Maroons are described as fierce and war-like according to their nature and historical exploits. These exploits included plantation raids, the killing of white militiamen, and the freeing of slaves. They posed a threat to the democracy of the British-ruled colony Jamaica in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, hence the British were forced to negotiate peace with them. The British planters therefore signed a peace treaty with the Maroons in 1738.
Spanish rule in Jamaica began in 1494 when Columbus discovered Jamaica. The Spanish enslaved the native Arawaks, who quickly died out from the harshness of slave life and the diseases brought by their conquerers. The Spanish supplemented their dwindling workforce with African slaves--a practice replicated throughout the Spanish territories in the Carribean and the Americas. By 1530, slave revolts had broken out in Mexico, Hispanola and Panama. The Spanish called these free slaves "Maroons," a word describing African slaves who ran away or escaped from their masters or owners. The word maroon is believed to be derived from the Spanish word Cimarron (wild) meaning wild.
Origins of the Maroons
In Jamaica, the Maroons occupied a mountainous region known as the "Cockpit," creating crude fortresses and a culture derived from African and European traditions. Their numbers grew with each runaway slave, and the Spanish began to fear their power. In 1553, Maroon revolts in Panama had forced the Spanish to the negotiating table, and by 1580 Panamanian Maroons had allied themselves with British buccaneers, including Sir Francis Drake. This Maroon-buccaneer alliance posed a serious challenge to Spanish authority in the region.
From the second half of the seventeenth century to the mid-eighteenth century the Maroons developed into a formidable force. A force that challenged the system of enslavement imposed by the English. The treaties that the Maroons signed with the English played a prominent role in undermining slavery. Also, their cultural traditions are significant in the history and heritage of Jamaica.
The Maroon/British Conflict
In 1655, the British conquered much of Jamaica, forcing the Spanish to flee to the northern coast. Rather than become slaves to new masters, vast numbers of Spanish slaves took this opportunity to join the Maroons in the hill country. At first, Maroon resistance impeded British efforts to drive the Spaniards from Jamaica, prompting one Spanish commander to conclude that the Maroons were loyal to the Spanish crown. The Maroons dispelled this assumption as an alliance was formed by them with the British governor, Edward D'Oyley. This alliance routed the Spaniards from their remaining settlements. By 1660, the last Spanish rulers had fled for Cuba. The Maroon leader Lubolo served the British governor as a colonel, and brought in other Maroon factions. In 1663, another Maroon faction, led by Juan de Serras, ambushed and killed Lubolo. This killing initiated eight decades of escalating tension with the British, who could not dislodge the Maroons from their mountain fortresses.
By 1720, the Maroons took the offensive, mounting raids against British plantations along the base of the mountains. From 1729 to 1739, a state of open warfare existed between the British and the Maroons. The British were frustrated by Jamaica's mountainous terrain , which the Maroon leaders used to their advantage. The Windward Maroons were lead by Captain Quao, while the Leeward Maroons followed Cudjoe, a skilled and ruthless guerilla warrior. The British Governor died in 1734, and the British decided that the conflict would have to be resolved through negotiation.
The Leeward and Windward Treaties of 1738 ended the Maroon-British wars. British slavery in the Carribean, however, lasted for another century and the Maroons were obligated to return runaway slaves to the British. They were thus reluctant participants in the very system they had fought so long to escape. The massive slave uprisings of 1831 led to the final abolition of slavery in Jamaica and throughout the British Caribbean.
Maroons in the 21st Century
To this day, the maroons in Jamaica are to an extent autonomous and separate from Jamaican culture. Those of Accompong have preserved their land since 1739. The isolation used to their advantage by their ancestors has today resulted in their communities being amongst the most inaccessible on the island.
Today, the four official maroon towns still in existence in Jamaica are Accompong Town, Moore Town, Charles Town and Scott's Hall. They hold lands allotted to them in the 1739–1740 treaties 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, from the Twi Akan word asafo (assembly, church, society).
Native Jamaicans and island tourists attend many of these events. Others considered sacred are 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 have a vibrant community of about 600. Tours of the village are offered to foreigners. They hold a large festival annually on 6 January to commemorate the signing of the peace treaty with the British after the First Maroon War.
Moore Town, located between the Blue Mountains and John Crow Mountains in Portland Parish, was relisted on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008 for its maroon heritage, particularly music
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Jacqueline Cameron is a writer with decades of writing experience running the gamut from blogging to reporting. She lives in Kingston, Jamaica and is the chief writer for the Jamaica So Nice Blog. She is a trained engineer and musician and loves to see people transformed through her work.