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Maroon Societies in the Americas

I can identify two moments in my life when I began to take an interest in Maroon communities. At age 13, I traveled for the first time on a mode of transportation other than my father’s car, a city bus or my bicycle beyond the city limits of Newark New Jersey. Along with 20 other ragamuffin city kids in my boy scout pack, I travelled by bus cross country to the Boy Scout Ranch in New Mexico, located in Cimarron. I was then and still am curious about word origins and asked the Scout Master why the ranch was called cimarron. He didn’t know. In spite of questioning others there, no one seemed to know.

Back home, I went to the Bergen Street Branch librarian, which was no small feat, as it was in a neighborhood where I rarely travelled alone, but always with someone from my crew. There, a wonderful librarian by the name of Helene Katz, introduced me to the word etymology and to the history of the origin of the English language word maroon.

I never forget that lesson and while my interest in Dodger pitcher Don Newcombe who played for the Newark farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers and still a frequent visitor to the Newark neighborhood where I lived, was more important to me. My interest in the subject persisted through high school and college taking the form of more library research.

In 1992, during a university sabbatical year, I moved with my family to Ibarra, Ecuador where I spent many months working with members of the afro ecuadorean community in the province of Esmeraldas and in small villages in the Chota Valley interviewing and collecting information about memory and heritage of the maroon communities there.

Among my many friends was one woman in particular, Edelmar Chalá. She and her family and many others in her village, unlike most Ecuadoreans, like Muslims, did not eat pork, greeted each other with phrases that sounded Arabic, and always used the phrase in Spanish following any leave taking by saying Si Dios quiere (God Willing like the Arabic inshallah and we both felt that here last name was a corrupted form of the Arabic Inshallah, god willing. So, that is how this son of Newark, New Jersey began his journey of exploration into the heroic refusal of African slaves in the Americas to accept their submissive state or loss of personhood.

Throughout the Americas, there are parts of the African American slave experience at the crossroads of faith and history which demand further exploration and updating. I am referring both to Maroon societies (communities of escaped slaves) and Islam. Both played powerful and frequently overlapping roles in freeing slaves from bondage, and adapting and developing Old World African institutions to New World realities; in forging new languages, new political institutions, as well as creating amalgams of aesthetics, faith, communal and interpersonal relations.

With time and persistence, Maroon communities throughout the Americas became centers of resistance, not only to their slave-holding masters, but ultimately as the core of anti-colonial struggles against their colonial European masters.

The Islamic faith of rebellious slaves, however, is still an almost invisible part of the discussion of African resistance to slavery in the Americas. This disappearance is at once bewildering and understandable. Since Islam had expanded and penetrated the sub-Saharan western African nations centuries before all of the Atlantic slave populations were forcibly removed and shipped to the Americas from that region of the African continent, it is impossible, that their Islamic faith simply vanished during the Middle Passage from Africa to the New World. However, at the same time, it is understandable that in the Catholic and Protestant worlds of their slave masters, it would have been problematic for slaves to maintain the five principles of Islam and remain observant Muslims. The obstacles were formidable; and over time, only shards of open affirmation and faithful observance would have remained as new syncretic Christian faiths incorporated Islam rites, beliefs and observances.

Regarding North American slave societies, what if Harriet Tubman’s heroic resistance to slavery had been as the leader of a rebellious community of Maroons and not as a resourceful and courageous individual rescuing slaves? What if instead of leading slaves north to free states and into a masterless life, albeit on the margins of the wider white society, she had led them into the “bush,” remote mountain hideaways, swamps, or south to México to establish settlements of escaped slaves – Maroon communities? What if those safe havens continuously served as communal refuges of freedom for those who escaped enslavement? What if she and her Maroon companions had greeted each other upon meeting with the salutation “Sala malecú” a by then 19th century corrupted form of the traditional Islamic greeting As-salamu alaykum (Peace be upon you) among many Maroon communities brought to the New World by Muslim Africans centuries before Harriet Tubman might have led others into a masterless life. If Harriet Tubman had been that Maroon leader, she and her fellow escapees could have not only endured and survived,but could have recast the vicissitudes of maroonage into a new, distinctive African culture in America.

