Skip to main content

Maroon Autonomy In Jamaica

In hemispheric context, the early Maroon communities of Jamaica -- those formed in the 17(th) century, during the late Spanish and early British periods -- were hardly unique. But those that made treaties with the British crown in Jamaica in 1739 were destined for special fame (or infamy, depending on the perspective). Though hugely outnumbered and poorly equipped, they launched a highly effective armed resistance and nearly managed to bring economic development in parts of the island to a standstill. Unconquered, they persisted as free peoples in the heart of Britain's most important and notorious slave colony until long after the abolition of slavery in 1834. The fact that they were never defeated or assimilated into the larger population set them apart from most of the other Maroon groups spread across plantation America. Today they remain, after the Maroons of Suriname and French Guiana, the most culturally and politically distinctive of all surviving Maroon communities of the Americas.

Since the 1930s and 40s, when prominent figures such as Zora Neale Hurston and Katherine Dunham published accounts of their visits to the Jamaican Maroons, these semi-independent enclaves have held a certain fascination for North American readers. More recent trends have once again placed the Jamaican Maroons in the spotlight. During the turbulent 1970s, their historical epic's significance for the ongoing struggle against neo-imperialism and the construction of a post-independence national identity was much discussed and debated in Jamaica. The 18(th)-century Maroon ancestress Nanny was officially named a national hero. An imaginary portrait of her now adorns the ubiquitous Jamaican $500 bill. (Jamaicans call it "nanny.") The global circulation of Jamaican popular music has also helped to spread awareness of the Jamaican Maroons to other parts of the world. The politically charged brand of "roots" reggae championed by Bob Marley and dozens of other Rastafarian artists during the 1970s remains popular internationally. The Maroon resistance of past centuries continues to serve as an important point of reference in the discourse of black struggle associated with the Rastafari movement and its music. And most devotees of Jamaican popular music are aware of the continuing existence of Maroon communities on the island. Many reggae fans from other countries have attended the annual celebration of Maroon heritage that takes place in Accompong on January sixth.

Despite their relative fame and the widespread acknowledgment, both locally and internationally, of their ancestors' accomplishments, the Maroons occupy an ambiguous social space in contemporary Jamaica. Their continued existence as distinct communities is far from assured.

Maroon Ethnicity in Jamaica

The two treaties signed by the Maroons and their British antagonists in 1739 gave legal recognition to de facto ethnic groups that already differed culturally (despite significant areas of overlap) from the rest of the Jamaican population. Two major groups were covered by the treaties: those under the leadership of Cudjoe (Kojo) in the Cockpit Country in the western part of the island, known as the Leeward Maroons; and those affiliated with Quao (Kwau), Nanny, and a variety of other leaders in the Blue Mountains in the east, known as the Windward Maroons. Over several decades, while building new societies in the island's interior, both groups had developed distinctive Afro-creole cultures to which new recruits from the plantations adapted and contributed. The treaties of 1739 reinforced and institutionalized preexisting cultural differences between the Maroons and the coastal slave population by legally sanctioning the Maroons' existence as semi-autonomous free peoples within a slave colony, and by providing them with bounded territories that came to symbolize their corporate identities as communities of common landowners.

After 1739, the British colonial government helped to further entrench the distinctions between Maroons and other Jamaicans by employing the former as a sort of internal police force whose responsibility it was to track down and capture future runaways and to aid in the suppression of slave insurrections. The deep divisions and resentments caused by the post-treaty Maroons' willingness to cooperate with the British in this way continue to haunt much of the thinking, both official and popular, about Maroons today.

With the general emancipation of slaves in 1834, things changed drastically for the Maroons. Since the British no longer needed their services as a tracking force, they had little interest in maintaining distinct, partially autonomous communities in the interior of their colony. The first formal attempt to encourage the assimilation of the Maroons into the wider population was the so-called Maroon Lands Allotment Act of 1842. This piece of legislation aimed to abrogate the treaties of 1739 and absorb the Maroons into the emergent peasantry by dividing the communally owned Maroon lands and parceling them out to individual owners. The Maroons, however, simply refused to comply, and the colonial government did not force the issue. It soon found that its interests were not, after all, necessarily served by dissolving the Maroon communities. As late as 1865, some three decades after slavery ended, the Maroons assisted the government in putting down the peasant rebellion led by Paul Bogle -- the last time they were to serve in this military capacity.

"States Within a State," or "Villages No Different From Any Other"?

