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date: 22 February 2024

Runaway Slave Colonies in the Atlantic Worldfree

Runaway Slave Colonies in the Atlantic Worldfree

  • Tim LockleyTim LockleySchool of Comparative American Studies, University of Warwick


Communities of runaway slaves, more commonly known as “Maroon communities,” were created throughout the Americas. Enslaved people ran away from their owners all the time, often just for a few days, but some decided never to return to slavery and instead found permanent (or semi-permanent) refuge from the harsh life on the plantations in swamps, jungles, forests, and mountains. Sometimes in very small groups of less than ten people, but more usually in much larger numbers, maroon communities attempted to live independently, free from white interference. White responses to maroon communities varied over time and included military assaults and peace treaties.


  • History of the Caribbean
  • 1492–1824
  • 1824–c. 1880
  • Afro-Latin History
  • Slavery and Abolition

The word “maroon” is an English corruption of the Spanish word “cimarron” meaning “wild, not tame” and was originally applied to livestock that that had escaped from a farm to run free in the woods.1 Because Native American, and later imported African, slaves were another form of personal property that also fled from plantations in Spanish colonies to remote mountainous areas, they too earned the label “cimarron.” When Sir Francis Drake traveled through Panama in 1572 he encountered people he termed “Symerons (a blacke people, which about eightie yeeres past, fled from the Spaniards their Masters, by reason of their crueltie, and since grown into an nation, under two Kings of their owne … ).”2

Maroon communities arose wherever slavery took hold in the Americas. As early as the 1540s sizeable groups of several hundred runaway slaves had formed their own communities away from Spanish colonists in Mexico, Cuba, and Santo Domingo. By the 17th century, as slavery increased its stranglehold among the societies of the New World, maroon communities emerged on the mainland of South and Central America in Brazil and Columbia, and on some of the smaller Caribbean islands. The 18th century saw marronage spread to North America and reach its greatest extent in Jamaica, Surinam, and Brazil with large and well-organized groups of maroons able to defend their independence by military means against the attempts of European colonizers to defeat them.

The Formation of a Maroon Community

Marronage was, quite simply, caused by slavery. Enslaved people fled from harsh living conditions, back-breaking labor, and brutal punishments. Maroons existed throughout the Americas but it is not surprising that the two locations where they flourished, Jamaica and Surinam, were noted for their particularly repressive regimes. Routine beatings and punishments were more than enough to trigger flight, but sometimes slaves fled because they had already resisted their enslavement with violence and they knew the likely consequences. When a group of Jamaican slaves killed their master and twelve other whites “before a party strong enough could be made upp to attack them they … retired to the mountains and secured themselves in difficult places … from when they were never dislodged.”3 It is important to distinguish between the vast majority of slave runaways and maroons. Although runaways formed maroon communities, far more slaves fled from bondage than ever became maroons, and the transition from runaway to maroon involved several stages. Many runaway slaves only left their plantations for a short period of time, and were either caught or returned voluntarily after a few days or weeks. Not all slaves possessed the skills to fend for themselves in the woods or swamps, and once hunger became paramount in the mind of the runaway, returning to the plantation to face punishment was, for some, preferable to starvation. Slaveholders sometimes advertised their willingness to “forgive” runaway slaves who returned to their labors of their own accord, and temporary absence lasting a few days became a common way for enslaved laborers to express their discontent. Maroons, on the other hand, had no intention of returning to slavery. They set out to form independent communities that were self-sufficient and that could exist outside of the systems of government created by Europeans in the Americas. The historian Sylviane Diouf makes a further distinction between what she terms “borderland” and “hinterland” maroons.4 The former resided in the forests and swamps between plantations, the liminal spaces that planters legally owned but actually never cultivated. These spaces were often close to the slave villages and most slaves were familiar with them. Borderland Maroons had comparatively easy access to support from plantation supplies and tried to maintain links with family and friends. It also, however, made them easier to recapture. Hinterland maroons went further from their place of enslavement, deeper into uninhabited swamps, woods, and mountains, where they hoped to carve out lives for themselves as a group. The distinction is a useful one, and helps us to distinguish between those who sought to separate themselves entirely from the world of enslavement, and those who continued to interact with it on a regular basis.

The Great Dismal Swamp on the border between Virginia and North Carolina is a good example of a hinterland refuge that acted as a particularly strong magnet for runaway slaves.

Figure 1. Osman, portrait of an escaped slave in the North Carolina part of the Great Dismal Swamp. Published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1856.

