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The Maroons – a forgotten nation

The Maroons are an integral part of Jamaican history. After the British took over the Caribbean island of Jamaica several Spanish-owned plantations were taken over. Some of the slaves who served as laborers already fled to the mountainous regions of Jamaica during the fighting, where their owners could not track and capture them. These escaped slaves became the Maroons.

The word “maroon” most likely comes from the Spanish word “cimarrones” which means “mountain dwellers”. As the plantations grew so the number of enslaved Africans did. Time and again African slaves rebelled and fled to the mountains where they joined Maroon communities. So the Maroon population continued to grow and was seen as a threat by the Jamaican government. To defeat them campaigns and wars against them began. In 1728 the First Maroon War took place. The Maroons under their leader Cudjoe struck back. In 1739 the British and the Maroons made peace recognizing the Maroons’ freedom and giving them back their land. They were also allowed to govern themselves. In return they were expected to support the British government against other foreigners who invaded the island. They were also to help the British capture rebellious slaves and return them to their owners. This was a strange demand but the only way for the Maroons to peacefully coexist with the British government.

The Maroons’ victory in this war is also credited to Nanny also known as Granny Nanny or Queen Nanny (of the Maroons). Nanny was a leader of the Maroons, particularly the Windward Maroons. They are remembered for their elusive presence and ferocity on the battlefield which contributed to the Maroons’ success against the British who had a superior and better armed army. Her spirituality is also said to have contributed to this success. She was said to possess Obeah powers. Obeah is a religion originating in Africa and associated with good and evil magic, as well as mysticism. While Maroon leaders like Cudjoe are mentioned in celebrations Nanny is the most celebrated Maroon leader. She is the only Maroon leader to be celebrated as a national heroine and is even depicted on the Jamaican five hundred dollar bill ($500).

Peace between the Maroons and the British lasted for many years until 1795 when the new governor of Jamaica, Balcarres, took office. He felt that the community of Maroons known as the Trelawney Town Maroons had broken the peace treaty. Despite pleas from the plantation owners not to take action against the community in order to keep the peace, the governor arrested the leaders of the community. This began the Second Maroon War which lasted for five months. The Maroons remained undefeated and were offered a peace agreement. However, this was a trap for the Maroons because after they surrendered their weapons the governor annulled the peace agreement and arrested them. The arrested Maroons were transported from the island to Nova Scotia on the east coast of North America and later to Sierra Leone in West Africa. Local authorities placed a bounty of 50 pounds (about 2,500 pounds today) on Leonard Parkinson, one of the Maroons’ leaders, The success of the Maroons can be attributed to their leaders who are still celebrated in history today.

After the general emancipation of slaves in 1834 things changed drastically for the Maroons. The British no longer needed their services to track down the fleeing slaves so they encouraged assimilation. Formal attempts were made to promote assimilation. One such attempt was the Maroon Lands Allotment Act of 1842 which sought to abrogate the 1739 treaties and integrate the Maroons into the rest of the community. However the Maroons refused to comply with the law. In the 21st century the Maroons in Jamaica are distinct and separate from Jamaican culture. They still own the land allocated to them in the treaties of 1739-1740. The isolation used by their ancestors to their advantage has made the community one of the most inaccessible on the island. There are still four Maroon towns: Accompong Town, Moore Town, Charles Town and Scott’s Hall. The Maroons living in these towns still maintain their traditional festivals and customs.Some of them are of West African origin. Local Jamaicans and tourists are allowed to participate in some of these festivals while others considered sacred, are held in secret. These festivals are characterized by singing, dancing, drumming and the preparation of traditional food.

The Maroons’ ability to remain unconquered and free in one of the most important and notorious slave colonies made the Maroons of runaway slaves the pioneers of Jamaican independence and the spirit of independence that Jamaicans exemplify to this day. This spirit is still felt today in modern Jamaican personalities like Bob Marley.