Maroons and Marronage: Escaping Slavery

Runaway Slave Towns, From Camps to African States in the Americas

Engraving of George Washington's 1763 Survey of the Great Dismal Swamp
George Washington's 1763 survey to drain the Great Dismal Swamp offered opportunity and danger to the maroon communities hidden there. Engraved by S V Huni from the original by M Neven. Kean Collection Getty Images

Maroon refers to an African or Afro-American person who escaped slavery in the Americas and lived in hidden towns outside of the plantations. American slaves used several forms of resistance to fight their imprisonment, everything from work slowdowns and tool damage to full-fledged revolt and flight. Some runaways established permanent or semi-permanent towns for themselves in hidden places not far from the plantations, a process known as marronage (sometimes also spelled maronnage or maroonage).

The runaways in North America were predominantly young and male, who had often been sold many times. Before the 1820s, some headed west or to Florida while it was owned by the Spanish. By the 19th century, after Florida became a U.S. territory, most headed to the North. The intermediate step for many of the escapees was marronage, where runaways hid relatively locally to their plantation but without the intention of returning to slavery. 

The Process of Marronage

Plantations in the Americas were organized such that the big house where the European owners lived was near the center of a large clearing. The slave cabins were located far from the plantation house, at the edges of the clearing and often immediately next to a forest or swamp. Enslaved men supplemented their own food supply by hunting and foraging in those woods, at the same time exploring and learning the terrain as they did so.

Plantation workforces were made up mostly of male slaves, and if there were women and children, the men were the ones who were best able to leave. As a result, new Maroon communities were little more than camps with skewed demographics, mostly made up of men and a small number of women and very rarely children.

Even after they were set up, the embryonic Maroon towns had limited opportunities for building families. The new communities maintained difficult relationships with the slaves left behind on the plantations. Although the Maroons did help others to escape, kept in touch with family members, and traded with the plantation slaves, the Maroons sometimes resorted to raiding the plantation slave cabins for food and supplies. On occasion, the plantation slaves (voluntarily or not) actively assisted the whites to recapture runaways. Some of the male-only settlements were reportedly violent and dangerous. But some of those settlements eventually gained a balanced population, and flourished and grew. 

Maroon Communities in the Americas

The word "Maroon" typically refers to North American runaway slaves and it likely comes from the Spanish word "cimarron" or "cimarroon," meaning "wild." But marronage flared up wherever slaves were held, and whenever the whites were too busy to be vigilant. In Cuba, villages made up of escaped slaves were known as palenques or mambises; and in Brazil, they were known as quilombo, magote, or mocambo. Long-term marronage communities were established in Brazil (Palmares, Ambrosio), Dominican Republic (Jose Leta), Florida (Pilaklikaha and Fort Mose), Jamaica (Bannytown, Accompong, and Seaman's Valley), and Suriname (Kumako).

By the late 1500s there were already Maroon villages in Panama and Brazil, and Kumako in Suriname was established at least as early as the 1680s. 

In the colonies which would become the United States, Maroon communities were most abundant in South Carolina, but they were also established in Virginia, North Carolina, and Alabama. The largest known Maroon communities in what would become the U.S. were formed in the Great Dismal Swamp on the Savannah River, on the border between Virginia and North Carolina.

In 1763, George Washington, the man who would become the first president of the United States, conducted a survey of the Great Dismal Swamp, intending to drain it and make it suitable for farming. The Washington Ditch, a canal built after the survey and opening up the swamp to traffic, was both an opportunity for Maroon communities to establish themselves in the swamp but at the same time dangerous in that white slave hunters could also find them living there.

Great Dismal Swamp communities may have begun as early as 1765, but they had become numerous by 1786, after the end of the American revolution when the slaveholders could pay attention to the problem. 

Structure

The size of Maroon communities varied widely. Most were small, with between five and 100 people, but some became very large: Nannytown, Accompong, and Culpepper Island had populations in the hundreds. Estimates for Palmares in Brazil range between 5,000 and 20,000.

Most were short-lived, in fact, 70 percent of the largest quilombos in Brazil were destroyed within two years. However, Palmares lasted a century, and Black Seminole towns — towns built by Maroons who were allied with the Seminole tribe in Florida — lasted several decades. Some of the Jamaican and Suriname Maroon communities founded in the 18th century are still occupied by their descendants today.