This large and otherwise deserted swamp was relatively close to the plantation regions of Virginia and therefore it was comparatively easy for slaves to disappear into its dense forests. William Byrd came across “a family of mullatoes” in the swamp when surveying the border between the two colonies in 1728, commenting “It is certain many slaves shelter themselves in this obscure part of the world, nor will any of their righteous neighbours discover them.”5 The German Johann Schoepf, traveling through North Carolina in 1783, reported that in the Great Dismal Swamp “small spots are to be found here and there which are always dry, and these have often been used as places of safety by runaway slaves … these Negro fugitives lived in security and plenty, building themselves cabins, planting corn, raising hogs and fowls which they stole from their neighbours, and naturally the hunting was free where they were.”6 John Smyth, visiting the same region the following year, agreed that “Run-away Negroes have resided in these places for twelve, twenty, or thirty years and upwards, subsisting themselves in the swamp upon corn, hogs, and fowls, that they raised on some of the spots not perpetually under water, nor subject to be flooded, as forty-nine parts of fifty of it are; and on such spots they have erected habitations, and cleared small fields around them; yet these have always been perfectly impenetrable to any of the inhabitants of the country around, even to those nearest to and best acquainted with the swamps.” Consequently, runaways “in these horrible swamps are perfectly safe, and with the greatest facility elude the most diligent of their pursuers.”7

The number of maroons in the Great Dismal Swamp can only be guessed at, though some historians have suggested that it may have been home to several hundred, maybe even more than a thousand, escaped slaves. Certainly maroons resided in the swamp throughout the antebellum era. One former resident of the swamp recalled that “Dar is families growed up in dat ar Dismal Swamp dat never seed a white man, an' would be skeered most to def to see one. Some runaways went dere wid dar wives, an' dar childers are raised dar.” Porte Crayon encountered one such maroon in 1856 observing that “every movement betrayed a life of habitual caution and watchfulness.” The relatively small size of the swamp, about 200–300 square miles, did not afford the same opportunities for maroon community formation as the Amazonian forests of South America, or the mountains of Jamaica. Whites may not have populated the swamp itself, but they surrounded it, and there was little chance for maroons within the swamp to expand the territory under their control.8

Maroons often located their settlements between two different jurisdictions. A good example is Le Maniel, on the border of French Saint Domingue and Spanish San Domingo. The Spanish tolerated the presence of this group on the border of their territory, and even traded with them, because their mere existence was a check on any possible designs the French might have had to the entire island of Hispaniola. When the French periodically launched military strikes against Le Maniel, the maroons simply slipped across the border into Spanish territory during the raid, returning once the French troops had left. 9 Surinam maroons were also able to escape attacks from Dutch forces by crossing into French and British Guiana. Even within a country borders were important: the Great Dismal Swamp straddled the North Carolina and Virginia border and maroon refuges in the Savannah River were split between South Carolina and Georgia. Jurisdictional confusion certainly aided the maroons, since no one was willing to go to the expense and effort of attacking a maroon community if real responsibility actually lay with someone else.

Sometimes it suited the geopolitical ambitions of whites to support maroons against their neighbors. With the Spanish population of Florida never amounting to more than a few thousand, and with few slaves of their own, the Spanish authorities in Florida could afford to offer freedom and protection to runaway slaves from South Carolina and later Georgia. Indeed, the Spanish hoped to destabilize British territories by actively encouraging slaves to desert. During King George’s War Spanish authorities permitted runaway slaves to form their own settlement north of St. Augustine called Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose. These maroons fought alongside the Spanish when the British invaded Florida in 1740, and were instrumental in the successful defense of St. Augustine.10 When Spain ceded Florida to Britain in 1763, most of the maroons left for Cuba rather than risk re-enslavement. Similarly, during the War of 1812 British agents on the Apalachicola River actively recruited runaway slaves intending to use them to harass Georgia and South Carolina. The withdrawal of the British after 1815 did not mean the end of the threat that the maroons posed since they were left in possession of a strategically placed fort with large amounts of ammunition but an 1816 expedition by the United States army succeeded in destroying the fort, and killed most of its several hundred defenders.11

Maroon Life

The immediate goal of a maroon community was to find a location where they could live safely. Ideally the location would be comparatively inaccessible requiring a journey of several miles though swamps, dense woodlands, or mountains. This would both avoid accidental discovery by whites but also make it more difficult to mount attacks against the community. The only path to Nanny Town in Jamaica, for instance, was “steep, rocky, and difficult, and not wide enough to admit the passage of two persons abreast.” Maroons in southeast Cuba secreted themselves in “places that were almost impassable.” 12 Once the location was selected then houses were constructed using freely available natural resources—mud bricks or split logs for walls, reeds or large leaves for roofs—and it is quite likely that African architectural influences would have predominated. In swampy locations houses would have been constructed on stilts or even in the trees to ensure homes remained dry. In Cuba some dwellings had multiple rooms, affording a degree of comfort, while settlements were sometimes dispersed rather than nuclear to prevent larger communities being overrun quickly.13

Since maroons intended to be at a particular location for a lengthy period, if not permanently, the most pressing need was to secure sufficient food and water. Most maroon communities were located near a source of fresh water, and many relied on hunting game that was plentiful in the woods and swamps (pigeons, racoons, alligators, snakes, turtles), but the larger communities cleared land for planting crops. A large community in Cuba had planted “bananas, taro, sweet potatoes, yucca, yams, sugarcane, tobacco, corn, ginger, greens and fruit trees.”14 It was also common for maroon settlements to have domesticated animals, particularly chickens, pigs, and occasionally cattle.

