Slavery in the Americas: Maroons

Figure 1.--The Ndyuka people are one of the Maroon peoples living in Suriname and French Guiana. As with other Maroon peoples, they are descents of enslaved Africans that ran awau from the plantations and found their freedom in the vast unsettled interior. European settlement was mostly along the coast. It is interesting how they left behind all traces of Western culture. The photo was taken in Suriname during 1919. .

Maroon was the term for Africans who escaped from slavery in the Americas and their decendents who formed independent village settlements similar to those of their African origins. Some were also influenced by Native American cultures. We suspect that this was posible because the recently rasported and enslaved were the most likely to run away. Runaway slaves also joined Native American people, but Maroon refers to those runaways who set up indeendent African communities. In the United States, the Sminoles were a type of maroon. There was no Seminole tribe, they were refugees of other tribes destoyed or displaced by the U.S. Arny and white settlers. They included many escaped slaves, but seem to have adopted a Native American life style. Some argue that that the terms 'Maroon' and 'Seminole' were derived from the Latin word 'maurum' or 'moor' in English, meaning 'black' or 'dark skinned'. This word usually referred to runaways or castaways and is theorigin of the Englsh word mmarooned'. As soon as European settlers (at first Spanish and Portuguese) began importing and enslaving captured Africans, some began to run away. This depended on where they were enslaved. On small islands not only was it virtually impossivle to hide, but th indigenous people were also eradicated. On the larger islands there was more possibility to hide. Thus Maroons in the Caribbean were espcially notable on Jamaica and Haiti. Then as settlement reached the continent we see Maroon groups in the Guianas. This was because settlement never penetrated beyond the coast into the interior. he sutuation in the English North American colonies/United states was a little different. Here the settlers did move inland, eventually driving the Native Americans beyond the Mississippi. There was one Maroon group, the Seminoles in Florida. They were a mixed Native American/African group. Some Maroon groups armed themselves and fought battles with the settlers, but theuwere vulnerable to attack, The safest Maroons were in the Guianas because there was so little European penetration into the interior.


Brazil was the largest single destiation of caotive Africans. As a result, of the gugevnumbers of slaves, large numbers of people run away. Some tied to desguise themselves as free individuals if they had light skin or freed blacks or mestizos. They tended to be individuals who had been born into slavery and had knowledge of Brazilian society. The other major option was to escape into the interior. These individuals tended to be more recently enslaved. They were people who escaped individually or in groups and set up slave commynities in the interior or tried to join indigenous tribes. Brazilian Maroons were called quilombos or mocambos. The phenomenon must have begun soon after cative Africans were brought to Brazil. Colonial chroniclers refer to runaway slaves (mid-17th century), but it must have begun earlier. The most notable Maroon group was Palmares. This was a federation of Maroon communities. The size of the the population is not known with any certaintky, but estimates range from 10,000-30,000. The constituent settlements were located on the Serra da Barriga, a mountain chain in the backlands of what was then the captaincy (region) of Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil. The area is now part of Alagoas state. The Palmares Maroons left no written record. Much of what we know about them comes from the forces sent to destroy them. One of the most detailed accounts is a Dutch document, the Dutch controlled Brazil for some time in the 17th century and dispatched an expedition against Palmares (1645). [Blaer] The Dutch found Old Palmares abandoned, bt an active and well organized community in New Palmares ruled by a king. There seems to have been social destinctions between mulatoes called creoles and Africans, especially newly escaped slaves. One author describs Palmares as a 'a true African state in the heart of colonial Brazil'. Palmares survived several punative military assaults by both the Dutch and Portuguese into the late-17th century. There were several substantial villages, including Zumbi, Acotirene, Tabocas, Dambraganga, Subupira, Tabocas, Macaco, Osenga Andalaquituche, and smaller villages. Palmares was finally destroyed (1694-95). Palmares is interesting because there are descriptions of the political and social structure within the community. Palmares also illustrates a basic problem the Maroons had. To the extent that a Maroon community grew and became successful, it increased its vulnerability to authorities who could more easily find and supress them. The Europeans had far greater resources than any Maroon community could muster. And not only did the destruction of a Maroon community eliminte a disruptive group, angerous in a siciety based in slavery, but it also resulted in the lucrative seizure of captives who could be sold back into slavery.

