Maroon

The word “maroon” refers to those who engaged in acts of fugitivity by fleeing and resisting plantation slavery. It also names the communities that runaways established. The term is generally thought to have been derived from the Spanish word cimarrón meaning “wild,” “fugitive,” “untamed.” Antonio Benítez-Rojo, in The Repeating Island, foregrounds the idea of fugitvity as central to an understanding of the Maroon when he argues that “in the Caribbean the model of the fugitive is the runaway slave, the  cimarrón,  the maroon.”1

The earliest historical accounts of Maroons date back to the early 1500s. Thus their presence in the Caribbean narrative and imagination can be traced back to the very earliest days of European arrival and colonization. It is important to underscore this fact because Maroon communities have often been examined and understood primarily as spaces of African survival. However, as anthropologist Richard Price points out, in the preface to the most recent edition of the foundational anthology  Maroon Societies (first published in 1973), in the intervening time between the publication of the second edition (1992) and third edition (1996) of his anthology, “the Cuban philologist Jose Juan Arrom […] pushed back the origins of the word maroon […] to enslaved Amerindians who escaped to the hills.”2 Maroon communities were thus shaped through the fugitive intimacies of early encounters between Indigenous and Africans peoples. This idea is one to which some of the most recent scholarship in Indigenous Studies, such as Mark Rivkin’s  Fictions of Land and Flesh (2019), and in Black Studies, such as Tiffany Lethabo King’s The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies  (2019)  have returned. Rather than thinking of Maroons in fixed terms, even as their position within a plantation narrative of slavery and freedom often invites a binary frame, their narrative instead allows for a keen attention to contact, cultural synthesis and change. Maroon studies is therefore necessarily a constantly developing and shifting field. The very  fugitvity  that,  as  Benítez-Rojo points out, marks  marronage  means that new perspectives and other parts of this complex narrative may emerge and change or be revised and expanded overtime.

There are many parts to the Maroon narrative. Maroon communities existed all throughout the Americas. In different places they were also known by different names:  palenques,  quilombos, mocambos,  rancherias,  ladeiras,  mambises,  magotes, cumbes, and  manieles.  Price’s  Maroon Societies, for instance, surveys  marronage in Cuba, Venezuela, Columbia, Mexico, Saint Domingue,  Guadelope, Brazil, Jamaica, the Guianas, and the United States. Additionally, accounts of the Underground Railroad (extending both north to Canada and South to the Bahamas in the Caribbean) recur in North American, New World freedom narratives. Wherever there was plantation slavery, there was marronage;  and Maroons appear as central figures across many Caribbean genres and disciplines (anthropology, archeology, geography, history, musicology, linguistics, visual and folk art, literature, cultural studies). Maroon studies as a field challenges disciplinary boundaries. At each of these discursive sites there operates “an enormous branching narration”2 that resists disciplinary containment.

This keyword entry aims to offer both historical and contemporary perspectives on the Maroons. While the first entry offers a wider Hemispheric, New World perspective on the Maroons, subsequent entries focus on particular spaces and groups. There are two entries on the Jamaican Maroons. Here we might note how even in one territorial space, there are also distinctions between Maroon groups such as the  Windward  and  Leeward  Maroons in Jamaica. There are also two entries on the Saramaka  People and on Suriname. These highlight the legal and creative dimensions of Maroon peoples in a historical and contemporary perspective. I have also included a short documentary and a TEDx talk on the Garifuna. These highlight how flight and movement are central to the  Maroon story and how attempts to structure that narrative through place and attention to geography remain complicated. The final entry is a performance of play based on the 1813-14 Maroon trials in Dominica. I also offer an interdisciplinary list of readings and a selected list of novels about the Maroons and marronage. While these artifacts engage with the long history of Maroons as a central part of the New World hemispheric narrative, they also similarly situate the Maroons and Maroon resistance as a central part of the story of the climate and ecological crisis in which we currently live.

Title: Creativity and Resistance: Maroon Culture in the Americas
Curators: Ken Bilby and Diana N’Diaye
Steward: Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Curatorial Note: In 1992, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival featured a programme on “Creativity and Resistance: Maroon Culture in the Americas.” Kenneth Bilby and Diana Baird N’Diaye served as the curators of the Maroon program and brought together Maroon leaders (Paramount Chiefs and Colonels) from the Caribbean basin, South America, Mexico and the US. The programme features a wonderful list of articles and addresses by these Maroon leaders as well as thoughts and perspectives by a range of Maroon studies scholars. One of the great things about the curation of these texts is that not only does it aim to offer a hemispheric view of marronage but that it also, in the process of doing so, makes visible the work of translation and transcription. We note for instance that some of these words were translated from Ndjuka or from Saramaccan or from Spanish and in some instances transcribed from tape recordings, reminding us of the oral cultures of many Maroon societies. Each of the articles offer rich, succinct reflections on creativity, survival, and sovereignty as key parts of Maroon life.

Title: Save Cockpit Country
Creator: Jamaica Environment Trust
Steward: Jamaica Environment Trust

Curatorial Note: The Save Cockpit Country website highlights the ongoing struggles for Maroon land sovereignty. This has been a key part of the Maroon story in Jamaica. Many Jamaican Maroons situate their narratives of identity through the treaties signed with the British crown in 1739 that stipulated that they would “enjoy and possess, for themselves and posterity for ever, all the lands situate[d] and lying between Trelawny Town and the Cockpits.”3 Recently, the boundaries of Cockpit Country have been contested by multinational mining companies and their interests. The website outlines the ecological threat of bauxite mining and combines that with a rich history of the Maroon land that is  Cockpit Country.