The very largest maroon communities reached high levels of sophisticated organization. Taking advantage of the competing imperial ambitions of the Dutch and the Portuguese in northeastern Brazil, large numbers of escaped slaves, numbering up to twenty thousand, settled themselves in a fairly remote mountainous region in the early 17th century, forming a community called Palmares. The numerous villages and towns that made up the community were loosely federated under a king to whom all paid taxes to fund a centralized military force to protect the kingdom. It is not without reason that Palmares has been described as an “African Kingdom” in Brazil. The main settlement had several hundred dwellings and a church, reflecting the fact that most Africans brought to Brazil came from Christian Angola, and was extremely well defended. Portuguese authorities could not afford to ignore Palmares, and numerous unsuccessful military expeditions were launched from the coast to destroy it. Invariably the Portuguese came off worst fighting against maroons highly skilled in guerrilla warfare, and it was not until the Portuguese recruited mixed-race frontiersmen from southern Brazil to combat the maroons that serious in-roads were made into Palmares territory. Eventually the main settlement of Palmares was captured and destroyed in 1695 and the king executed.15

Maroon communities were usually organized in a quasi-military structure, testament to their state of permanent military readiness. Leaders were often given military titles, one important Jamaican maroon leader styled himself “Captain Cudjoe,” and lieutenants were given the control of smaller bands to conduct raids or marshal defenses. The fortified towns that were preferred by maroons can be traced back to African warfare and descriptions of maroon military tactics certainly suggest that some had come from a military background in Africa.

Even the most well organized maroon community, however, was unable to supply everything the community wanted. Metal goods, particularly weaponry, were in short supply, as was powder, shot for guns, and finished clothing. For these items maroons often raided plantations, taking domesticated animals while they were there. When a maroon band raided Drayton Hall, just outside Charleston, South Carolina, in 1774, they took away “Candles, Sugar, Rum, Bacon, Soap, Wine, a Bale of Cloth, and sundry other Articles to a very great Amount.”16 Raiders of a plantation in Spanish Louisiana removed “a barrel of rice, a barrel of corn, two guns, and two knives.”17 An alternative method of obtaining materials was trade, either with local enslaved people, or with poorer white people. Brazilian maroons sometimes interacted with the local economy in complex ways, including hiring out their labor to employers willing to turn a blind eye to their status.18 Maroons who undertook this strategy attracted less attention than those who raided plantations and perhaps ultimately made their communities less vulnerable to attack.

Maroon Communities and the Enslaved Population

Maroons came from the enslaved population and many retained family and other ties with those who remained in bondage. For maroons who secreted themselves close to the place where they had been enslaved, the slave community was often a vital source of support. Slaves provided food, clothing, and other necessaries to maroons, and kept them informed as to the intentions of masters. Charles Manigault, owner of the Silk Hope plantation on the Cooper River near Charleston, commented that “no overseer, or Planter should speak on such subjects even before a small house boy, or girl, as they communicate all that they hear to others, who convey it to the spies of the runaways, who are still at home.”19 Indeed, it was rare for maroon settlements to be taken by surprise and far more common for attacking forces to find settlements abandoned because they had been forewarned of an assault.20 To those remaining enslaved we might anticipate that maroons became heroic, perhaps even mythic, figures. The retention and practice of African traditions (particularly religious ones) among maroon communities secured them a privileged position in slave societies with high proportions of Africans. Maroons who struck against planter authority and power were quite possibly fulfilling the secret desires of the oppressed, for while overt resistance could spell summary execution for slaves, maroons had the capacity to fight back. Maroons near Wilmington in 1795 “in the daytime secrete[d] themselves in the swamps and woods [but] at night committed various depredations on the neighbouring plantations.” This maroon group was led by a “chieftain who styled himself The General of the Swamps,” and was surely an inspiration to those enslaved on nearby plantations.21 In another encounter in 1786 two gentlemen “came upon a camp of runaway Negroes” north of Charleston and managed to capture two of them. Within hours the rest of the maroon gang, apparently numbering more than twenty, had successfully ambushed the white men, shooting one of them dead.22

Maroon settlements acted as a magnet for runaway slaves who could flee with a specific destination in mind.23 New fugitives augmented the numbers of maroons and ultimately whites believed that one of the main threats posed by maroon groups was that they encouraged and attracted additional runaways. Maroons, by definition, had successfully remained beyond white control for some time, and planters were well aware that as a result “others are encouraged to follow the same course and those at home become disorderly and insubordinate.”24 Planters north of Charleston described how the success of one runaway in 1822 had resulted in another joining him in 1824 and a further five, parents with three children, “joined the same ring leader” in 1825.25 Larger maroon groups in Latin America and the Caribbean sometimes grew over a number of years as a word of viable refuge filtered back to those remaining enslaved.

