Jamaican History & Culture – The Jamaican Maroons, Part I

A rudimentary understanding of Jamaica cannot be reached without some basic knowledge of the island’s people. Jamaica’s coat of arms speaks of its people by depicting a Taíno couple. The same can also be said about its motto: Out of many, one people.

The Taíno and Spanish were the earliest settlers of Jamaica or, at least, the earliest about which I have much to say. Unfortunately, these people left little or no mark on the ethnology of the island. The memory of them lives on through a few words that have been absorbed into the English language, and by place names and artifacts. As well, Taíno genes live on—at least to a small degree—in the DNA of some modern Jamaicans. The descendants of a third group, however, have survived to this day and have contributed to the rich tapestry of Jamaican history and culture. These are the Jamaican Maroons.

There are many written accounts about the Maroons of those early days, but only a few seem reliable enough for my use. Much is duplication, and some accounts contradict others with myth woven in with fact. Therefore, I have tried to sift through over a hundred accounts looking for common threads that seem reliable, and the following is a summary of the story of the Jamaican Maroons, at least as I see it.

Jamaica’s coat of arms
The original Maroons were African slaves who had escaped from the Spaniards and formed communities in mountainous regions. Taíno, who survived the genocide of Spanish rule, were also members of these communities. I notice that the Maroons sometimes gave their leaders the title of “captain.” And I find it interesting that this was a common practice among indigenous Taíno and Carib people on other Caribbean islands such as Puerto Rico and Trinidad.

The few Taíno who survived on the Island helped the earliest Maroons adapt to Jamaica, its food sources and natural medicines, and navigate its rough mountainous interior. For example, they taught the Maroons how to “jerk” pork, weave hammocks, carve canoes out of cottonwood trees, and properly prepare cassava before consumption. (Improper preparation of cassava (manioc) can leave enough residual cyanide to cause serious illnesses.)

The Spaniards called their escaped slaves, cimarrón, their word for “wild.” That term was anglicized to Maroon and became the general word used to refer to any African escapee who was part of one of the Americas' independent settlements. The term can also apply to their descendants.

Jamaican Maroon, Leonard Parkinson
Jamaican Maroon, Leonard Parkinson |
Nova Scotia Archives

Maroon communities formed virtually anywhere African slavery was practiced. We are interested in the Jamaican Maroons, but for brevity, we’ll use the simpler term, Maroon(s).

While Maroon communities initially were spread over a large area of Jamaica’s mountainous interior, the two most influential groups were the Leeward and the Windward Maroons who, over time, became concentrated in five main towns: Accompong, Trelawny Town, Charles Town, Scott’s Hall and Nanny Town (now at a nearby location and called Moore Town).

Maroon numbers were significantly augmented when the Spaniards armed and freed their slaves before abandoning the island after the English conquest. These established strongholds under the leadership of former “Spanish Negros” Juan Lubolo (aka Juan de Bolas) and Juan de Serras. Lubolo’s group settled at Lluidas Vale in northern St. Catherine parish at one of the few Taíno villages located in the interior. Juan de Serras established his community farther west. Juan Lubolo, as Spanish prospects dimmed, struck a bargain with the English and received a land grant. In return, he helped defeat the Spanish. In 1663, however, Lubolo was ambushed by Juan de Serras and killed. After his death, Lubolo’s followers seemed to have merged with the general population and submitted to English rule.

The former “Spanish Negroes” led by Juan de Serras continued to evade capture by the English and became outlaws with a price on their heads. They were known to launch attacks at night and set fire to cultivated fields, steal livestock and kidnap women. In the 1670s, some died out, and others fled to Cuba. Others joined with African survivors of a shipwreck on the easternmost part of the island and formed the nucleus of what became known as the Windward Maroons of St. George Parish (now Portland Parish) high in the Blue Mountains of eastern Jamaica. Later these Windward Maroons, augmented by large numbers of other escaped slaves, would be led by Captain Quao, and, of course, there was “Queen” Nanny.

I can find no credible evidence that Nanny was ever actually a chief or a leader in battle, but she was definitely an inspiration, and her influence was considerable. Her power seemed to stem from her being an Obeah (Obi) priestess. Some say she was a shipwreck survivor, while others contend that she had escaped from a plantation. Take your pick. What seems certain, though, is that she stiffened and focussed the resistance of the Windward Maroons culturally, politically and militarily.

The other main group became known as the Leeward Maroons (aka Trelawny Town Maroons). In Spanish times, they were led by Naquan and later by his sons Captain Cudjoe (alias Kojo) and his brothers from their base in the northwest. We’ll hear more about these later.