French Guiana

French Guiana was a fairly small French colony and thus the number of settlers and slaves were limited. This often weighs aginst Maroon cimmunities as small numbers are more easily controlled. But yje French settlement was restricted to the coast and the lower reaches of a few rivers. Thus ecped slaves had the vast unsetlled interior to escape into. In addition the French Revolution disrupted French society. Revolutionary authories actually ended slavery (1794). We are not sure, however, just how this affected French Guiana. It seems likely that a substantial number of slaves from the plntations around Caynne could have disappeared into the interior during this period. Napoleon reimposed slavery and fot a time the French plantations achieved some success. We do know that there were mamy small Maroon villages formed in the interior. And because the French were so concentrated along the coast, the Maroons in French Guinaa did not need to go deep into the interior. They do not seem to have been as large or as well organized as Maroon groups in neighboring Surimme, but our information is still very limited. Nor do we know anything about relations with Native American tribes. The few available imags do not suggest extensuve intermingling. We are not sure about the number or how far they reached into the interior. The French abolished slavery (1848). This would seem to have ended the motivation to escape into the interior. We do know, however, that some Maroon communities survived into the 20th century.




British planters were harassed by the Maroons, armed bands of escaped slaves attacking isolated plantations. The Maroons established communities in the mountainous interior. The rough teraine here was not suitable for plantation agriculture and thus not developed by the British. The British launced two major efforts to subdue the Maroons (1730s and 90s). These efforts are known as the Maroon Wars. Jamaican slaves carried out more than ten major conspiracies and uprisings during the 18th century as more and more slaves were brought to the colony. The most serious was Tackey's Revolt (1760). The British suceeded in deporting one Maroon community to Sierra Leopne during the Second Maroon War (1790s). The British colonial government also attemted to buy off the Maroons by paying them to return escaped slaves. The white population was so small that the Government also attempted to use freed slaves to control the Island's slaves. One estimate reported about 10,000 feeed slaves (1800). The fact that the population of Jamaica became so heavily slave made the colony especially vulnerable to slave revolts. The existence of the Maroon holdouts in the interior also aided these revolts


Given the numbers of Africans imported as slaves, Africans developed over time as the principal part of the population. Labor on a sugar plantation was very hard. Some African slaves like the Native Americans before them, escaped into the interior which was largely undeveloped. The terminology varied. Such escapees were more commonly known as Maroons in the Americas. It developed from the Spanish word 'cimarron', meaning fugitive or runaway. The literal meaning is 'living on mountaintops' from the Spanish word 'cima' meaning top or summit. The Maroons after running away formed independent settlements in the bush south of the coastal areas controlled by the Europeans. This also occurred in the Caribbean, but with the exception of Jamaica, the Europeans hunted them down without great dufficulty. The Maroons in Surinme called 'Djukas' or 'Bush Negroes'. Some would acquire weapons and attack plantations. They developed a greater threat than the Native Americans in part from their resistance to European disease. Even give the area involved, the Dutch could have defeated the Maroons, but it would have been a very costly operation. The damage they did jut dis not justify the massive military opetation that would have been necessary to defeat them. Unable to wipe out the Djukas, in part because of the large area of the interior, Governors Mauritius and Crommelin negotiated peace treaties with some of the tribes. Other tribes continued to stage raids. One of the most effective Maroon tribal leader was Boni (second half of the 18th century). Over time the Maroons created a kind of buffer zone between the Dutch planters, who settled land along the coast and some extent the main rivers, and the Native American tribes deeper in the interior. Some of the Maroons were recent enough arricals that they recrreated the African societies from which they camne.

United States

We do not know a great deal about Maroons in the english Colonies and than the United States. The best known group is probanly the Seminoles. There was no Seminole tribe. Rather it was a group of runaway slaves and Native American refugees from conflicts with the U.S. Army and settler groups.


Blaer, Captain Johann. Personal diary. Dutch Cpt. Blaer led an expedition from Pernambuco to supress Palmares (1645).


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Created: 3:13 AM 5/22/2017
Last updated: 10:36 PM 5/22/2017