Yet the actions of maroons were often detrimental to the enslaved. Maroons took what they wanted or needed from plantations, even though this may have adversely affected the slaves. Food stolen from the plantations meant there was less for everyone who remained, while the kidnapping of black women was especially problematic. One raid on a Jamaican plantation in 1719 netted twenty-six new recruits, eleven of whom were female and one report noted “in all plundering they were industrious in procuring negro women, girls, and female children.”26 Maroons took women because they needed them to ensure the future of their community, but taking them forcibly almost certainly antagonized their fathers, brothers, and husbands. Armed plantation raids by maroons also ran the risk of injury to slaves. The use of buckshot meant that even a well-aimed shot could accidently injure, maim, or even kill a nearby slave, but sometimes lethal violence could be used quite deliberately and having black skin did not always save someone from being a victim of maroon violence. In November 1822 travelers in St. Andrew’s Parish just outside Charleston were being “continually robbed by a gang of armed runaway Negroes.” Among their victims were “several negroes [who] were stopped and money and clothes taken from them and their persons kept in custody ’till after night.”27 Targeting slaves was an obvious avenue whereby maroons could lose the support of the black community that remained enslaved. When maroons near Wilmington, North Carolina, were reported to be “frequently robbing slaves” and “threatening to perpetrate more atrocious crimes” it did not take long before “people of their own color informed against them.” A white posse swiftly captured all of these maroons as a direct result of the information given by slaves.28

In Jamaica, Mexico, and Surinam well-established maroons were supposed to capture and return runaway slaves under peace treaties with whites, which they apparently did relatively diligently. In this sense maroons allied with whites to maintain the oppression of other black people. Another example of the tensions between maroons and the wider black community can be found in Brazil. New arrivals in Palmares who found maroon life not to their liking, and who later attempted to leave, were hunted down and killed by more established maroons fearful that their hideouts might be betrayed.

Maroons and Native Americans

Maroon communities were often adjacent to, and even impinged on, the territories of Native Americans. Sometimes whites managed to engage with Native Americans to attack maroons, or at least return those who wandered into their territory, but more often Native Americans would join with the maroons. In Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America maroon communities were often biracial, in effect merging Native American and African cultures. Up to one-fifth of the population of Palmares have been estimated to be Amerindians.29 Native Americans, sometimes enslaved themselves and suffering steep population decline due to the introduction of European diseases, found natural allies in escaped Africans: both had a common enemy in European colonists. Indigenous Mexicans, imported by the Spanish into Cuba, regularly formed biracial maroon communities.30 Native Americans remaining under Spanish rule, however, were not granted immunity from maroon attacks simply because of their ethnicity.31 In North America this alliance was most prominent in Florida, where maroons formed a separate but very important part of the Seminole tribe. Most maroons lived in their own villages, under their own government, and paid a form of tribute to Seminole chiefs in return for nominal protection. The creole heritage of most maroons, which meant that most spoke at least some English, and perhaps shared a common belief system based loosely on Christianity, set them apart from the Seminoles who generally remained unacculturated. Maroons sometimes acted as translators and intermediaries between Seminole chiefs and white authorities, but they also took the lead in organizing military matters knowing that military defeat would result in re-enslavement. Some historians have even termed the Seminole Wars as the greatest slave revolts in North American history.32

Maroons and Conflict with the White Community

For white planters, masters, militias, and governments, maroon communities posed a particular problem. Masters certainly did not want to lose valuable property to marronage, but the rewards of recapturing maroons had to be weighed against significant effort and risks. Maroon settlements were located in remote and deliberately inaccessible areas. Days spent hunting maroons were days lost from managing the plantation which might mean that remaining slaves were able to damage crops, and therefore profits, either through willful vandalism or, perhaps more likely, through simple inaction while unsupervised. Some slaves might even take advantage of the absence of the master to flee themselves. The swamps, woods, and mountains where maroons resided were formidable environments full of dangerous fauna that preyed on the unwary. It is doubtful that many whites ventured anywhere near these locales, except when they absolutely had to, and these zones in effect became spaces which were traversed and occupied only by Africans and African Americans.

Some masters might, therefore, have been tempted to turn a blind eye to the activities of maroons, particularly if the maroons did not cause too much trouble by raiding plantations. When maroons became more audacious and the losses of food, livestock, and additional escapees became too serious to ignore, then white authorities were forced to act. Jamaican maroons deliberately pursued what whites termed a “dastardly method” whereby they infiltrated plantations under the cover of darkness “set fire to the cane fields and out-houses, killed all the cattle they could find, and carried the slaves into captivity.”33 When such events occurred local planters put pressure on governments to mount military campaigns against maroons to hunt out their refuges and destroy them. Doing this was not easy. Military units took time to organize and equip, and were sometimes ill-prepared, particularly in British territories, for the type of jungle guerrilla warfare that was necessary to track and defeat maroons. In Jamaica the bright red uniforms worn by British regulars were an easy target for maroons who laid false trails where they might ambush those sent to attack them. At least some maroons were armed with guns, though they often lacked significant quantities of powder and shot, and the best-organized communities operated a complex system of sentries, false trails, and defensive positions, that made any frontal assault extremely perilous. In Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean specialist hunting parties with dogs were sometimes formed to send against maroons ahead of regular army units.34

Maroons attacked by white soldiers had two options, fight or flight. Flight was a popular choice, particularly where maroons were outnumbered and outgunned. They knew their immediate environment far better than whites did, and scattering made it far harder for whites to follow. One group might be pursued and caught but others would escape and be able to regroup. New settlements could be constructed quickly: soldiers who oversaw the destruction of one maroon village near Savannah in October 1786 found an even larger settlement had been constructed just six months later a few miles further into the swamps.

