The Maroons: Dark Warriors of the Spanish Main
The notoriety of the buccaneers, whose infamy gave them the title "Scourge of the Spanish Main," has obscured the reputation of the Maroons, who played a lesser known but equally significant role in the colorful romance of the West Indies. While the buccaneers terrorized the sea lanes and wreaked havoc on treasure ships and coastal towns, the Maroons relentlessly raided plantations, overland caravans and early colonial strongholds. The original Maroons were African slaves who were imported mostly from the Guinea coast. The Spaniards called them Cimarrones (a term for wild cattle) because they were specially trained as trackers and hunters of wild cattle and hogs for the Spanish garrisons and caravans. From the Spanish Cimarrones derived the French name Marrons and English Maroons. When some of these slaves escaped, they formed small bands that mercilessly attacked the Spanish mule trains, with their cargoes of gold, silver and supplies for the colonies. As more and more runaway slaves joined these bands, their ranks swelled to formidable sizes. The earliest Maroon activities began in the 1520s in the Spanish colonies of Hispaniola, New Spain (i.e., Mexico) and Panama. In a short time, Maroon depredations posed a serious threat to Spanish settlements and commerce in the areas of Porto Bello (on the north coast of Panama) and the Gulf of Darien (located on the Caribbean side of the junction of Columbia and the Isthmus of Panama). In 1553, the first of a series of major uprisings erupted in Nuevo Segovia, Venezuela, as approximately 250 Maroons banded together and elected their own king, Miguel, and a bishop to serve their community. This rebellion was finally crushed by the Spanish military, but only after overcoming stiff resistance. The most serious revolt of this period occurred in the Darien region of Colombia under a king called Ballano. Ballano and his Maroons posed such a grave threat that the Spanish Viceroy Canete was persuaded to negotiate with them to prevent the escalation of bloodshed. An agreement was signed giving the Maroons the right to settle as free men under the Spanish law of the West Indies. The terms of this agreement also stipulated that runaway slaves who attempted to join the Maroons should be returned to their masters. The Maroon leader in Hispaniola, Diego de Campo, secured a similar treaty for his group. Despite these early treaties, there was no appreciable decline in Maroon depredations. In 1570, for example, the number of Maroons in Villano, just 30 leagues from Nombre de Dios in the north of Panama, swelled to more than 2,000. They harried the Spanish mule trains, successfully carrying out a series of raids on these caravans which were laden with the richest cargoes the world had yet known.
The Maroons also allied themselves with buccaneers and pillaged many coastal towns and settlements. In particular, the famous English privateer, Francis Drake, found his alliance with the Maroons to be highly profitable and he left us with one of the few descriptions of a Maroon settlement and of the self-sufficiency of its inhabitants. In his notes, Drake describes a township of over 50 households living "civilly and cleanly, and their apparel was very fine and fitly made." In Jamaica, the Maroons played a role of even greater significance than their counterparts in New Spain and Panama. In 1655, Britain's Admiral William Penn and General Venables, pursuing Oliver Cromwell's policy of expansion called his "Western Design," wrested Jamaica from the Spaniards. The Spanish Commander Don Cristobal Ysassi retreated to the island's forest-covered hills with a band of slaves who were skilled in tracking and hunting. Ysassi effectively used his men as guerilla fighters and was able to resist the British invasion for some time. But unable to obtain necessary reinforcements, Ysassi eventually was forced to abandon his bold efforts and leave the island. However, Ysassi did not take his fighting slaves with him. Whether this was a deliberate tactic is still the subject of debate. Over time, other Jamaican slaves fled to the hills and joined Ysassi's group or formed their own bands. They began attacking the British plantations and settlements and rejected all British efforts to woo them with offers of clemency and freedom. Throughout the rest of the 1600s, the Maroons remained ensconced in Jamaica's rugged mountains, and thus protected in this natural fortress, they continually thwarted British attacks. By virtue of this perseverance and success, the Maroons constituted the most volatile element in Jamaica's impressive record of slave revolts.
As sugar supplanted gold as the chief economic prize of the West Indies, the strength and frequency of Maroon activity escalated in Jamaica as well as in other Caribbean colonies. With the development of sugar plantations came the greatest influx of slaves shipped from Africa, primarily at that time from the areas of the Gold and Ivory Coasts (now Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire). These newly imported Africans largely were Akan-speaking groups, such as the Fanti and the fierce Ashantis and Coramantee. Sharing a common language allowed them to establish lines of communication and eventually form alliances which unified and strengthened their efforts. By the 1720s, Maroon hostility had become such a threat to British plantations in Jamaica that many planters were forced to abandon their sugar estates. On the leeward side of the island, the Maroons were led by Cudjoe, a short, powerfully built man known to be ruthless and brutal yet also considered a peerless master of guerilla warfare. He was ably assisted by his brothers, Johnny and Accompong. Two other leaders noted for their valiant fighting abilities were Cuffee and Quao. On the windward side of the island, the Maroon leader was a sorceress and Obeah woman named Nanny--one of the most notorious captains of the Maroons of that period. So powerful was her magic reputed to be that people believed she could attract and catch bullets with her buttocks and render them harmless. Nanny is still celebrated in Jamaican folklore, though many of the facts of her personal life are enmeshed in mythical tales. Today in Jamaica, Maroon settlements still survive, attesting to a long, unbroken thread of history which began nearly 400 years ago. Their tortuous struggle for survival was interspersed with treachery and broken treaties on both sides of the fence, but they eventually achieved conciliatory agreements which gave them their long-sought-after independence. Thus the Maroons, like the buccaneers, were significant players in the exciting drama acted out in the elaborate theater of the newly discovered Americas; and their colorful history of struggle and strife vividly highlights the importance of the African impact on the new world.
World" (Spring/Summer 1991, No. 2, p. 3)
Reprint permission granted by author and publisher.
Compiled by: Lesley Hendricks (Diablo Kid)
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