Hidden communities

Issue: 112

John Newsinger

A review of Alvin O Thompson, Flight To Freedom: African Runaways and Maroons in the Americas (University of the West Indies Press, 2006), £27.95

Black resistance to slavery in the Americas was continuous. It began even before the enslaved were loaded on board ship, continued during the horrific voyage to the Caribbean, South America or the United States, and was a permanent feature of plantation life. This resistance manifested itself in a petty day to day opposition to the slave regime, but on occasions broke out into full-scale rebellion. While the great Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) is history’s only instance of a successful slave revolt, there can be no serious doubt that the Jamaican revolt of 1831, even though it was brutally suppressed, signed the death warrant of slavery in the British Caribbean. In this important book Alvin Thompson chronicles a form of resistance that lay between petty day to day opposition and full-scale rebellion: the resistance of the runaway and the establishment of hidden Maroon communities.

Thompson establishes the importance of ‘running away’ as a phenomenon central to slave societies. He estimates that hundreds of thousands of slaves ran away throughout the Americas, some for only a short time as an act of petty resistance, but for others it was a ‘flight to freedom’. In Haiti between 1764 and 1793 some 48,000 slaves escaped their enslavers, and while these figures are inflated by those who ran away more than once, most were never recaptured. The youngest runaways were children aged ten, while the oldest he has found a record of was ‘a 90 year old unnamed Fulani man in Haiti’. Most were under 35 years of age, and they included both men and women.

Once they had made good their escape, the runaways established or joined hidden Maroon communities that existed everywhere where slavery operated. Thompson argues for the existence of thousands of these communities throughout the history of slavery in the Americas. The first were established in Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Brazil in the early decades of the 16th century. As early as 1503 the Spanish authorities were complaining of Maroon activity in the Dominican Republic.

As soon as black slaves arrived, they began escaping and trying to establish communities of free men and women. Sometimes these communities remained hidden and sometimes they waged war against the slave regimes. Generally the Maroon communities were small, but some became substantial settlements with fortified towns, farming hundreds of acres.

The largest was the Republic of Palmares, a federation of Maroon communities established in Brazil in the 17th century. At its height, Palmares had a population of 15,000 to 30,000 people and its capital city, Cerca do Macao, was a fortified stronghold with over 2,000 houses. One historian has written of ‘the new socialist form of life and work which the settlement of Negroes in Palmares assumed’. When Palmares was finally destroyed by a Portuguese military expedition in 1695 most of its inhabitants made good their escape, establishing new hidden communities that continued to alarm the slave-owners into the 19th century.

The danger that the runaway posed to the slave regimes was demonstrated by the ferocity of the punishment for the offence. In Mexico in 1590 30 lashes were prescribed for even one night’s absence. The punishment for a second offence was 200 lashes and the amputation of both ears, for a third 200 lashes and the amputation of a limb, and for a fourth offence death. The French Code Noir of 1685 prescribed death for the third offence. In Peru absence for more than six days was punished by castration. As Thompson points out, castration was not unique to Peru, but was used as a punishment in many other slave societies—Brazil, Mexico, the British Caribbean and the US. In Barbados in 1692 the authorities paid a certain Alice Mills ten guineas for castrating 42 slaves implicated in a revolutionary conspiracy. In 1697 three runaways were castrated in South Carolina and in 1722 that colony’s legislature prescribed castration for a fourth offence. As late as 1831 a Louisiana jailor advertised that he had in custody a runaway who was recently castrated and not quite healed.

Castration was by no means the worst punishment in a slave regime’s armoury. Captured Maroons were often tortured to death in the most brutal fashion. In 1795 the Maroon leader, Amsterdam, in the Dutch colony of Demerara was forced to watch his followers executed and then to walk over their bodies to his own place of execution. He was horrifically tortured and then burned alive. As Thompson recounts, many Maroons committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of their oppressors. When Palmares fell in 1695, some 200 of the inhabitants, who could not make good their escape, killed themselves rather than return to slavery.

Many Maroon communities waged war against the slave regimes. Most famously, the Jamaican Maroons fought the British for 70 years before their freedom was recognised in the treaties of 1739. In Suriname the Dutch similarly fought the Maroons for years but eventually in the 1760s concluded treaties that recognised their freedom. One community, the Aluku Maroons, were excluded from the treaties. Under their leader, Boni, they became a major threat to the Dutch that was only eliminated after two brutal wars. The second war of 1789-93 saw Boni himself killed and his followers escaping into French Guiana. One of the participants in this war was the British mercenary John Gabriel Stedman, whose Narrative was illustrated, in part, by William Blake.

In many ways the most remarkable of the Maroon wars was that fought out in Florida where black runaways allied themselves with the Seminole Indians, becoming perhaps a third of the tribe. The Second Seminole War (1835-42) was at least in part an American attempt to eliminate this sanctuary for runaway slaves and to re-enslave those who had already made the flight to freedom. Escaped slaves played a major role in the armed struggle against the US, which cost the lives of some 1,500 American soldiers and militia, and was the most hard-fought of the so-called ‘Indian Wars’. The Seminole Maroons remained free.

One last point is worth making here. A number of the Maroon communities that concluded treaties with the slave regimes actually became part of the security apparatus that helped sustain them. In Jamaica in 1739 the Maroons agreed to return future runaways and went on to serve as slave catchers for the British, hunting down runaways for a bounty. They played an important role in suppressing slave revolt, most notably the great slave revolt of 1760, ‘Tacky’s revolt’. Similarly in Suriname, the Ndjuka Maroons, allied with the Dutch, were decisive in the defeat of Boni’s Aluku Maroons. Without any doubt this coming to terms with the slave regimes was an important feature of Maroon history, but it must not be seen as an inevitable development. Most Maroon communities never entered into such pacts and, as Thompson insists, one has to remember the part that the Haitian Maroons played in unleashing the great Haitian Revolution.

Thompson’s admirable volume is a welcome addition to the select library of recommended books on the resistance to black slavery in the Americas, alongside

C L R James’s The Black Jacobins, Robin Blackburn’s The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, Michael Craton’s Testing the Chains, Richard Hart’s Slaves Who Abolished Slavery and Emilia Viotta da Costa’s Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood. It deserves the widest possible readership.