Ian Thomson

Redcoats and runaways

Lennox Honychurch sets the record straight on the wild separatists

Much romantic nonsense has been written about the runaway slaves or Maroons of the West Indies. In 1970s Jamaica, during President Michael Manley’s socialist experiment, Maroons were hailed as forerunners of Black Power. Rastafari militants and back-to-Africa ideologues saw a nobility in Maroon descent. The Jamaican black nationalist Marcus Garvey had claimed Maroon ancestry for himself; as has, more recently, the British Jamaican hip-hop singer Ms Dynamite (whose debut album, A Little Deeper, remains a UK drum and bass masterwork).

In Jamaica, at any rate, Maroons fought exclusively for their own liberty, not for the overall liberty of the island’s enslaved Africans. As a condition of their freedom (and in return for land and other privileges), they were obliged to return other fugitive slaves to the imperial British and even help put down slave revolts. The Maroons of Jamaica thus inherited an ambivalent legacy: they are both heroes of, and traitors to, black freedom. Their most famous leader, an African tribeswoman known as Nanny, was said to have been able to fend off British Redcoats by catching bullets in the cleft of her buttocks. (It is more likely that Nanny simply lifted her skirts to moon at the troops — a gesture of extreme contempt signifying ‘batty man’ or homosexual.)

The word ‘Maroon’ probably derives from the Spanish cimarrón, meaning ‘wild’, originally applied to the interior of Hispaniola — present-day Haiti. Maroons have long existed throughout the Caribbean. The mountains and waterfalls of British Dominica provided them with an ideal refuge; in their geographic isolation they were able to conserve a unique subculture of African slave language, music, divination and spirit animism.

According to the Dominica-born historian and anthropologist Lennox Hony-church, the Maroons’ African lore was fortified by exposure to the island’s pre-Columbian Kalinago Amerindian peoples, who had used their knowledge of the volcanic massifs and wild jungle to wage guerrilla sorties on the Spanish, French and British in the 16th and 17th centuries.

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