The story of the Jamaican Maroons, Africans who refused to live in slavery, is little known outside that Caribbean country. Their unwillingness to accept the yoke of the colonial slave masters made them unique among the Africans brought in bondage to the Americas. In the mountains and jungles of Jamaica, they earned for themselves an autonomy never before seen by Africans in the New World.
When the Spaniards lost Jamaica to Britain in 1665, they freed a number of their slaves, hoping they would fight the new occupying power. Others took advantage of the turmoil and escaped, then took to the hills. Subsequently, their numbers were augmented on an ongoing basis by runaway slaves from the British plantations. These once enslaved Africans were to harass and successfully fight, for near 80 years, every British force sent to destroy them.
During the five years it took the British to crush the last of the Spanish resistance, the former slaves took to the inaccessible areas of Portland and Cockpit Country in the northwestern part of Jamaica. Here, in an untamed lunar-like landscape of eerie land formations covered with dense shrub, they made their homes. Others, in the northeastern part of the country, established their bases in Blue and John Crow Mountains, around what was to become known as Nanny Town and Moore Town.
In the ensuing years, they became known as Maroons, from the Spanish chimarron (wild) or marrano (wild boar) – a name the Spaniards had labelled their former New World slaves, who on an ongoing basis, escaped to unreachable faraway regions in their colonies. The word (Maroon) also means (The Ones Living on the Mountain Tops).
From their unapproachable strongholds, the Jamaican Maroons began a very successful guerrilla war, harassing the English settlements for many years. They developed an intricate system of irregular warfare, striking quickly at night, then disappearing. At the same time, they established an early-warning system – using an abeng (horn) to warn their villages of attack by the red-coats. Numbering perhaps around 2,000, they raised havoc with the British who tried in vain to enslave or eliminate them.
In the main, tracing their roots to West Africa, the Maroons kept the oral traditions and history of Africa alive. The stories of that continent's heros were told, retold and remembered. Many of the Maroons derived a certain prestige and glamour from their ancestry of freedom going back to their legendary prowess in woodcraft and their preservation of traces of the Akan culture of the Gold Coast in West Africa.
Among themselves, they spoke a dialect of African origin and fostered oral pride in their African heritage. Fierce and warlike, they cultivated their own culture in the mountainous strongholds they called home.
They lived off the land and the plunder from the slave plantations. Their control of vast areas of the island gave them the freedom to attack at will, becoming a threat to the estate owners. The Maroon's courage in their struggle against the British inspired a good number of slaves to flee the plantations and join their ranks.
They become masters of guerilla warfare and often defeated the British army units sent to destroy them. Their successful attacks gave rise to a saying `Land of Look Behind' – when the British had to always look behind them for a sudden ambush.
Many of their hit-and-run attacks became often-told epics. Topping all of these tales was that of Nanny, a warrior queen, which legend imbued with the power to catch enemy musket balls and fire them back. It took the British six years to find her stronghold of Nanny Town – named after her. When it was captured and destroyed, it was reclaimed by the jungle and became a place of legend. Today, a national heroine, her grave is in Moore Town, near her long-gone semi-mythical jungle village.
In 1729, the British began what was to become known as the `First Maroon War'. In the west of the Island, Cudjoe or Kojo, tracing his ancestry to the Ashanti of West Africa, emerged as leader of the Maroons. Fierce, cunning and brave, he led his followers who vowed freedom from the threat of British enslavement or death.
For ten years, with his compatriot, Quao, in the East, he fought the British to a standstill. All the power of the island's garrison, aided by the militias on the island and soldiers brought in from the other British American colonies, could not prevail.
In 1739, a treaty, which put an end to this costly warfare, was signed with the Maroons. Under its terms, the British gave the Maroons autonomy and freedom from taxes while the Maroon agreed to return runaway slaves and aid the government in putting down subsequent slave uprisings. Diplomacy achieved for the British what force could not. In the ensuing years, from being the protectors of slaves, the Maroons became slave hunters.
Even though the Maroons in the subsequent years helped the government immensely in controlling their plantation slaves, the British were not satisfied with the arrangement of dealing with free Africans on their slave island. In 1795, the `Second Maroon War' broke out when about 300 Maroons revolted in Trelawney Town. This time the British were more successful. Using dogs, they flushed the Maroons from their hiding places, forcing them to sue for peace.
However, when the British saw their chance to break the power of the Maroons, they did not keep their word. Capturing 590 Maroons, they exiled them to Nova Scotia. After many of them died in the bitter Canadian cold, the remaining few were transported to Sierra Leone in West Africa.
The ones who remained were able to preserve some of their territories. Today, there are some five settlements – three in the Blue Mountains, and two in Trelawney Town and Accompong on the edge of Cockpit Country. The self rule treaty, the Maroons signed with the British, remains in effect and they still fly their own flag. Today's Maroons insist that they are not part of independent Jamaica and do not mix with the other people of the country. Always suspicious of outsiders, they live in a world of past legends.
Annually, on January 6, at Accompong, the principal Maroon village in Jamaica which is named after a supreme deity in the Ashanti religion, they celebrate the anniversary of the signing of the 1739 treaty. With eating, drinking, singing and dancing to the beat of the Maroon drum, akete, and the blowing of the abeng, they remember the days of glory when their ancestors fought the mighty British to a draw.