Five hundred years after the first African in the West escaped slavery and took to the hills of Hispanola (now Haiti and Dominican Republic) we still hardly know anything about the Maroons. Most of us who know of the great deeds of our Maroons ancestors do not place them in the contemporary arena. We say that the Maroons were, not are. Yet the man who was the last Maroon in the hills of Cuba running away from slavery there, only just recently died. Maroon history is not only in the past but is here with us today. The descendants of those Africans who fled slavery still live in communities in Suriname, French Guiana, Columbia, Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, the Bahamas and the Caribbean.
Most Maroons do not look any different than most Africans to the uninitiated. They blend into the countries where they have survived as a people. You can talk to them and have no idea that you are talking to a Maroon unless he or she reveals their origins.
Maroons are some of the most elusive people on earth and the truth about their historic past and contemporary relevance is just as elusive. The fact that they are so hard to pin down, ensured their success in gaining and retaining their freedom and helped preserve their culture. Secrecy defined the integrity of these communities in the past. Today they are not so much secret communities, but communities with secrets, that only those who have the correct key can unlock. They are communities that are hidden in plain view.
One of the lasting impacts Maroons had on the world was how they changed the rules of fighting wars. They developed guerilla warfare to previously unknown heights. They vanished from plantations. They attacked enemies and melted into the jungle night. The element of surprise was key to their military success. They ambushed entire battalions without losing a single man. They used the art of camouflage to clothe themselves in branches and leaves, all while they encircled the enemy, waiting patiently for the correct moment to pounce. While the enemy dressed in bright red coats and loudly stomped through the jungle in heavy boots, they walked stealthily, blending into the environment. They used knowledge of their surroundings as weapons against those wishing to steal their freedom.
All of us who yearn for freedom, have the spirit of the Maroons within us. There are many definitions of who and what Maroons are. The most popular definition identifies Maroons as those Africans who fled from slavery to the hills, jungles, forests and swamps of the Americas, but in a broader sense, all refugees for freedom are Maroons.
Africans fleeing slavery built their own communities in remote, inaccessible areas. The first Maroon arrived in the West on the very first slave ship to reach the Americas. His presence is recorded in 1502 - ten years after Christopher Columbus "discovered" the New World - when he escaped into the interior of Hispanola. Many Africans quickly followed his example. Soon settlements of Africans fleeing chattel slavery sprung up on Samara, an island off the coast of Hispanola during the early 1500s. Maroon communities quickly took root in the Caribbean islands owned by Spain and France, as well as in South and Central America.
For more than 400 years, these communities grew. England, a late player in the game of slavery and still later, the United States, received their full share of runaways. From the 16th-19th centuries, Maroon communities abounded. These settlements ranged from small bands of runaways whose communities were transitory, to communities of thousands that endured for centuries. Las Palmaras in Brazil lasted for almost a century and had an area of over 1000 square miles. Florida's Black Seminoles lived in free communities there, for 126 years, before the U.S. forced them to relocate to Oklahoma. No colony in the western hemisphere was immune to the growth of alternative Maroon settlements. Wherever slavery existed, Africans resisted. Maroon communities sprang up on large expanses of inaccessible and uninhabited lands. The vast Guyanese rain forests and the mountainous interior of Jamaica were fertile grounds for them. In Guiana and Suriname they lived in the Amazon basin in northeastern South America. Their descendants form the largest surviving Maroon communities today. The remoteness of their communities allowed them to develop marvelous architectural structures and artwork as testimonies to the survival of their African concept of art. They have divided into tribal groups and live along rivers in the interior of the rain forest. Columbia is the home of the contemporary Maroon community of Palenque de San Basilo. The Maroons of Costa Chica are in Oaxaca and Guerrero, Mexico. In the U.S., more than 50 Maroon settlements that historians have been able to document, were formed between 1672 and 1864. The Seminole Maroons originated when Florida was under Spanish rule. They now live in Oklahoma, Texas, the Bahamas and Northern Mexico.
