Jamaican Maroons Regions with Significant Populations: The Jamaican Maroons are descendants of maroons, Africans who escaped from slavery on the island of Jamaica and established free communities in the mountainous interior, primarily in the eastern parishes. African slaves imported during the Spanish period likely were the first to develop such refugee communities.
The English expanded the importation of slaves to support their extensive development of sugar cane plantations. Africans in Jamaica continually fought and revolted, with many who escaped becoming Maroon. The revolts had the effect of disrupting the sugar economy in Jamaica and making it less profitable. The revolts simmered down only after the British government promised to free the slaves if they stopped revolting; it abolished slavery in 1834.
The Windward Maroons and those from the Cockpit Country resisted conquest in the First Maroon War, which the government ended in 1738-1739 by making treaties to grant lands and to respect their autonomy, in exchange for peace and aiding the colonial militia if needed against external enemies. Tensions between British colonial Governor and the residents of Trelawny town resulted in the Second Maroon War from 1795-1796. Although the governor promised leniency if men surrendered, the Assembly insisted on deportation of 600 Maroons to British settlements at Nova Scotia. After Freetown was established in West Africa as a British colony in 1792 (present-day Sierra Leone), the British deported additional Maroons fearing slave rebellion on Jamaica.
In all likelihood, the words “Maroon” and “Seminole” share the same origin in the Spanish word cimarrón, meaning “wild” or “untamed”. This word usually referred to runaways or castaways and is ultimately derived from the word for “thicket” in Old Spanish.
When the British captured Jamaica in 1655, the Spanish colonists fled. Many of their slaves escaped and, together with free blacks and mulattoes, former slaves, and some native Taíno coalesced into several heterogenous groups in the Jamaican interior.
Some created palenques,, or stockaded mountain farms at Lluidas Vale in modern-day St Catharine Parish under Juan de Bolas (or Lubolo). Toward 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, they changed their position.
Faced with discovery and defeat in 1659, Juan de Bolas allied 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 be called the Windward Maroons. Over time, runaway slaves increased the Maroon population, which eventually came to control large areas of the Jamaican mountainous interior.
Establishment of the Leeward and Windward Maroons
Between 1673 and 1690 there were several major slave uprisings, mainly prompted by newly arrived, highly militarized Coromantee groups from the Asante Empire. 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, including women and children, remained free after the rebellion was considered over.
They established an Ashanti-style polity based in the eastern Cockpit Country, notably Trelawny Town; their most famous ruler was Cudjoe. They incorporated outsiders only after newcomers had satisfied a strict probationary period. Another Jamaican maroon leader was Major Jarrett.
The Windward Maroons, in the wilder parts of eastern Jamaica, were always composed of separate highly mobile and culturally heterogeneous groups. From early on, the Jamaican governors considered their settlements to impede British development of the interior. They ordered raids on the Maroon settlements in 1686 and 1702, to little effect.
By about 1720, a stronger Windward community had developed around the culturally Africanised group of three villages known as Nanny Town, under the spiritual leadership of Queen Nanny, an Ashanti woman, sometimes in allegiance and sometimes in competition with other Windward groups. She was known for her exceptional leadership skills, especially in guerrilla warfare during the First Maroon War. One tactic particular to the Jamaican Maroons involved the art of camouflage using plants. 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. Queen Nanny, also known as Granny Nanny (died 1700s), is the only woman honored as one of Jamaica’s National Heroes. She has been immortalised in songs and legends.
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 first pick off the less organized Windward Maroons. In practice, the Maroon troops’ command of the territory and skill in guerrilla warfare gave them a strong advantage over colonial forces.
After much fighting, the British took and destroyed Nanny Town 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. This local planter and militia officer 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 a few more years of fighting, similar treaties were signed by Quao, Nanny, and other major leaders of the Windward Maroons. They eventually became settled 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 Fante 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 broke out on the leeward side of the island. 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 the British Jamaican plantocracy panicked by the excesses of French Revolution, and by the corresponding start of a slave revolt in neighboring Saint-Domingue, which ended with the independence of Haiti in 1804.. 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 assignment of a white ‘superintendent’ in each maroon community. Trelawny had objected to the official recently assigned to them and eventually expelled 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 guerrilla war in small bands under several captains, of whom the most noted were Johnson, Parkinson and Palmer. Balcarres’ general, George Walpole, opted to besiege the Cockpit Country on a massive scale, surrounding it with watchposts, firing in shells from a long distance, and intending 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 and handlers. The reputation of these was so fearsome that their arrival 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 the new British colony of Sierra Leone, and joined the ‘African American founders’ who established the Colony of Sierra Leone and the settlement of Freetown, Sierra Leone. From the 1830s on some Maroons (or their descendents) returned to Jamaica to work as free laborers (although many of these returnees resettled in Sierra Leone) (see Jamaican Maroons in Sierra Leone) or formed the new Creole ethnic group of Sierra Leone which established diaspora communities along the West African shores from Sierra Leone to the Gambia to Fernando Pó.
Maroons in the 21st century
Hon. Colonel Ferron Williams, Colonel-in-Chief and elected leader of Accompong 2009-present
To this day, the maroons in Jamaica are to a small 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.
In 1973, there were still 11 Maroon settlements remaining, holding lands allotted to them in the 1738-1739 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 are allowed to attend many of these events. Others considered sacred 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 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 in the Blue Mountains of Saint Thomas Parish, was relisted on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008 for its Maroon heritage, particularly music.