Fighting was an option when the maroons outnumbered the attackers, but most often occurred when the maroons were either surprised, or when they had no choice. A military response could also buy vital time for the escape of women and children since if nothing else it gave the attackers pause for thought. Many whites grudgingly recorded their respect for maroon bravery, reporting that one maroon group just north of Mobile “fought like Spartans, not one gave an inch of ground, but stood and was shot dead or wounded, and fell on the spot.”35 One Spanish militia captain in Cuba reported that “three divisions were coming to attack me to the sound of drum beats and that there was loud shouting and singing with drums inside the settlement which showed there must be around 200 of them, not counting the three divisions already mentioned, so I gave instructions for a retreat, since the men asked me to.”36 But, in general, maroons rarely came off best in pitched battles. Whites were better organized, better disciplined, and usually had more sophisticated weaponry, including small cannons that could fire grapeshot to hit several maroons in one go. Maroons knew they were fundamentally at a military disadvantage and therefore tried hard to avoid open warfare. Guerilla tactics were far more effective in maintaining the fearsome reputation of maroons who appeared as if from nowhere, and melted back into the jungle or forest at will.

In an attempt to counter the advantage of local knowledge of terrain held by the maroons, some white authorities turned to Native Americans for assistance. The lieutenant governor of South Carolina reported in 1765: “As I had received accounts that one hundred and seven Negroes had left their Plantations soon after the intended Insurrection had been discovered, and joined a large Number of runaways in Colleton County, which might encrease to a formidable Body, I thought it very advisable to call down some of the Catawbas, as Indians strike terrour into the Negroes, and the Indians manner of hunting render them more sagacious in tracking and expert in finding out the hidden recesses, where the runaways conceal themselves from the usual searches of the English, and also that the Negroes may see that Indians are easily to be brought down upon them” 37 British authorities in Jamaica even imported Mosquito Indians from Central America to use against maroons.

Maroons who proved most troublesome to whites faced repeated attacks from militia forces. Between 1654 and 1678 Portuguese forces in Brazil launched no less than twenty separate expeditions against Palmares, with the result that the community existed on a “constant war-footing.”38 The San Malo band posed a particular threat to the peace and security of planters near Spanish New Orleans in the early 1780s since unlike many other maroon groups in the Americas, this group did not try to safeguard their independence by fortifying a remote hideout far from white settlements. Instead, this itinerant group frequently attacked plantations, stealing what they wanted and killing indiscriminately. They also managed to strike up a symbiotic relationship with plantation slaves who fed and sheltered the maroons in return for help with some of their normal tasks. Facing widespread panic among their colonists, Spanish authorities eventually launched a major military expedition against the San Malo band and succeeded in capturing and executing the leading maroons.39 Successful assaults on maroon strongholds were more significant for the destruction of homes, crops, and supplies than for the numbers of maroons killed or captured. Indeed, often these military expeditions returned home with the majority of the maroons having fled in all directions further into the swamps or mountains. But life was considerably more difficult afterward. Crops that might have been months in cultivation and other supplies that sustained maroon communities were lost, forcing maroons to raid more plantations. After destroying one maroon camp the military commander commented ruefully “they are in fact much more troublesome to the citizens than when we routed them. Having lost their amazing magazine of provisions, they had in possession, at the time we took their camp. They are compelled to maraud, for their daily subsistence.”40

On occasion maroons took the battle to the planters. Jamaican maroons regularly singled out specific planters who had either treated their slaves particularly badly, or been heavily involved in reprisals against maroons while other planters were left completely alone. A maroon group in North Carolina successfully deterred planters from joining patrols by singling them out for revenge attacks. A petition to the North Carolina General Assembly urging a reform of the patrol law lamented that “patrols are of no use on Account of the danger they Subject themselves to and their property. Not long since three patrols two of which for Executing their duty had their dwelling and Out houses burnt down, the Other his fodder stacks all burnt.” It took considerable determination, and an investment of both time and substantial amounts of money, for whites to completely destroy a maroon community.

Peace Treaties

Given the difficulty of permanently eradicating maroon communities once they had become established, Spanish colonial authorities were the first to try a different approach. In 1609, having tried and failed to destroy one particularly large maroon band near Vera Cruz that had existed since the 1570s, Mexican authorities came to an agreement with a maroon leader named Yanga, acknowledging the free status of the maroons under his command and permitting them to live undisturbed in their own town. In return, Yanga promised that his people would help to capture and return other runaways that might flee to them. This evolution of Spanish policy toward maroon communities was copied in other parts of Spanish America. In Cuba, Colombia, and elsewhere in Mexico, for instance, early maroon communities were invariably attacked in an attempt to destroy them before they could become well-established. If those assaults failed (and while some were successful many were not), then gradually local authorities came to some sort of formal accommodation with the maroons, recognizing their de-facto freedom in return for military help against enemies or for promises of help in the capture of other runaway slaves. Where both sides observed the agreement, then it was possible for the maroon community to either become gradually assimilated into the wider population through trade and other forms of social interaction, or to maintain its isolation and distance and thereby minimize any impact its existence might have had on white society.

Treaties, however, could be broken by either side leading to renewed hostilities. Some maroons were lax in their pursuit of runaways, and even accepted fugitives into their community to boost their own numbers, while other maroons continued to raid plantations for supplies. Furthermore, some maroon communities found that their initial isolation from European settlements disappeared as settlements expanded. The encroachment of new settlers onto what maroons thought was their land often triggered reprisals and subsequent military campaigns in order to protect whites. Maroon communities, some of which had endured for many decades, were sometimes destroyed when they came into conflict with expanding colonial settlements and only a small number of maroon communities in the remotest areas lasted until the end of slavery.