Maroon is a nickname that became popular after treaties were signed between colonialists and those Africans who were determined to remain free. It is derived from "cimarron," a Spanish word meaning "wild, unruly or untamed" or "the beast who can't be tamed." It was the name the Spanish ranchers gave to their stray cattle. Later on, they began calling runaway Africans "Cimarrones." The British translated it as "Maroon." They used to call rebel Africans names such as "Wild Negroes, Bush Negroes, Breakaways, Runaways, Rebel Negroes, Koromanti (or Coromantee) and Koromantyn" whereas the Africans called themselves empowering names like "Nyankipong Pickibu," which they translate from the Twi language of Ghana, Africa, to mean "Children of the Almighty." They also refer to themselves in Jamaica as "Koromanti," "Kromanti" and "Yungkungkung." The name "Koromanti" and its derivatives, describes their songs, dances rituals and languages. When I was growing up, my grandmother spoke often of her Koromanti relatives. I did not know then that "Koromanti" and "Maroons" were alternative names. She never used the word "Maroon" to describe her ancestry. It was not until I took a group of U.C. Berkeley students to Moore Town in Portland, Jamaica, that my mother revealed to me that the descendants of the town that Grande Nanni founded are my own relatives!
Historians of the Maroons usually tell us that Kormanti is a coast that Africans had to pass by on their way to the slave ship and that is why Maroons call themselves Kormantis. This is only half the truth. The retention of Kormanti memory is a significant part of our history on the continent that Maroons keep in stories and songs. The Koromanti were a sub-tribe of the Ashanti of Ghana. They rebelled against Ashanti rule and killed the famous Ashanti king, Osei Tutu. His body fell in the river and was never found. The Ashanti then took an oath, as the person of the king is sacred. So when the Ashanti defeated the Kormantis, they were banished and sold into slavery as punishment for their horrible crime. Many Ashanti today, know of the story of the Kormanti and wonder what became of them. Maroons sing Kormanti songs to bury their dead and perform rituals to heal the sick.
Although the Maroons are famous for their military prowess, they are also a peace-loving people. Contemporary Maroon communities are remarkably crime free and murder is unknown. Their ancestors fought fiercely for the right to be left in peace to pursue their dreams. Most Maroons secured their freedom nonviolently - they ran away. When invaders violated their homes, they repelled them. Within their settlements, they evolved social systems that emphasized cooperation and honored diversity and the uniqueness of each individual to make his or her contribution. Communities became tight-knit and rose above tribal affiliations. Far away from the prying eyes of Europe, African ancestors forged communities and institutions with elements of the various societies they came from, and created Africa anew in their homes. They adapted African values and ideas to suit their new environment. Their story is one of creatively integrating various African tribes and cultures into an overall memory and feel of Africa, while also adapting the best of Native American and European culture. They represent a new consciousness, forged out of the bitter experience of the horrific slave trade and the lessons of the resilience of the human spirit. They cherished the ancestral memories and recreated Africa in the West, while also creating something new out of diversity. Not only did they come from diverse civilizations in Africa, but their experiences of slavery were varied. Some Africans jumped ship to become Maroons. Some fled the slave plantations within hours after their arrival. They learned and taught lessons of the will of the human spirit to be free. Great leaders sprang up among them. Some of the most exceptional were Bayono of Panama, Yanga of Mexico, Ganga Zumbi of Brazil, Benkos Bioho of Columbia, Bondi of Suriname, Grande Nanni and Captain Kojo of Jamaica and John Horse of Southern United States and Mexico.
In many countries, it was the Maroons' love of peace that allowed them to accept treaties from the colonialists, that while recognizing their right to be free, also cut them off from the cooperative spy unit they had built among plantation slaves. This made it possible for Maroon contribution to this hemisphere to be marginalized and undervalued. The Maroon experience has helped to shape the western hemisphere. For example, the Maroons of Panama showed the famous English pirate, Sir Francis Drake, the Isthmus of Panama and enabled him to defeat the Spanish. Spanish Maroons cooperated with the English buccaneers, thus insuring their victories. Maroons were a force behind resistance against slavery and colonialism in the Americas. They inspired or began many freedom movements. They blew their horn of freedom (the abeng or aben, a Twi word for horn) across the Americas. They awakened those peoples who strove for independence. They launched the Haitian revolution and the struggle for freedom in Columbia and Cuba. Their presence in Jamaica inspired that island to record the highest number of slave rebellions per capita in the West. The British spent millions of pounds to suppress them and passed 44 acts against them. They placed a price on the head of every Maroon. The U.S. government spent over 40 million dollars to suppress them! The Maroons of Jamaica are the most famous contemporary Maroon community. Their struggles to retain indigenous elements in music, dance and song have long made them a driving force behind the Caribbean influence in the U.S. Two of the most famous, internationally known, Jamaican-Maroon descendants are Marcus Garvey and the poet, Claude McKay. Most prominent Jamaican scholars, artists, scientists, politicians and military leaders have some Maroon ancestry. The Maroons of Jamaica like to joke that if they called in all their members in the army, police, security guards, prison wardens, and of course, those Maroons in the field of education and politics, that the security of the island would be disrupted, there would be no government and the school system would shut down! Many of the pioneer elders of Rastafari were Maroons. Today, a number of reggae stars claim Maroon heritage also, such as Buju Banton. The boldness, creativity and resilience of Jamaicans are all Maroon characteristics.