In Harriet Tubman’s North America there were Maroon communities almost from the moment slaves arrived. These Africans settled in geographically isolated and seemingly inhospitable territories like the Dismal Swamp between Virginia and North Carolina, in South Carolina’s Low Country, in the Belle Isle swamps south of Savannah, Georgia, in Spanish Florida, or in the boggy bayou lands surrounding Louisiana’s Bas du Fleuve southeast of New Orleans. Generations of escaped slaves were born and died in Maroon communities until slavery ended. These African Creoles, children of Africans, born in the Americas of African parentage are the originators of a New World African American culture rather than simply the retainers of Old World African culture in the Americas.

So, while surviving the never-ending threats posed by slave catchers and watchmen was of singular concern for the masterless communities of Maroons, mastering how to feed and defend themselves and, at the same time, create a singular Maroon society of peoples from culturally diverse African ethnicities speaking mutually unintelligible languages, was to forge a new identity–an acculturated African identity made in America. If this is who Harriet Tubman had been, in colonial America she would have found multitudes of followers from members of Maroon communities thanks to her personal heroism, ingenuity, and bravery in the unending war of combating slavery.

Maroon is a loan word borrowed from the Spanish, cimarrón, which is itself a corrupted appropriation from the Arawak-speaking Taino Native Americans of the Caribbean. In its Spanish language usage, it meant fugitive or wild—first applied to animals and then to humans. As early as 1522, in correspondence from Spanish Viceroys and Chroniclers to the Spanish Majesties and colonial authorities, the word appears either as cimarrón or simarrón.

The word Maroon is also an early example of what would later become a prototypical feature of Caribbean culture — language, food, and music — that is, like so much else in the cultures of that region it is a hybrid, a mashup of African, European, and Indigenous ingredients. In its original Arawak usage, as símara, it meant both an arrow that wildly missed its mark or a wild animal. The Spaniards added the suffix arrón, connoting something disproportionately large, disagreeable, or even violent such as the Spanish words fanfarrón (braggart), testarrón (pig headed) or vozarrón (a loud disagreeable voice). Colonial authorities then used that neologism in their correspondence with the Spanish Majesties and Authorities to describe native peoples and slaves who escaped from the mines and plantations to live masterless lives in the wild.

Slave masters in North America and the English-speaking Caribbean then shortened that twice-loaned word to Maroon (originally written as symeron) and used it to name escaped slaves. Unlike the short-lived acts of open-armed slave rebellions like those led by Charles Deslondes, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner in the American south, rebellions in the Caribbean and South America led by Maroon communities commanded by Queen Nanny and Cudjoe in Jamaica, Andresote in Venezuela, Yanga in Mexico, Zumbi in Brazil, Coffij in the Berbice region of modern-day Guyana, or Boni in Surinam and French Guyana were wide-spread and their resistance persistent and enduring.

Defiance of slavery began almost the moment plantation capitalism was established in the Americas. In the Spanish Viceroy’s Report to the Crown of 1522 from Santo Domingo, there were,

“… more than seven thousand Maroons in the forests of the island…” In the regions surrounding the capital of the territorially immense Viceroyalty of New Spain (modern-day North America, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and the Philippines), Maroons had organized large scale uprisings against the former masters of the mines and sugar plantations where they had been enslaved; and were threatening Mexico City. The peril was of such a grave nature that on December 10, 1537, two years after the founding of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza wrote the Emperor to inform him that, “On the twenty-fourth of the month of November past I was informed that the Negros had chosen a king, and had agreed amongst themselves to kill all the Spaniards and rise up to take the land….”

In 1608, almost seventy years of continuous warfare between Spanish troops and Maroons had been ongoing. Fighting had spread far from the capital to the regions surrounding the important port city of Verz Cruz and the rich eastern New Spain sugar plantations. The Spanish military commander, Captain Pedro Gonzalo de Herrera, unable to defeat the Maroons militarily, negotiated a peace treaty with the Maroon leader Yanga, and granted legal and jurisdictional status to the Maroon community, naming it San Lorenzo de los Negros. Look at a modern map of the Gulf of Mexico coast. Sixty miles southwest of the Gulf region’s still most important city, Vera Cruz, you will see the village of Yanga, a living testimony to the resistance of its original Maroon inhabitants.