Two additional regions where maroons were at their most powerful—in Jamaica and Surinam—also saw colonial authorities forced to come to terms. In Jamaica, slaves took advantage of the initial English invasion of the island in 1655 to flee from their Spanish masters, and for much of the next century maroons were a thorn in the side of planters and colonial officials.

Figure 2. Trelawny Town, chief residence of the Jamaican Maroons.

The number of maroons in Jamaica grew rapidly in the early 18th century, drawn from the thousands of African slaves that were imported by the English for their own plantations. These maroons made themselves secure in the mountainous central parts of the islands from whence they launched raids on remote plantations for supplies of food, metal tools, and women. Attempts by militia units and regular troops to root out the maroons only succeeded in driving them to even more inaccessible parts of the island, and attempts in the 1720s to use Mosquito Indians from Central America as slave catchers also failed.

Jamaican maroons were organized into two main Windward and Leeward groups with little coordination between the two. Each had its own leaders and pursued its own relationship with white society. As raiding by maroons intensified in the 1720s and 1730s, what later became known as the First Maroon War broke out. Ever more strenuous efforts were made to eradicate the maroons as villages and, more importantly, crops were destroyed by troops. Yet military campaigns also cost a great deal of money and lives. British troops were unable to find and locate the largest and most secretive villages in the “cockpit” country of western Jamaica and were regularly ambushed by maroons skilled at guerrilla warfare. Finally, in 1739, British authorities made peace overtures to the leader of the western maroons, Captain Cudjoe, which he readily accepted. In return for peace, the maroons had their freedom acknowledged and land granted for their permanent use (land that would never have been suitable for cash-crop agriculture). They were also given regular access to markets. In return, Cudjoe promised to return any new runaways who fled to his settlements. A similar agreement followed with the eastern band of maroons shortly afterwards.41

By all accounts these treaties were crucial for the future economic growth of the island. Whites praised the zeal of their newfound allies in returning runaways, and the slave system matured and grew into a vastly profitable one for white planters, while the maroons were left in peace to develop and grow as separate communities. Only once did this relationship break down when violence flared between one group of maroons and white authorities in the 1790s. This was by no means a general uprising by all the Jamaican maroons but fearful of the influence of the ongoing revolution in Haiti, the government of Jamaica deported these maroons to Nova Scotia in 1796 and subsequently, in 1800, to Sierra Leone.

Dutch authorities in Surinam followed the example of Jamaica. Of the three European powers that established colonies in the Guianas (Britain, Holland, and France), it was the Dutch colony of Surinam that prospered most during the 18th century. The massive importation of slaves to grow sugar, coffee, and later cotton, encouraged the emergence of a fully developed, and highly repressive, slave society. The concentration of plantations near the coast meant that runaway slaves found a ready safe haven in the dense jungles of the interior. From the mid-17th to the mid-18th century, thousands of enslaved people fled one of the most brutal slave regimes in the Americas. The settlements formed by these maroons were normally grouped around one of the numerous rivers that ran from the south of the country to the northern coast and gradually became grouped into a smaller number of “tribes” of what the Dutch authorities termed “bush negroes.”42

Concerned about the example these “tribes” set to slaves remaining on the plantations, and the tempting alternative to slavery they effectively offered, Dutch authorities tried their best to destroy them. Numerous expeditions of local militia units and regular troops from Holland were dispatched against the various “tribes” but they invariably suffered enormous casualties, as much from disease and malnutrition as from battles with the maroons. Major maroon settlements were not only inaccessible, they were also well defended with traps. Accepting that they would never completely destroy the maroons—one governor likened them to a Hydra, no matter how many were killed, more fresh runaways always replaced them—the decision was taken to make peace. Treaties were agreed with the major tribes from the 1760s onward, confirming their freedom in return for promises to aid in the capture of new runaways. Several planters believed that these treaties were a sign of weakness, yet the Dutch aim was to prevent further challenges to the slave system, and in this they largely succeeded. The tribes of “bush negroes” effectively lived in a world that was isolated from that of whites and retained a strong African culture that persists to this day. Unlike some other maroon bands in the Americas the “bush negroes” of Surinam had the good fortune to remain away from plantation areas and so avoid the assimilation that was common for maroons in Spanish territories.

Portuguese attitudes toward maroon communities differed to those in Spanish, French, Dutch, and British colonies, as Portuguese leaders in Brazil rarely made treaties with maroon groups. Despite the existence of Palmares, perhaps the largest and most enduring maroon community anywhere in the Americas, Portuguese policy evolved into one of ignoring maroon communities that were remote and not affecting plantations and destroying those that made a nuisance of themselves. Treaties, in the eyes of the Portuguese authorities, only gave encouragement to other slaves to flee bondage in the hope that they too would have their freedom acknowledged. U.S. authorities in North America came to a similar conclusion.


