Jamaican Maroons date back to the English conquest of Jamaica in 1655. At that time, the retreating Spanish freed their African slaves. They armed them and encouraged them to fight a guerrilla war against the new British Colonies. The released and runaway slaves, aided by Jamaica's mountainous terrain; evaded capture, formed fighting bands and eventually split into two powerful communities. It is from these remote communities that the Jamaican Maroons raided British settlements and plantations for supplies and attracted more runaway slaves.
The eastern community was known as the Windward Maroons and the one further west was called Leeward Maroons. The name Maroon is the British corruption of the Spanish word cimarrones, meaning wild or untamed. Living in inaccessible regions of Jamaica, the numbers of the Maroons grew as more and more runaway slaves fleeing from the new British plantations, flocked to their cause. With their continual raiding of the British plantations, the Maroons rapidly became a thorn in the side of the British colonists.
Unique among all Africans that were brought to the New World as slaves, the Maroons earned for themselves an autonomy that no other African slaves could. During the 18th century, the powerful Maroons, who settled in the mountains of Jamaica, carved out a significant area of influence. Through the use of slave labor, the production of sugar in this British colony flourished. But the courageous resistance of the Maroons threatened this prosperous industry. These efforts included plantation raids, the killing of white militiamen, and the freeing of slaves.
The threat to the system was clear and present; hence, the planters were willing to sign a treaty with the Maroons in 1738. The treaty offers good insight to the relationship between the planters and the Maroons at the time, and deserves further attention. Body of Research The Jamaican Maroons were runaway slaves who fought the British during the 18th century. When the British invaded Jamaica in 1655 the Spanish colonists fled leaving a large number of Africans who they had enslaved.
Rather than be re-enslaved by the British, they escaped into the hilly, mountainous regions of the island. They were very organized and knew the country well. Because of this, additional runaway slaves joined them. The two main Maroon groups were the Leeward and the Windward tribes, the former led by Cudjoe in Trelawny Town and the latter led by his sister Queen Nanny and later by Quao. Over time, the Maroons came to control large areas of the Jamaican interior and they often moved down from the hills to raid the plantations.
The Maroons were bound by a sacred oath that all men had to take to show loyalty and to keep Maroon secrets. Any runaway slave who refused to take the oath was put to death, the Maroons could not afford security risks and the casual runaway was certainly that. Such runaways might stay a few days or a week or two and then wander off only to be captured, and in order to save their own hide would divulge the locations of the Maroon settlements. Women were not bound by the oath and most of the intelligence that the British troops received on the Maroons came from captured women.
The Maroons were highly dependent on nature to survive. The Maroons could not farm on a large scale. To farm, one needed to clear and burn the land, and smoke would give away the Maroon positions to the British. But the Maroons would make do the best way they could, relying on the knowledge of nature that they brought with them from Africa. They managed to use the environment very efficiently to take care of all their basic needs, nourishment, shelter, and protection from the soldiers that hunted them.
Besides the supplies that nature provided, the Maroons needed guns, and they had precious few, so they took some from dead British soldiers, stole some, and traded for some. The Maroons were very successful at raiding the British plantations, coming in out of the mist and taking whatever they needed, food, arms, or slave women the Maroons were so successful in capturing slave women that by 1730, the number of women and children in Nanny Town and Guy’s Town exceeded the number of men. In their dealings with the British troops, nature also played a huge role in the success of the Maroon warriors.
The Maroons developed camouflage and ambush techniques that took many an unwary British soldier’s life this was known as guerrilla warfare tactic. The Maroons would also camouflage themselves, bushing up was the term they used, to make them impossible to spot against the trees and plants that surrounded them. The Maroons would also bathe in a mountain stream, scrubbing their bodies with the leaves of a certain plant that gave them a fresh lemon scent. Then they would lie in wait in the brush that emitted the same odor, camouflaging their scent.
So good were the Maroons at camouflage that legends grew about them. It was said that the Maroons had the ability to appear and disappear at will, to stand so still in the evergreen that a party of soldiers could walk right past them and not see them. When they raided plantations it was said that the guard dogs could not even detect their approach. So successful were they that they could not be found by Carib Indian scouts (brought in from the Mosquito Coast of Honduras) and Cuban slave hunters who were recruited by the British to find the Maroons.
So successful were the Maroons that the Trelawney Cockpit Country of Jamaica became the Land of Look Behind for the British always had to look behind their ranks for a sudden ambush. Maroon settlements or Maroon Towns as they were called, were constructed with security foremost. They were always set up in the mountains with the lower levels more easily accessible, and the upper levels almost inaccessible. Few if any British soldiers reached the upper levels.
All Maroon towns were well supplied with food, and if the Maroons had to flee, they would escape to another equally secure town that was also amply supplied with food. The Maroons would maintain contact with one another by mimicking animal sounds such as birdcalls. So precise were they in this that they studied seasonal and mating calls so that they would make no errors that could be detected by Carib Indian scouts, who were also bush experts. Maroons also used a drum and the abeng horn, for more long-distance communications which were totally incomprehensible to the British.
Maroon towns always had a commanding view of the neighboring countryside, and keen-eyed Maroon sentries who would signal by blowing on an abeng horn when search and raiding parties appeared headed in their direction. The abeng, made from a cow’s horn, was able to produce many different sounds, each with its own meaning and able to be heard from great distances. The abeng blowers could relay information such as troop strengths, type of armaments, direction of travel, and even which paths the troops were taking.
This gave the Maroons plenty of time to set up an ambush and before long British troops dreaded the sound of the abeng horn. The British used many methods of tracking and fighting the Maroons. As mentioned earlier, they imported Carib Indian scouts from the Mosquito Coast of Honduras, but these were eventually wiped out. The British also had a certain number of renegade Maroons, those who had surrendered and never really had the heart to fight the long fight.
The British also had a unit of slave soldiers called the Black Shots who were nearly as good as the Maroons in the woods. This resulted in the First Maroon War. In 1739-40 the British government in Jamaica came to an agreement with the Maroons. They were to remain in their five main towns Accompong, Trelawny Town, Moore Town, Scots Hall and Nanny Town, living under their own chief with a British supervisor. In exchange, they agreed not to harbour new runaway slaves, but rather to help catch them. They were paid a bounty for each returned slave