There are four surviving Maroon communities in Jamaica. These are Moore Town (formerly New Nanny Town), Charles Town, Scott's Hall and Accompong. Portland was formed to contain the Nanni Town Maroons who were ruled by Queen Nanni. The British feared her more than any other Maroon leader. They called her terrible names and actively sought to kill her, putting a high price on her head. Charles Town has almost phased out, but recently a group of young activists has been seeking to revive it. Scott's Hall is also an eastern Maroon community, located in the parish of St. Mary.
The heroic story of a handful of Africans successfully defying and defeating thousands of the best-trained soldiers of England, who at the time, were the greatest superpower of their time, could not have been written without the contribution of women. Grande Nanni was the greatest of a group of Maroon women who fought for freedom and gave no concessions. Women were revered, respected and honored in all Maroon communities. They were crucial to the settlements as they formed the foundation of the society.
As Queen Mother in Ashanti tradition, Grande Nanni was the most powerful person in her community. The headman sought her counsel in important matters. Grande Nanni was fully responsible for matters concerning women and children, in addition to her duties of planning and directing all strategies during warfare.
There were actually several women called Nanni. The name is a combination of the Akan name "Nana" and "Ni." "Nana" is the name given to a respected elder or royal person and "Ni" means mother. It is a title meaning "royal, respected, elder mother." The eastern Maroons therefore, always refer to Nanni as Grande Nanni, Lady Nanni or Queen Nanni, to distinguish her from any other Nanni. Oral history says that when the warriors saw her leadership qualities, they each conferred their talents upon her and crowned her Queen of their nation. Therefore, in Grande Nanni is imbued the best characteristics of the Maroons in Jamaica. Today, Maroons still regard her as specially chosen by the Creator, to come to Jamaica to lead her people out of slavery. She is shrouded in myths and mystery.
Grande Nanni, female chieftainess, ritual scientist, military strategist and healer has been made a national heroine of Jamaica. Through the songs, rituals, dances, music and stories, you can learn the history of the people and their love for her. The present day Grande Nanny Moore Town Maroon Performing Group continues her legacy.
Between 1730 and 1734, the British made an all-out effort to capture and kill her. They raided her town, the Great Negro Town, ten times. At its heyday, Nanni Town, had over 300 fighting men and a greater number of women and children. It was located a few miles from the top of the Blue Mountains, the highest peaks in Jamaica. It was a fortress town several thousand feet above sea level, with a narrow trail as its only entrance. The Stony River and Nanny River flowed through it. Grande Nanni was a river queen. She loved to disappear behind waterfalls. If the British tried to chase her, they drowned in the river. Legend has it that she had a pot that boiled mysteriously without any fire under it. Curious British soldiers who peeped into the pot, became dizzy and fell over the precipice. In that way, it is said she once got rid of an entire British battalion. According to oral historians, Grande Nanni was also a bullet catcher and therefore bullets could not harm her. She was against signing any peace treaty with the British and quarreled with her brother, Kojo, for his decision to do so. They credit her with inventing the art of ambush and camouflage. Maroons used the cacoon tree to cover themselves from head to toe. They could stand for hours without moving or seeming to breathe. Her men used the side-blown horn, abeng, to communicate with their troops. Grande Nanni placed sentinels on the hills surrounding her towns. These sentinels had abengs, that could be heard from as far as five miles away. They blew them, relaying messages of the size and strength of the enemy and the distance they were from the towns. The abeng gave an advantage over the enemy, because at all times and over great distances, the Maroons could communicate amongst themselves, but the enemy could not. Horns were made from conch shells and are still used to call important meetings, announce the arrival of important persons, announce a death or when someone gets lost. One of Grande Nanni's most masterful strokes was obtaining a land grant from the British for land stolen from her. She signed no treaty, as she mistrusted the British. She founded New Nanni Town on April 20, 1740 and expanded it by demanding more lands. Some say that is why the name of the town is now Moore Town, but others say the name tells its ancient story of Moorish history. The Moors were on the ship with Christopher Columbus in Jamaica in 1494. The phenomenon of maroonage in Jamaica became noticeable after the British invaded the then-Spanish island in 1655 and the servants of the Spanish took to the hills and to freedom. They remained after the Spanish fled and refused to come under the authority of the British. This led to 83 years of guerilla warfare against the British to maintain their freedom. Africans fleeing the British plantations at first joined the Spanish escapees and eventually outnumbered them.