In Jamaica, the Windward (eastern) and Leeward (western) regions of that island are honey- combed with vast stretches of seemingly impenetrable jungle and steep hollows or cockpits. They are also crisscrossed by rivers providing fluvial avenues of movement for the Maroon communities that found refuge there. Two such groups, one captained by a woman whom history knows as Queen Nanny of the Maroons of the Windward Blue Mountain Maroons, and the other by “Captain” Cudjoe of the Leeward Jamaica Maroons, fought both the Spanish and the British colonial masters for almost eight decades. In 1739, the British, unable to defeat either of the groups, finally signed peace treaties with both, granting the Maroon communities autonomous status within the colony. Four of these communities, Accompong, Charles Town, Moore Town and Scott’s Hall still exist today.

Those peace treaties, however, did not end the abuses of slavery on the Island. Jamaican slaves from West African nations where Islam was prevalent (like their slave counterparts in the Dutch, French, and Spanish Caribbean) were forced by their masters to accept their Christian faith. They cleverly camouflaged their Islamic beliefs in a syncretic system of principles which allowed them to appear as if they had accepted the Baptist, Catholic and Protestant faiths of their masters, but still retained, to the degree possible, their Islamic traditions. In 1832, in the Jamaican Parrish of Manchester, the continued abuses of plantation slave masters was enjoined by a call for a Jihad by the Muslim slave, Muhammed Kaba, who urged ,”All the followers of the Prophet Muhammed (Peace Be Upon Him) to be true and faithful… and throw off the bonds of slavery.”

Like the Jamaican Maroon societies, the Maroons of northern South America’s Wild Coast, from the Dutch name Wilde Kust, for the modern nations of Guyana, Surinam and the French overseas Dèpartment of French Guiana, were able to force concessions from their masters and the European metropolitan colonial power of Holland to live independent of the central ruling authority in their own interior communities. By the mid and late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Maroon communities in the vast empty interiors had resisted all attempts by the colonial authorities to be subdued.

In today’s South American nation state of Guyana, the Maroon and plantation-led rebellion that began in 1763 and lasted almost a year, enveloped nearly the entire Dutch colony. The uprising, called the Berbice Rebellion was led by Coffij van Lelienburg (the name of the plantation where he had been enslaved prior to escaping into the forest) almost succeeded in overwhelming the Dutch militarily. In all likelihood, Coffij was a Muslim, since he was described in contemporaneous colonial documents as being literate in Arabic. Additionally, several of Coffij’s “lieutenants” Akara (his chief army commander), as well as Atta and Quabi, were also Muslims from Islamicized West African ethnicities. The leaders of the uprising were able to extract peace treaties from the Dutch guaranteeing their freedom and territorial dominion.

Guyana shares its eastern border with Surinam, the former colony of Dutch Guiana. Maroon communities were established there almost from the moment the first English settlers arrived with slaves in 1651 to carve sugar, tobacco and coffee plantations out of the jungle. In 1667, as part of the pattern of European “musical chairs” for South America’s Guianas, the Dutch replaced the English as the colonial rulers. The sugar and coffee plantocracy was unable and unwilling to establish settlements away from the coast. Although Surinam, like the other Guianas, is a land crisscrossed by hundreds of rivers, none are navigable by large vessels which would have allowed the Dutch colonists to supply plantations in the country’s interior. The vast empty tracts of territory that abutted the plantations then became escape routes for fleeing slaves who formed the Maroon communities for the six principal West African ethnicities who then inhabited the interior. They not only lived self-emancipated lives, but terrorized the plantations and threatened the coastal capital of Paramaribo.