For escaped slaves to form a successful maroon community in the Americas, it seems that they needed to fulfill certain criteria. Firstly, slaves needed to live in relatively close proximity to areas such as swamps, forests, jungles, and mountains that were simultaneously inaccessible to regular troops. Secondly, the maroon settlement needed to be readily defensible by a small number of armed men, with limited entrances and disguised pathways to prevent accidental discovery. Thirdly, the maroons needed to be sufficiently numerous to sustain themselves either through natural reproduction or through raiding. Fourthly, they needed to have somewhere to grow food, since even in the jungle there was not enough to live on by hunting alone. Fifthly, they needed to have at least some access to plantation society for trading purposes, particularly for weapons. Finally, they needed to come to some sort of accommodation with white society, either through a peace treaty or by separating themselves so completely that they posed no serious threat to colonial regimes. The longest lasting of the maroon communities fulfilled these criteria, and managed to maintain a separate and unique identity that has lasted to the present day in Jamaica, Surinam, and Colombia. The village of Palenque de San Basilio, south of Cartagena in Colombia, has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The study of maroon communities therefore deeply enriches our understanding of slave societies in the Americas. Maroons often retained African religious and cultural practices, acting as guardians of ancestral knowledge and heritage, while also functioning as beacons of resistance to enslavement.

Discussion of the Literature

The leader in the field of maroon studies is undoubtedly the American anthropologist Richard Price. His pioneering work among the maroon communities of southern Surinam helped to reshape the field from the early 1970s onward. His numerous articles, books, and edited collections linked the history of marronage in the 18th century to modern-day communities in the Americas directly descended from maroons. The template set for Surinam was followed by those working on Jamaica, and later Brazil, and by the mid-1970s historians were working on marronage throughout Central and South America. It wasn’t until the 1990s that serious scholarship began to be paid to North America, firstly focusing on Florida, but later on South Carolina and elsewhere. Recent studies of marronage in Cuba by Barcia and Corzo have focused on the agency of maroons, how they took control of their environments, for instance, and provide important insights into maroon life. Given the nature of the source materials there is undoubtedly more work that can be done on maroons, particularly making use of archaeological information as it comes to light.

Primary Sources

There are no obvious large collections of materials specifically dedicated to the study of maroons. Primary source materials used by academics include personal plantation papers, diaries, newspapers, court records, and legislative records. These materials are scattered and fragmented in a large number of archives and while some have been gathered together and printed the majority have not. The best places to start are often the state archives of Britain (the National Archives); France (Archives Nationales), Spain (Archivo de Indias), and Holland (Nationaal Archief) because colonial authorities were usually required to report back to their homelands on colonial affairs. Important national archives in the Americas include those of Mexico (Mexico City), Colombia (Bogota), Brazil (Rio de Janiero), and Cuba (Havana). Smaller state or regional archives are also worth considering. The diaries and journals kept by those hunting maroons in Cuba have proved particularly fruitful as sources. Maroon studies have been particularly difficult in the United States because maroon communities were smaller, and more fleeting, than those in Jamaica and Surinam. The existence of successor communities in those latter two nations means that more research materials exist, including anthropological studies.

Links to Digital Materials

Images of Slavery, The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in America, University of Virginia

Jamaican Maroons, Slave Resistance: A Caribbean Study, University of Miami

Further Reading

  • Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts. New York: Columbia University Press, 1943.
  • Barcia, Manuel. Seeds of Insurrection. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008.
  • Bilby, Kenneth. True Born Maroons. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005.
  • Campbell, Mavis C. The Maroons of Jamaica, 1655–1796: A History of Resistance, Collaboration, and Betrayal. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1990.
  • Corzo, Gabino La Rosa. Runaway Slave Settlements in Cuba: Resistance and Repression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
  • Diouf, Sylviane A. Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons. New York and London: New York University Press, 2014.
  • Franklin, John Hope, and Loren Schweninger. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Gomes, Flávio dos Santos. De olho em Zumbi dos Palmares: Histórias, símbolos e memória social. Sao Paulo: Claro Enigma, 2012.
  • Heuman, Gad, ed. Out of the House of Bondage: Runways, Resistance and Marronage in Africa and the New World. London: Frank Cass, 1986.
  • Lockley, Tim. Maroon Communities in South Carolina: A Documentary Record. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009.
  • Mulroy, Kevin. Freedom on the Border: The Seminole Maroons in Florida, the Indian Territory, Coahuila and Texas. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1993.
  • Price, Richard. The Guiana Maroons: A Historical and Bibliographical Introduction. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.
  • Price, Richard, ed. Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas. 2d ed. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.


  • 1. This definition comes from Hipólito San Joseph Giral del Pino, A dictionary, Spanish and English, and English and Spanish (London: A. Millar, J. Nourse, and P. Vaillant, 1763).

  • 2. Philip Nicols, Sir Francis Drake Revived (London: William Stansby, 1628), 7.

  • 3. Barbara Klamon Kopytoff, “The Early Political Development of Jamaican Maroons,” William and Mary Quarterly 35.2 (1978), 292.

  • 4. Sylviane A. Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons (New York and London: New York University Press, 2014).

  • 5. William Byrd, Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina (New York: Dover Publications, 1967), 56.

  • 6. Johann David Schoepf, Travels in the Confederation, 1783–84 (Philadelphia: Wm J. Campbell, 1911), 99–100.