Many Maroons today would agree with Bev Carey when she states (1997) that "the period of 1870 to [the present] has been marked by the development and existence of one over-riding policy. And that policy has been, and remains to this day, the compulsory assimilation of the Maroons into the mainstream of Jamaica." But the recent history of relations between the Maroons and the larger society in Jamaica is considerably more complex than this interpretation suggests. Assimilationist positions and policies have long been counterbalanced by opposing tendencies. Up until the end of colonial rule in 1962, British governors continued to receive visiting Maroon delegations and to consult with Maroon leaders, who were still treated much like foreign dignitaries. The longstanding tradition of ceremonial visits to Maroon communities by colonial governors and their entourages -- a kind of ritual performance of mutual respect -- was kept up through the late 19(th) and early 20(th) centuries. Although the first half of the 20(th) century saw a gradual erosion of some of the institutions that distinguished the Maroon communities from the rest of the population, this weakening of autonomy appears to have resulted from the complex interplay of various factors, both internal and external, rather than a consistently applied policy of assimilation.

The local Maroon system of adjudication, for instance, came under increasing strain as Maroons embroiled in local disputes began to take their grievances to outside courts. Some magistrates in neighboring jurisdictions would refer such cases back to the Maroon leadership, while others would accept them, thereby undermining the authority of Maroon leaders and their councils. The growing presence of missionaries and the introduction of numerous competing churches also had a profound impact -- in some communities, local converts to Christianity drove traditional religious practitioners underground, succeeding where foreign missionaries had earlier failed. By the middle of the 20(th) century, the Kromanti spirit mediums and healers who had once wielded great authority in the Maroon towns found themselves in an increasingly precarious position.

The greatest challenge to Maroon autonomy, however, came with Jamaica's political independence in 1962. The country's new constitution did not address the question of the political and legal status of the Maroon communities in post-independence Jamaica. The assumption seems to have been that the treaties of 1739, and any vestiges of legal or political autonomy attached to them, would automatically be rendered null and void by the creation of a new, unitary state. But the Maroons continued to insist on the validity of their treaties, which they regarded as sacred charters, and they pointed out that these had been made with the British crown, and not with the ancestors of those who constituted the new government. During the 1960s and 70s, successive governments attempted to further the integration of the Maroons into the larger population by demanding that persons living on Maroon lands pay taxes on the individual plots they occupied. Maroons in the two major communities of Moore Town and Accompong, however, resisted all efforts to divide and tax their communally held "treaty lands." Once again, the Jamaican government did not attempt to force compliance, and, despite occasional conflicts over this question in the ensuing years, the Maroons of these two communities still pay no taxes on their communal lands.

This unresolved debate over taxation is emblematic of the ambiguity that has characterized relations between the Maroons and the Jamaican state since independence. It represents one of the clearest expressions of the continuing failure of successive Jamaican governments to address head on the question of Maroon autonomy. Symbolically, government officials have generally continued to accord the Maroon communities the special recognition they expect. Thus, in the early 1970s, even as Jamaican Senator Dudley Thompson publicly declared that "there was no difference or distinction whatever in the rights and obligations as defined by the law of the land between the persons residing in the former Maroon settlements and those of any other Jamaican subject" (The Daily Gleaner, 1973), Prime Minister Michael Manley made time in his busy schedule for meetings with visiting Maroon delegations, who continued to press for official acknowledgement of what they viewed as their special "treaty rights." (The Daily Gleaner, 1972) And every prime minister since then has remained accessible to Maroon leaders. As recently as 1997, P.J. Patterson, the present prime minister, made a ceremonial visit to Accompong, during which he voiced his support for contemporary Maroon aspirations. A year seldom passes when government officials do not arrive from Kingston to participate formally in one or another of the annual commemorative celebrations held in the various Maroon towns.

There is a marked discrepancy, however, between this symbolic recognition of Maroon distinctiveness and the responses of the Jamaican state whenever real questions of legal or political autonomy arise. The limits of Maroon autonomy are periodically tested, for instance, by those Maroons who claim that the treaties protect their right to cultivate ganja (cannabis) on Maroon lands. (Although illegal in Jamaica, cannabis cultivation is widespread, and the plant remains one of the island's most important cash crops.) Successive Jamaican governments have responded to this challenge by sanctioning police and army raids on ganja farms located on lands generally recognized as belonging to the Maroons. Even those Maroons opposed to ganja cultivation within their own territory are outraged by such actions, which they see as an egregious infringement of the general right to self-determination guaranteed by their sacred treaties.