In the course of the 18th century, the Dutch colonial masters, unable to subdue the various Maroon communities by military force, were compelled to sign peace treaties with the Ndyuka (1760), Saamaka (1762) and the Matwai (1767) ethnicities. Three other Maroon groups, however, achieved their freedom in ways that were not sealed by peace treaties. This status of Maroon autonomy lasted for more than 200 years until the final two decades of the twentieth century when a civil war between the Maroons of the interior and the Creole ruling class of the coast, ended the Maroons’ historic isolation as a nation within a nation.

The international borders that separate the three Guianas seem random, accidents of geographical phenomenona, rather than historical imperatives. The Maroni River which today separates modern-day Surinam from the French Dèpartment of Guyane, is a physical barrier rather than a disputed territorial imperative between two competing European entities. In spite of the peace treaties signed by the Dutch colonists with three of the Dutch colony’s Maroons, military activities continued against those other Maroon ethnicities not included in those agreements. For almost thirty years following the peace treaty signed with the Matawai Maroons, the Dutch authorities in Paramaribo continued to engage in military combat. History today calls this the Boni Wars, as they were directed against Maroons who were led by Bokilifu Bon. In 1793, the Bonis retreated from the Dutch colony and took up permanent residence on the east bank of the Maroni River in what is in modern day called the French Dèpartment of Guyane.

The French Caribbean colony of Sant Domingue (the modern nation of Haiti) was the crown jewel of the French colonial empire. Its sugar plantation wealth, built on the labor of African slaves, made it the World’s wealthiest European colony. In Haiti, as in every other European slave-holding colony, the enslaved of the colony engaged in endless warfare against their masters–be it work slowdowns, destruction of means of production, selective poisoning of the enslavers, and escape from the plantations into the surrounding forests to self-emancipate as Maroons.

However, Haiti accordingly to historian Johnhenry Gonzalez, “…unlike a society such as Jamaica or Brazil with a history of Maroon enclaves, represents the only example of a Maroon nation…a place in which the Maroon phenomenon came to characterize the entire nation.” That is to say, marronage in Haiti was neither isolated nor episodic, it was inescapable and omnipresent throughout the pre-Revolutionary years.

Perhaps the most charismatic pre-revolutionary Haitian maroon leader was the mid-nineteenth century Maroon François Mackandal. Like many of the Maroon leaders throughout the Americas, he appears to have been a Muslim. Haitian historian Thomas Madiou in his 1847 Histoire d’Haiti, describes Mackandal as someone who“…had instruction in and knew the Arabic language very well.” Mackandal’s name itself is probably eponymous, taking its meaning from the West African Mandinka language words mo kadan, meaning someone who has mystical powers, akin to an Islamic marabout, a mystic or religious scholar. Some thirty years before the successful twelve-year slave rebellion and successful overthrow of the French colonists, Mackandal was not simply living a masterless life as a Maroon. He and his followers were planning to overthrow not just an odious individual plantation owner, but French colonial society itself, using poison as their principal weapon. For six years, until he was betrayed, he led a destabilizing precursor movement to the Haitian Revolution against the plantocracy of Haiti.

If François Mackandal was the avenging angel of Maroon resistance to slavery, another pre-revolutionary Haitian leader, Boukman Dutty, was the oratorical match that lit the rebellion’s funeral pyre of French colony rule. His words set the enslaved population ablaze . Like Mackandal, Boukman was a Muslim. He had been brought to Sant Domingue from Jamaica by a slaver. He was known there as the Book Man, which was rendered into French Creole as Boukman, a common appellation for a Muslim– that is Boukman, Man of the Book. He was literate, a primary responsibility for any Muslim who must depend on the Book, the Qu’ran, for guidance and behavior in personal and communal life. Unlike Mackandal, Boukman was not a plantation slave or a Maroon, but a coachman. His duties as a driver permitted him to travel widely through the Haitian countryside. Making his rounds from plantation to plantation, he proselytized with the fervor of an apostle on behalf of a slave rebellion.