Most Maroon communities were formed in inaccessible or marginal areas, partly because those areas were unpopulated, and partly because they were difficult to get to. The Black Seminoles in Florida found refuge in central Florida swamps; the Saramaka Maroons of Suriname settled on riverbanks in deeply forested areas. In Brazil, Cuba, and Jamaica, people escaped into the mountains and made their homes in densely vegetated hills.

Maroon towns nearly always had several security measures. Primarily, the towns were hidden away, accessible only after following obscure paths which required long treks across difficult terrain.

In addition, some communities built defensive ditches and forts and maintained well-armed, highly drilled and disciplined troops and sentries.

Subsistence

Many Maroon communities started out as nomadic, moving base often for safety's sake, but as their populations grew, they settled into fortified villages. Such groups often raided colonial settlements and plantations for commodities and new recruits. But they also traded crops and forest products with pirates and European traders for weapons and tools; many even signed treaties with different sides of competing colonies.

Some Maroon communities were full-fledged farmers: in Brazil, Palmares settlers grew manioc, tobacco, cotton, bananas, maize, pineapples, and sweet potatoes; and Cuban settlements depended on honeybees and game.

In Panama, as early as the 16th century, palenqueros threw in with pirates such as the English privateer Francis Drake. A Maroon named Diego and his men raided both overland and maritime traffic with Drake, and together they sacked the city of Santo Domingo on Hispaniola island in 1586. They exchanged vital knowledge about when the Spanish would be moving looted American gold and silver and traded that for enslaved females and other items.

South Carolina Maroons

By 1708, enslaved Africans formed a majority of the population in South Carolina: the largest concentrations of African people at that time were at rice plantations on the coasts where up to 80 percent of the total population white and black was made up of slaves.

There was a constant influx of new slaves during the 18th century, and during the 1780's, fully one-third of the 100,000 slaves in South Carolina had been born in Africa.

Total Maroon populations are unknown, but between 1732 and 1801, slaveholders advertised for more than 2,000 fugitive slaves in South Carolina newspapers. Most returned voluntarily, hungry and cold, back to friends and family, or were hunted down by parties of overseers and dogs.

Although the word "Maroon" was not used in the paperwork, the South Carolina slave laws defined them clearly enough. "Short-term fugitives" would be returned to their owners for punishment, but "long-term fugitives" from slavery—those who had been away for 12 months or longer—could be lawfully killed by any white.

In the 18th century, a small Maroon settlement in South Carolina included four houses in a square measuring 17x14 feet. A larger one measured 700x120 yards and included 21 houses and cropland, accommodating up to 200 people. This town's people grew domesticated rice and potatoes and raised cows, pigs, turkeys, and ducks. Houses were located on the highest elevations; pens were built, fences maintained, and wells dug.

An African State in Brazil

The most successful Maroon settlement was Palmares in Brazil, established about 1605. It became larger than any of the North American communities,  including over 200 houses, a church, four smithies, a six-foot-wide main street, a large meeting house, cultivated fields, and kingly residences. Palmares is thought to have been made up of a core of people from Angola, and they essentially created an African state in the Brazilian hinterland. An African-style system of status, birthrights, slavery, and royalty was developed at Palmares, and adapted traditional African ceremonial rites were performed. A range of elites included a king, a military commander, and an elected council of quilombo chiefs.

Palmares was a constant thorn in the side of the Portuguese and Dutch colonials in Brazil, who waged war with the community for most of the 17th century. Palmares was finally conquered and destroyed in 1694.  

Significance

Maroon societies were a significant form of African and African American resistance to slavery. In some regions and for some periods, the communities held treaties with other colonists and were recognized as legitimate, independent, and autonomous bodies with rights to their lands. 

Legally sanctioned or not, the communities were ubiquitous wherever slavery was practiced. As Richard Price has written, the persistence of Maroon communities for decades or centuries stands out as a "heroic challenge to white authority, and the living proof of the existence of a slave consciousness that refused to be limited" by the dominant white culture.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Maroons and Marronage: Escaping Slavery." ThoughtCo, Dec. 11, 2017, thoughtco.com/maroons-and-marronage-4155346. Hirst, K. Kris. (2017, December 11). Maroons and Marronage: Escaping Slavery. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/maroons-and-marronage-4155346 Hirst, K. Kris. "Maroons and Marronage: Escaping Slavery." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/maroons-and-marronage-4155346 (accessed December 13, 2017).