By and large, the abstract notion of Maroon autonomy seems to have been tolerated by the Jamaican state, so long as its practical consequences have remained insignificant. As an important part of what might be called the Maroon mythos, this idea may even have a certain appeal for representatives of the state, as for other Jamaicans. For many Jamaicans, the continuing Maroon presence serves as a potent reminder of a proud past. Acceptance of Maroon autonomy as a kind of mythic quality belonging to all Jamaicans is exemplified by a letter recently published in The Daily Gleaner, Jamaica's main newspaper, in which the writer waxes enthusiastic about "the magic of witnessing a traditional celebration of the Maroons, our own sturdy, independent descendants of brave, runaway slaves, who still have their own state-within-a-state up in our beautiful hills." (Miller, 2000) Government officials, however, have found it necessary from time to time to caution against any inclination to take such rhetoric too literally. In 1980, Governor General Florizel Glasspole, in one of many such pronouncements, publicly "reminded the Maroons that they are not isolated from the rest of Jamaica neither are they a nation within a nation as is often rumoured." (The Daily Gleaner, 1980)

Among Maroons themselves, the idea of self-determination is no mere abstraction. Although conceptions of autonomy have varied somewhat over time in the different Maroon communities, all of these communities take the question of "treaty rights" very seriously, and all continue to insist on the need for official recognition, both local and international, of their special political and legal status, however this might be defined. The notion that Maroon communities constitute states within a state remains prevalent, both within these communities and among other Jamaicans. During the 1980s, the leadership of the Leeward Maroons began to step up the rhetoric of self-determination, often referring to the community of Accompong in public statements as a sovereign state. Today, each of the Maroon communities has its advocates of sovereignty.

This most sensitive of issues has inevitably become intertwined with a larger debate revolving around complex questions of ethnicity and cultural identity. To what extent are Maroons really culturally different from other Jamaicans? Haven't they in fact already been culturally assimilated into the larger society? For every commentator who, like historian Mavis Campbell (1973), asserts that the Maroons "are no different in life-style and self-perception from any other law-abiding group of country folk within the island today," there are others who point (in the words of Dr. Paul Robertson, Minister of Information and Culture) to the distinctive "cultural heritage preserved faithfully by the Maroons to this day." (Robertson, 1989)

Although individual Maroons cannot be distinguished from other Jamaicans today on the basis of readily observable criteria such as physical appearance, dress, or everyday speech, there can be little doubt that the different Maroon communities have maintained distinctive "intimate cultures" that are not shared by other Jamaicans. Thus, Maroons remain different from other Jamaicans not only by virtue of their communally-owned "treaty lands," their governing councils with elected leaders, and other such political and economic features, but because they continue to possess their own religious beliefs, pharmacopoeia, oral historical traditions, music, dance, esoteric languages, and other distinctive forms of expressive culture. This less tangible cultural domain has remained hidden from most other Jamaicans, largely because Maroons choose not to reveal it to outsiders.

The protective ethic of secrecy that has long served to limit outsiders' knowledge of the Maroons' "intimate cultures" has had the unintended effect of raising questions about the genuineness of Maroon claims to a distinctive identity. Since Maroons are not distinguishable from other Jamaicans on the basis of surface traits, it is sometimes assumed that they have lost whatever distinctive culture they might once have possessed. For those who would like to see the full legal and political assimilation of the Maroon communities, the idea that Maroons are no longer culturally different from other Jamaicans is convenient. Some feel that cultural difference -- however this is defined -- should be a precondition for official recognition of the right to self-determination that Maroons continue to claim.

This debate about cultural authenticity takes place within a climate in which there is considerable lingering hostility toward the Maroons. Many Jamaicans hold opinions similar to those recently expressed in a letter to The Daily Gleaner; dismissing as "a disgustingly flawed piece" an earlier letter in which the Maroons were portrayed positively, its writer preferred to emphasize that "these Maroons did an excellent job of ensuring that slavery continued on its murderous path by suppressing slave revolts left, right, and centre in addition to capturing our brothers and handing them over to their slave owner bosses." (Hastings, 2001) Those who dwell on this aspect of the past almost invariably fail to point out that the British policy of divide and rule cut both ways, and that the greatest threat to Maroon survival before the treaties of 1739 was posed by slave troops who, in exchange for promises of freedom and other enticements, fought alongside the whites in their attempts to annihilate the Maroon populations in the interior.