Many Maroons were descendants of warlike African peoples, especially the Ashanti. Other African warriors of the Akim, Fante, Mandingo and Angola people were also among them. The English used “Coromanti” or “Kromanti” or other similar words to identify these early Jamaicans. Originally they used the term to refer only to Ashanti individuals, but over time the term became a catchall for any African from modern-day Ghana in West Africa. Contrary to common belief, the word was never the name of an African tribe but derived from an African fort, Fort Cormantin, situated in Kormantin, Ghana. The fort was built by the English between 1638 and 1645 to house slaves that were to be transported to the Americas, but was captured by the Dutch in 1665 and renamed Fort Amsterdam. A language in Jamaica is known as “Kromanti,” which some say is similar in sound to the Akan languages of Ghana. It is distinct from Jamaican Creole but similar to the creole of Suriname. Kromanti was a language of everyday communication amongst the Maroons and others in remote communities until early in the 20th century.  However, it is used almost exclusively as a religious and ceremonial language by Maroons in places like Moore Town in eastern Jamaica. Some older residents also know the language and may use it at times.

The Akan people of Ghana (Ashanti, for example) frequently name their children after the day of the week on which they were born. The following day names have been recorded: Monday, Cudjoe; Tuesday, Cubbenah; Wednesday, Quaco; Thursday, Quao; Friday, Cuffee; Saturday, Quamin; Sunday, Quashee. These names often occur among Jamaicans of earlier times.

It may be helpful to understand why, at least in part, so many Ashanti were sent to Jamaica. The Fante people of Ghana supported the British against the Dutch, who were aligned with the Ashanti, traditional enemies of the Fante. So, to please their Fante allies, the British sent Ashanti prisoners taken in battle to British America and the West Indies as slaves, and Jamaica seemed to get a lot of them.

Maroon communities included skilled in woodcraft, experts at camouflage and those who were trained as warriors. They avoided open fights against the English army and local militia. Instead, they perfected the art of ambush. In 1663, the English offered the Maroons land and freedom if they surrendered to authorities. Maroons ignored the offer, however, and continued to wage a series of expensive and vexatious guerrilla campaigns against the British.

In 1690, slaves in northern Clarendon Parish in central Jamaica rebelled and escaped to nearby forests. They were mainly from among the Akan people of Ghana, probably Ashanti, and included former warriors. Some of the new runaways formed settlements in Clarendon while others joined with Maroons of the Cockpit Country, who were under Cudjoe's leadership. According to oral tradition, Cudjoe’s father, Naquan, was a chief in his Ghana homeland before being captured in the 1640s and sold into slavery in Spanish Jamaica. Soon after, Naquan instigated a revolt and led his tribesmen into the mountainous interior later called the Cockpit Country.

Maroons in Nanny Town | H. H. Johnson c. 1908 (Royal Geographical Society)

The Clarendon rebellion and ensuing hostilities led directly to war in 1729. We know this as the First Maroon War. Leading the Maroons from their western bases were Captain Cudjoe and his brothers, Accompong and Johnny. The Windward Maroons in the east were led by Quao and Cuffee and supported by Nanny. After suffering several early setbacks, the tide began to turn in favour of the British.

Employing Mosquito Coast Indians from Central America, tracking dogs and companies of freed Africans, the British wore down the Maroons. They captured and razed Nanny Town—the home of Nanny and one of the Windward Maroons' main strongholds—and they systematically destroyed the Maroons’ provision grounds. Finally, after decades of hostilities, the British sought out the old but undefeated warrior, Cudjoe, and concluded a peace treaty in March 1739. Three months later, Quao signed a similar treaty on behalf of the Blue Mountains' Windward Maroons.

A British image of a peace treaty being enforced between the Maroons and the British in 1739 after the Maroons fought the British to a standstill. Here, Colonel John Guthrie, a Jamaican plantation owner, meets Cudjoe, the leader of the Jamaican Maroons.

Thus ended, at least for a while, hostilities between the Maroons and the colonists that had been ongoing since 1655. Slave rebellions, however, continued unabated, except now the slaves would not be helped or so easily welcomed into Maroon communities. By terms of the 1739 treaties, Maroons maintained self-government and freedom in allotted areas in Trelawny Town and other settlements in the Cockpit Country and the Blue Mountains. In return, the Maroons could no longer accept runaway slaves. Instead, they had to help recapture them for a reward. Maroons were also obligated to help authorities suppress local uprisings and foreign invasions. In essence, they became bounty hunters and militiamen.

We’ll pause here and continue to Part II in our next essay.