  • 7. John Ferdinand Smyth, A Tour of the United States of America: Containing an Account of the Present Situation of that Country (Dublin: G. Perrin, 1784), 65.

  • 8. John R. McKivigan, ed., The Roving Editor, or Talks with Slaves in the Southern States, by James Redpath (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), 275; Porte Crayon cited in Bland Simpson, The Great Dismal: A Carolinian’s Swamp Memoir (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 73, 76.

  • 9. Gabriel Debein, “Marronage in the French Caribbean,” and Yvan Debbasch, “Le Maniel: Further Notes,” both in Richard Price, ed., Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas (2d ed., Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979).

  • 10. Jane Landers, “Spanish Sanctuary: Fugitives in Florida, 1687–1790,” Florida Historical Quarterly 62 (1984), 296–313;Landers, “Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose: A Free Black Town in Spanish Colonial Florida,” American Historical Review 95.1 (February 1990), 9–30.

  • 11. Nathaniel Millett, The Maroons of Prospect Bluff and Their Quest for Freedom in the Atlantic World (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013).

  • 12. The proceedings of the governor and Assembly of Jamaica, in regard to the maroon negroes (London, 1796), vi; Gabino La Rosa Corzo, Runaway Slave Settlements in Cuba: Resistance and Repression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 101.

  • 13. Corzo, Runaway Slave Settlements in Cuba, 130.

  • 14. Ibid, 182.

  • 15. R.K. Kent, “Palmares: An African State in Brazil,” in Price, ed., Maroon Societies.

  • 16. South Carolina & American General Gazette, May 6, 1774.

  • 17. Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles, 158.

  • 18. Joao Jose Reis and Flavio dos Santos Gomes, “Quilombo: Brazilian Maroons during slavery” Cultural Survival Quarterly 25.4 (Winter 2001)

  • 19. James M. Clifton, ed., Life and Labor on Argyle Island (Savannah, GA: Beehive, 1978), 313.

  • 20. Corzo, Runaway Slave Settlements in Cuba, 104, 137.

  • 21. Marvin L. Michael Kay and Lorin Lee Cary, Slavery in North Carolina, 1748–1775 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 99; Petition of Thomas Lucas, November 25, 1788, North Carolina General Assembly, Session Records, North Carolina State Archives; Wilmington City Gazette, July 18, 1795.

  • 22. Columbian Herald, May 18, 1786; Charleston Morning Post, June 15, 1786.

  • 23. Charleston Mercury, December 24, 1824.

  • 24. South Carolina General Assembly Petition 1829, No. 090. South Carolina Archives.

  • 25. Ibid.

  • 26. Kopytoff, “Early Political Development,” 294, 301.

  • 27. City Gazette, November 2, 1822. Baltimore Patriot, November 19, 1822.

  • 28. Raleigh Register, October 28, 1828.

  • 29. Robert Nelson Anderson “The Quilombo of Palmares: A New Overview of a Maroon State in Seventeenth-Century Brazil,” Journal of Latin American Studies 28.3 (1996), 559; Pedro Paulo A. Funari, “Conflict and the Interpretation of Palmares, a Brazilian Runaway Polity,” Historical Archaeology 37.3 (2003), 84.

  • 30. Corzo, Runaway Slave Settlements in Cuba, 88–89.

  • 31. Charles Beatty Medina,“Caught between Rivals: The Spanish-African Maroon Competition for Captive Indian Labor in the Region of Esmeraldas during the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries,” The Americas 63.1 (July 2006), 113–136.

  • 32. Larry Eugene Rivers, Rebels and Runaways: Slave Resistance in Nineteenth-Century Florida (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012).

  • 33. The proceedings of the governor and Assembly of Jamaica, viii.

  • 34. The diaries of several slave hunters are discussed in Corzo, Runaway Slave Settlements in Cuba.

  • 35. New York Spectator, July 17, 1827; Vermont Chronicle, July 20, 1827.

  • 36. Corzo, Runaway Slave Settlements in Cuba, 107.

  • 37. South Carolina Commons House of Assembly Journal, UK National Archives, CO 5/488, 2–4

  • 38. Anderson, “The Quilombo of Palmares,” 552, 555.

  • 39. Gilbert C. Din, “Cimarrones and the San Malo Band in Spanish Louisiana,” Louisiana History 21 (Summer 1980): 232–262.

  • 40. Joseph Vallence Bevan Papers, Georgia Historical Society, Folder 10 Item 87.

  • 41. Mavis C. Campbell, “Marronage in Jamaica: Its Origin in the Seventeenth Century,” in Vera Rubin and Arthur Tuden eds., Comparative Perspectives on Slaves in New World Plantation Societies (New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1977), 389–419; Orlando Patterson, “Slavery & Slave Revolts: A Sociohistorical Analysis of the First Maroon War 1665–1740,” in Price, ed., Maroon Societies.

  • 42. Richard Price, The Guiana Maroons: A Historical and Bibliographical Introduction (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976); Wim Hoogbergen, The Boni Maroon Wars in Suriname (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1990); Richard Price, To Slay the Hydra: Dutch Colonial Perspectives on the Saramaka Wars (Ann Arbor, MI: Karoma Publishers, 1983).