Maroon Identity in the New Millennium: Cultural Cammodification and Ownership of the Past

The fact that the "Maroon towns now look like any other town in the Jamaican countryside" and "the people look no different from other Jamaicans in small, farming communities" (Hernandez, 1983) not only provides ideological ammunition for opponents of Maroon autonomy; it raises problems for those attempting to promote tourism in the Maroon communities. In the face of increasingly constricted local economic opportunities and the growing problem of population loss through out-migration, cultural tourism has come to be viewed by many Maroons as an appealing alternative. The community of Accompong has had particular success in this area; over the last two decades, its January celebration has grown enormously. Attracting thousands of visitors from all over Jamaica as well as from other countries, it now plays a vital role in the local economy. Similar celebrations are held, though on a smaller scale, in the Windward Maroon communities of Moore Town and Scot's Hall.

The fanfare and cultural displays associated with these events, however, occur but once a year. At other times, the relative invisibility of Maroon cultural distinctiveness can disappoint visitors' expectations. As long ago as 1981, the Berlitz travel guide to Jamaica warned seekers of exotica that the Windward Maroon communities of Moore Town and Cornwall Barracks (part of the larger Moore Town community), though vaunted by some as places of special cultural significance, "look no different from any other Jamaican towns and there is no touristic reason to go there." More recently, the Lonely Planet travel guidebook for Jamaica -- to cite but one of several such passages in the current tourist literature offers the following piece of advice to anyone contemplating a visit to the Leeward Maroon town of Accompong: "It's hyped, but there's nothing unique or different about this tiny hamlet that touts itself as the capital of Maroon culture." Thomas Cook's Passport guide draws more general conclusions: "Today little remains of Maroon culture." Increasingly aware of this problem, Maroons in some communities have begun to manufacture "cultural products" for sale to tourists, some of which draw on elements of Maroon culture once considered secret or private little drums, T-shirts marked with Kromanti ritual symbols. Another response has been to form cultural "troupes" that regularly perform for tourists music and dance genres once kept from the eyes and ears of non-Maroons. Maroons in all communities are also striving to build cultural centers and/or museums that will cater primarily to visitors -- likely harbingers of further cultural commodification.

While such enterprises may have salutary effects, both economic and cultural, they may also bring new complications. As once-private Maroon cultural markers and symbols are commodified and made increasingly available to a larger public, the Maroon communities may find it more difficult to maintain exclusive ownership and control of their history and their ancestral cultural heritage -- which have sometimes been claimed by other Jamaicans as "national" possessions. Many, after all, share the sentiments of the Jamaican government cultural officer who in 1985 told a National Geographic reporter, "in a sense, all Jamaicans, all of us, are Maroons." (Cobb, 1985) In what sense? Maroon leaders and their councils are just as uncomfortable with literal interpretations of such statements as Jamaican government officials are with declarations of Maroon sovereignty.

The Critical Question of Land

Maroons on both sides of the island recognize the central importance of land rights. The sacred, communally-owned Maroon "treaty lands" continue to serve as a crucial subsistence base for Maroons who remain in their towns. At the same time, these distinct territories remain the clearest, most concrete embodiment of a distinctive Maroon identity. Maroon sovereignty, however conceived, presupposes the continuing integrity of this territorial base. Any challenge to their collective rights over these treaty lands is thus likely to be seen by Maroons as a threat to their survival.

This critical question is as fraught with ambiguities as any of the other questions raised by the Maroons' continuing insistence on their right to self-determination. Their refusal to pay tax on their treaty lands has remained a point of contention since the first post-independence government took power in 1962. Yet no Jamaican government since then has been willing to resort to force in the face of Maroon resistance. Nor has any Jamaican government taken a hard line on the question of whether the Maroon treaties, including the provisions they make for separate Maroon lands, remain legally binding. Whenever disagreements have arisen over the interpretation of specific articles of the treaties and their possible legal implications in the present, this larger question has been left hanging.

As of this writing, the political and legal status of the Jamaican Maroon communities remains as ambiguous as ever. Plans for a new national park or biodiversity reserve in the Cockpit Country, an area originally occupied by the ancestors of the Accompong Maroons, have for the first time raised the possibility of formal, internationally-monitored discussions between Maroons and the Jamaican government over the question of land. But limited and inconclusive written documentation and a long and complex history of unresolved territorial disputes have made it difficult even to establish the precise boundaries of Maroon lands. Furthermore, while many Maroons are not willing to separate the question of land rights from the larger issue of self-determination, the Jamaican state, for its part, has shown no inclination to give serious consideration to the sensitive topic of Maroon autonomy. Little has changed, then, since 1997, when Werner Zips, an anthropologist and lawyer who has done extensive historical research on the legal status of the Jamaican Maroon communities, wrote the following summary for the Jamaican press:

As a researcher and author on the Maroons, studying their political and legal system within the larger frame of British-derived Jamaican law for the past twelve years, I was continually confronted with their desperate complaints of state infringement on their rights. Especially, as far as the recognition of their land rights and their autonomous (quasi-)sovereign status is concerned. Just as in the case of the Surinamese Maroons, their peace treaties of 1738/39 were never officially recognized by any post-colonial government…. Most provisions of their treaties, such as their own right of jurisdiction, are largely ignored. Tax exemption on lands seems to be the only tacit exception, and this is largely due to the continual refusal of the Maroons to pay land taxes and to the wariness of the state to enforce them by brute force…. The history of infringement on Maroon lands dates back to the colonial period when the British sought to shrink the Maroons to village size and to preserve them at best as a romantic and exotic "thing of the past"…From a careful study of available sources in the Jamaican archives and the oral traditions of the Maroons one can only conclude the continuity of marginalizing policies from colonial to post-colonial times.

The last few years have seen an increasing assertiveness on the part of the Maroon communities. It is clear that the present-day Maroons are not content to be reduced to a "romantic and exotic thing of the past" -- a past that some Jamaicans would claim as a national possession, even while denying these living Maroon descendants a contemporary existence. Some four decades after the end of colonial rule, the challenge for both the Maroons and the Jamaican state remains to reach a clear and mutually-agreeable understanding of how the Maroons can be a part of Jamaica on their own terms, and then to give this understanding the force of law.

References & further reading

Bilby, K. (1981). The Kromanti Dance of the Windward Maroons of Jamaica. Nieuwe West-Indische Gids 55 (1/2), pp 52-101.

Bilby, K. (1994). Maroon Culture as a Distinct Variant of Jamaican Culture. In Maroon Heritage: Archaeological Ethnographic and Historical Perspectives. Agorsah, E.K., Ed. Kingston, Jamaica: Canoe Press. Pp 72-85.

Bilby, K. (1997). Swearing by the Past, Swearing to the Future: Sacred Oaths, Alliances, and Treaties among the Guianese and Jamaican Maroons. Ethnohistory 44:4, pp 655-689.

Campbell, M. (1973, May 27). The Maroons of Jamaica. The Sunday Gleaner.

Campbell, M. (1988). The Maroons of Jamaica 1655-1796: A History of Resistance, Collaboration & Betrayal. Granby, MA: Bergin and Garvey.

Carey, B. (1997). The Maroon Story. Gordon Town, Jamaica: Agouti Press.

Cobb, C.E., Jr. (1985). Jamaica: Hard Times, High Hopes. National Geographic 167:1, pp 114-140.

The Daily Gleaner (1973, February 10). Thompson in Senate: Maroons Have No Special Rights Under Jamaican Laws.

The Daily Gleaner (1972, June 4). Manley Seeks Closer Links with Maroons.

The Daily Gleaner (1980, October 1). Maroons Not a Nation Within a Nation.

Dallas, R.C. (1803). The History of the Maroons. 2 vols. London: T.N. Longman and O. Rees.

Dunham, K. (1946). Journey to Accompong. New York: Henry Holt.

Edwards, B. (1796). The Proceedings of the Governor and Assembly of Jamaica in Regard to the Maroon Negroes. London: John Stockdale.

Hastings, E.D. (2001, January 15). Another View of Maroons. The Daily Gleaner.

Hernandez, H. (1983). The Maroons -- Who Are They? Kingston: JAMAL Foundation.

Hurston, Z.N. (1938). Tell My Horse. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott.

Kopytoff, B. (1976). The Development of Jamaican Maroon Ethnicity. Caribbean Quarterly 22 (2/3), pp 33-50.

Kopytoff, B. (1979). Colonial Treaty as Sacred Charter of the Jamaican Maroons. Ethnohistory 26:1, pp 45-64.

Kopytoff, B. (1987). Religious Change among the Jamaican Maroons: The Ascendance of the Christian God within a Traditional Cosmology. Journal of Social History 20, pp 463-484.

Miller, D.J. (2000, September 21). Beauty Queens and the Real Jamaica. The Daily Gleaner.

Perry, D. (1999, April 24). Past Glories Still Drive Independence-Minded Maroons. The Daily Ardmoreite.

Robertson, P. (1989). Speech at the opening of the exhibition, "The Maroons," Institute of Jamaica, 24 October. Ms. in National Library of Jamaica.

Zips, W. (1997, March 5). Injustice Done to the Maroons. The Daily Gleaner.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.