Accompong occupies a unique place in Jamaica's Maroon history. It is the only surviving western Maroon town. Accompong is nestled in the hills of St. Elizabeth where the air is pure and refreshing. It was founded as a supply town to Kojo Town (Trelawny Town) and ruled by the man named Accompong, a brother of the western leader, Kojo. It is in the Cockpit country, known as the "Land of Look Behind," because of the accuracy of western Maroon sharpshooters who were said to never miss their mark. The western Maroon leader, Kojo, was a military genius who outmaneuvered the British, bewildering and befuddling them. Cockpit country is rugged and difficult terrain where Kojo retreated to live in peace from British invaders. He and his people fought the British from the 1600s until 1738, when, unable to defeat the intrepid guerilla warriors, the British sued for peace. A peace treaty was signed between the British and the western Maroons. The treaty guaranteed the western Maroons the right to remain free and also recognized their right to their lands and to govern themselves.
Currently, the annual January 6th festival celebrations in Accompong draw thousands of visitors and returning Maroons. On this day, they celebrate the victory Kojo won, which forced the tide of the battle against the British and led to the peace treaty that followed. On January 6th, 1738, the British, having defeated and destroyed Nanny Town, tried to launch a surprise attack against Kojo Town. The Maroons were forewarned by a Maroon woman ritualist, who drew up the spirit of the British while dancing and told Kojo when they were coming and where they would be walking. Kojo set his men up to ambush. The horn blower (abeng-man) was in a cave hidden from view and the men hid in bushes around the cave. A rocking stone was placed in the path of the British. The abeng-man counted the footsteps of the British as the stone rocked from their steps. When the stone no longer made a noise, he blew the abeng and Maroons sprang out upon the British. Since the path was narrow and they could only walk single file, it was easy for the Maroons to ambush them. All British soldiers, except two leaders, were killed. Maroons did not lose a single person. After that, the British decided it was better to make peace than fight. The peace treaty was signed in 1738 as a blood treaty: Kojo and the British leader cut their hands, let blood drip into a calabash and mixed in rum. Both drank and then signed the treaty that declared the accord would stand forever.
Accompong Maroons' Treaty Day, Kojo's Day and Maroon Christmas all fall on January 6th. They say it is the anniversary of Kojo's birthday, but some think it was just a Maroon ruse, in order to stop the British from interfering with them when celebrating the British defeat! As Christians, the Maroons also note that January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany and also the day Christ was baptized. It is a holy day that breaks out into festivities in the night. This special, traditional celebration takes place on this day every year in Kindah in the Cockpit Hills and is an enlightening way to learn more about the Maroons. Families come together from all over the world to dance, sing and perform on ancestral ground. The songs say that Maroons can now walk in peace, free from invaders. Elders tell stories of hardship and victory. Thus it is a day of reunion and reaffirmation.
If you have doubts that Maroon culture is a "little-known tradition at the heart of all modern, politically charged reggae music" as the liner notes of the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings CD, Drums of Defiance: Maroon Music from Jamaica states, then the festival will open your eyes. It illustrates the alternative culture the Maroons have given us and demonstrates their adaptability and creativity. It draws on the past and adapts it with flexibility to the present. Every year, the festival celebration grows larger. Visitors of all races and ages love the excitement and culture of the celebration. It is so African and yet so modern. It illustrates the strength of continuity in the Maroon culture. Within the Maroon psyche is the key to some of our most precious ancestral memories. They are the oldest African culture in the West and the human repositories of our deeply rooted African past.
We are our ancestors.
They live through our being
Though unseen, they are not dead
Not history's forgotten
Confirmed to the cobwebs of the dusty past
Brought to life only through owl-eyed intellectuals
Seeking fame from our name.
Our forefathers, our foremothers live!
They are not dead, skeletons on moldy shelves
Encapsulated in books seldom read
Our abeng still blows freedom call
Summoning the ancestors here
Awakening the past, conquering ancestral death
Breathing life into our ancestors.
Our drums echo ancestral heartbeats
Ritually speaking to us, through us, with us
Vibrating freedom sounds
Stirring freedom's blood
Arousing the ancestors.
Our dreams conjure them up nocturnally
Guiding, confiding, whispering
Plotting, planning, prodding
Sharing ancestral secrets
Revealing clues to us about us
Clues about them
Ensuring freedom's continuity through their
ancestral blood legacy in our genes.
We are our ancestors.