As noted by the Haitian historian Hérard Dumesle in his 1824 Voyage in the North of Haiti, on August 14, 1791, one week before the August 22, 1791 general slave uprising against the French colonial regime began, Boukman urged a large secret gathering near Cap Haitien at the Bwa Kayiman (The Alligator’s Forest)”… to pray to …God who makes the sun which gives us light, Who rouses the waves and makes the storm, Though hidden in the clouds, He watches us. He sees all that the whites are doing. The God of the whites orders crime, but our God calls upon us to do good works. Our God who is good to us orders us to avenge our wrongs. He will direct our arms and aid us. Throw away the symbol of the god of the whites….”

Although Boukman was murdered shortly after that uprising began, the rebellion that he set in motion was unstoppable. Fighting raged for twelve years. On January 1, 1804, Haiti became an independent nation — the only slave state in world history to defeat the slave master class. In the process, Haitian slaves had not only conquered British and Spanish invasions of the Island, but vanquished Europe’s most formidable army, the French forces of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Finally, short of a revolution like the Haitian uprising, slaves throughout the Americas ceaselessly sought freedom and safe havens from their oppressors and the brutalities of everyday life. In the immense continental physical space that is Brazil, almost from the beginning moments of that European colony, whether during Portuguese or Dutch rule, Maroon communities dotted the interior of the sugar producing regions of the Northeast; one of the most prosperous sugar-producing areas in the New World. One community in particular, the Quilombo (war camp in Kimbundu, a Bantu language) dos Palmares became, in essence, a nation within a nation. It was a unified Maroon kingdom, a collection of perhaps a dozen or more allied and relatively self-sufficient villages or mocambos (hideouts in Kimbundu) ruled by the dynastic Zumba family, whose leader was referred to as Ganga (Great Lord also from the Kimbundu) Zumba. Contemporary and modern population estimates put the number of inhabitants of the Quilombo at more than 20,000 inhabitants; and its physical dimensions about the size of the State of Rhode Island. Palmares withstood military attacks by the Portuguese and the Dutch almost from its inception. Through the audacity and brilliant military leadership and strategies of Ganga Zumba’s nephew, Zumbi, and his brother Ganga Zona, Palmares existed as an autonomous, self-governing political entity of escaped slaves for almost the entire seventeenth century (1596-1694).

In addition to Maroon resistance to slavery in Brazil, roiling urban opposition to bondage, especially during the early decades of the 19th century, was also centered in the northeastern area of Bahia where the original capital of the colony, Salvador da Bahia de Todos Os Santos was located. Here, frequent but short-lived uprisings like those in North America occurred, but with a singular difference. The leadership of the uprisings was frequently, if not exclusively, drawn from Islamic-professing slaves. These sporadic, urban uprisings culminated in the January 1835 Muslim-led urban slave rebellion in Salvador. What distinguished the Bahian uprising was not only its Muslim slave leadership and its symbolic choice of the date for the uprising. If one were to convert the Christian calendar to the Islamic calendar, the uprising which took place on January 25, 1835 would have been the 25th day of Ramadan 1250 AH (After the Hegira) in the Muslim calendar. This day was not arbitrarily chosen. It was selected because it is the Lailat al Qadr, the Night of Power. That date is of incalculable symbolic important in the Islamic calendar. This is the night of the revelation of the Koran to Mohammed. Though unsuccessful in its effort to overthrow their slave masters, the Muslim slave led rebellion’s efforts to abolish slavery and establish an Islamic caliphate gives lie to the notion that Islam was not present among African slaves. Long after the initial forced removal of slaves from their West African Islamic roots, and the slavocracy’s efforts to eradicate the profession of that faith, whether in urban centers, Maroon communities, or among plantation slaves, Islam, as a faith and way of life, continued to exist.

Maroon resistance to slavery in the Americas was long lasting and geographically widespread. Those communities and their defiance of oppression that I have described here, are but a limited and abbreviated attempt to characterize the universal collective refusal of slaves to accept their circumstances. Further, the role of Maroon communities in the creation and affirmation of a New World African identity and personhood; and its part in a blending, reshaping, and fusing diverse sub-Saharan African Islam into a new culture cannot be underestimated. The modern Jamaican post-Maroon, national slogan of Out of Many One People is a clear reflection of that impulse and need to create a new identity

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