town of the Windward Maroons who are concentrated in and around the Rio Grande valley in the northeastern parish of Portland.
First Maroon War 1731-1739
Disturbed by plantation raiding, the colonial authorities of Jamaica wanted to eradicate the maroon communities in order to promote British settlement. Their strategy, beginning in the 1730s was to break off lines of communication between the Windward and Leeward Maroons, then pick off the less organized Windward Maroons first. In practice, the Maroon troops’ command of the territory and skill in guerilla warfare gave them an advantage. After much fighting, Nanny Town was taken and destroyed in 1734, but most of the Windward Maroons simply dispersed and formed new settlements. At this point, however, fighting shifted to Leeward, where the British troops had equally limited success against the well-trained and organized forces of Cudjoe.
By the mid-1730s, warfare was proving costly to Maroons and British alike and was turning into an ongoing stalemate. Cudjoe rejected suggestions of a treaty in 1734 and 1736, but by 1738 he agreed to parley with John Guthrie, a local planter and militia officer who was known to and respected by the maroons. The treaty signed under British governor Edward Trelawny granted Cudjoe’s Maroons 1500 acres of land between their strongholds of Trelawny Town and Accompong in the Cockpits and a certain amount of political autonomy and economic freedoms, in return for which, the Maroons were to provide military support in case of invasion or rebellion and to return runaway slaves in exchange for a bounty of two dollars each. This last clause in the treaty caused tension between the Maroons and the enslaved black population, although from time to time runaways from the plantations still found their way into Maroon settlements.
In addition, a British superintendent was to be assigned to live in each Maroon town. After another few years of fighting, similar treaties were signed by Quao, Nanny, and other major leaders of the Windward Maroons, who were eventually established at Charles Town, Scotts Hall and the new Nanny Town(now called Moore Town).
Intervention in Tacky's War 1760
In April 1760, the Jamaican government called upon the Maroons to honor their treaties and come to their assistance during the major slave uprising led by the Ashanti leader, Tacky. The Windward Maroons were first to be mobilized. Their intervention often appeared half-hearted: the Scott's Hall Maroons began by claiming outstanding arrears in bounty, while those of Down's Cove simply took cover when attacked by the rebels. In the end, it was a Scott's Hall Maroon, Lieutenant Davy, who killed Tacky during a skirmish Although the loss of Tacky's leadership essentially ended the rebellion, by October, related uprisings had broken out on the leeward side of the island and Cudjoe's well-trained forces were also mobilized to help deal with them, apparently to good effect.
Second Maroon War 1795-1796
The Second Maroon War began in 1795 against the background of a British Jamaican plantocracy panicked by the French Revolution and the corresponding inception of the Haitian Revolution in neighboring Saint-Domingue. At the same time, an increasing hunger for land among expanding maroon communities in Jamaica coincided with several more immediate and proximate causes of grievance among the maroons of Trelawny Town.
The treaties following the First Maroon War had called for the implantation of a white ‘superintendent’ in maroon communities. Trelawny had objected to the official recently assigned to them and eventually evicted him. At this, the new, hardline Governor, Balcarres, marched on Trelawny with a military force to demand their immediate submission. The Trelawny maroons chose to fight and were initially successful, fighting a guerilla war in small bands under several captains of whom the most noted were Johnson, Parkinson and Palmer. Balcarres’ general, Walpole, opted to besiege the Cockpit Country on a massive scale, surrounding it with watchposts, firing in shells from a long distance and aiming to destroy or cut off all maroon provision grounds. Meanwhile, maroon attempts to recruit plantation slaves met with a mixed response and other maroon communities maintained neutrality.
Despite signs that the siege was working, Balcarres grew impatient and sent to Cuba for a hundred hunting dogs. The reputation of these was so fearsome that they quickly prompted the surrender of the majority of Trelawny forces. To Walpole's dismay, Balcarres refused to treat with the defeated maroons and had them deported from Jamaica, at first to Nova Scotia, then to Sierra Leone along with the ‘Black Loyalists’ of the American War of Independence. However, by 1841 a majority of the Maroons in Sierra Leone (or their descendents) had returned to Jamaica to work as free labor (see Jamaican Maroons in Sierra Leone.
To this day, the Maroons in Jamaica are to a small extent autonomous and separate from Jamaican culture. The isolation used to their advantage by their ancestors has today led to their communities being amongst the most inaccessible on the island.
Eleven Maroon settlements remain on lands apportioned to them in the original treaty with the British. These Maroons still maintain their traditional celebrations and practices, some of which have West African origin, for example, the council of a Maroon settlement is called an Asofo, Akan:Twi word asafo (= assembly, church, society)
Native Jamaicans and island tourists are allowed to be present at many of these events, while others are held in secret and shrouded in mystery. Singing, dancing, drum-playing and preparation of traditional foods form a central part of most gatherings. In their largest town, Accompong, in the parish of St. Elizabeth, the Leeward Maroons still possess a vibrant community of about 600. Tours of the village are offered to foreigners and a large festival is put on every 6 January to commemorate the signing of the peace treaty with the British after the Maroon War.
The Maroon heritage of Moore Town was relisted on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008.
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- Jamaican Maroons in Sierra Leone
- Maroon (people)
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