Title: The Charles Town Maroons
Creator: Unknown
Steward: The Charles Town Maroons

Curatorial Note: This website presents a history and narrative of The Charles Town Maroons in Portland, Jamaica. We might read this as an extension of the bricks and mortar Charles Town Maroon Museum that was opened in 2003 in the community. In 2009, the Charles Town Maroons held the first Annual International Maroon Conference and convention. This conference has become a recurring fixture of the Maroon annual calendar. Each year the gathering is usually hosted at the Asafu Yard (the meeting ground) in Charles Town and is a part of the Quao Day Celebrations, which date back to the signing of the treaties between the Maroons and the British in 1739. The Quao Day Celebrations honor the Maroon warrior leader Quao, who led the Maroons in the East (while Cudjoe led the Accompong Maroons in Cockpit Country and Nanny led the Moore Town Maroons). The website contains details, programme notes, posters, pictures and videos of the annual conferences and celebrations since 2009. It also presents a history of the community and its leaders.

Title: Marcel Pinas
Creator: Marcel Pinas
Steward: Vincent Vlasblom

Curatorial Note: Marcel Pinas is a leading Surinamese artist. He is of Maroon ancestry and his art has often sought to reflect Maroon history, language, and visual culture. Pinas trained at the Edna Manley College in Jamaica and was selected as the top student in his graduating class in 1999. He has often described his work as being in search of his “own visual language.” Pinas is known for his paintings, which reference “the colourful decorations that the Maroons arranged in and around their houses, which in turn reflect the colours of nature.” However, he is also known for large-scale installations in which his community participates. Through these installations and community practices, we can see his work as bridging the space between the individual and the wider Maroon collective.

Title: Case of the Saramaka People v. Suriname
Creator: Inter-American Court of Human Rights
Steward: Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos

Curatorial Note: The Maroons have often been interpellated through the law. Indeed their historical status as Maroon or as “outlaw” is one that was formed through colonial laws. Similarly, and perhaps paradoxically, Maroon discourses and narratives of identity have often been linked to the Maroon treaties that were signed with colonial powers across the Caribbean. These treaties granted them particular rights, lands, and freedom in exchange for the cessation of armed conflict with colonial officials and planters. The 2007 Inter-American Court of Human Rights Case of the  Saramaka  People  v.  Suriname represents another moment when the Maroon narrative becomes entangled with discourses of the law. In the 1990s, the Suriname Government began granting licenses to multinational companies from China, Canada and other places, to perform extensive logging and mining in the Suriname rainforests. In 2008, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights delivered a landmark judgment aimed at protecting these rainforests. I include the published text of that judgment here. This case not only highlights long struggles for land sovereignty by the Saramaka peoples, but also calls attention to the longstanding and persisting tensions between historic Maroon and Indigenous communities and modern nation states.

Title: Garifuna - A Culture Close to Extinction
Creator: Franc Contreras
Steward: CGTN Americas Now

Curatorial Note: The Garifuna people can be found in St Vincent, Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras. In the colonial histories, they are mostly referred to as Black Caribs. As Kamau Brathwaite notes, the “adoption of the name Garifuna…in the 1970s –was/is a sign of a new consciousness & cultural militance.”3 Like the Jamaican Maroons, who fought two wars against the British, the  Garifuna have a proud history of military resistance against the colonizers. The first and second  Black  Carib Wars  were  fought between 1769 and 1797 and ended with the deportation of over 5,000 Garífuna to the then deserted Honduran Bay Island of Roatan. This short Americas Now cultural documentary offers an account of the annual Garifuna Landing day celebrations in November as well as an overview of Garifuna food, music, drumming and language. Particular focus is paid to the gradual disappearance and threatened extinction of the Garifuna language.

Title: Connecting With My Garifuna Culture
Creator: Nodia Mena Steward: TEDx

Curatorial Note: This  TEDx Talk is by Nodia  C. Mena, who was born in Honduras and teaches at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In this talk she offers recollections of Garifuna history, songs, and music, and she reflects on food as a point of cultural connection. She also explores the power of Garifuna oral traditions and raises key questions about the impact of migration to the United States and about Garifuna identity in diaspora.

Title: Your Time Is Done Now
Creator: Polly Patullo and Alwin Bully
Steward: Papillote Press

Curatorial Note: Your Time Is Done Now is a play about the Maroons of Dominica. This is a recording of a performance of the play that was staged in Roseau, Dominica in August 2015. It was directed by well-known theatre director, Alwin Bully from a script by Polly Pattullo. This text offers a useful example of how Maroon narratives might travel across different genres and of the complex multivocality of Maroon texts. The play is based on a 2015 book of the same title, which was compiled and edited by Polly Pattullo. That text is composed of documents and testimonies from the 1813-1814 Maroon trials of those charged with being runaways. From the transcripts of the trials emerge complex personal narratives and histories that give a glimpse of the quest for freedom in the forests of Dominica. The trial offers a narrative frame for the Maroons to tell their own stories. It is an example of what has been called verbatim theatre and recalls the oral traditions and community plays of the Maroons.

Ronald Cummings is an associate professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Brock University. He coedits The Literary Encyclopedia: Anglophone Caribbean Literature and Culture. He has also co-edited Caribbean Literature in Transition 1970-2020 (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming, 2021) and The Fire That Time: Transnational Black Radicalism and The Sir George Williams Occupation (Black Rose Books, forthcoming, 2021).

Benítez-Rojo, Antonio. The Repeating Island. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992.

Carey, Beverly. The Maroon Story. Gordon Town: Agouti Press, 1997.

Price, Richard. Ed. Maroon Societies. New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1973.

Image Credit: Public Domain

  1. Benítez-Rojo, The Repeating Island, 252. 

  2. Price, Maroon Societies, xi-xii.  2

  3. Carey, The Maroon Story, 356.  2