Revolving Doors of Fugitivity: Marronage and the Military

Free colored soldiers. Source: Luis dos Santos Vilhena, A Bahia no Século XVIII (Editôra Itapuã: Bahia, 1969).
Free colored soldiers. Source: Luis dos Santos Vilhena, A Bahia no Século XVIII (Editôra Itapuã: Bahia, 1969).

In October 1776, the governor of the Brazilian city Salvador da Bahia sent out letters encouraging municipal councils, landowners, captains of neighboring towns, and religious orders to arm all able-bodied men, young boys, and even slaves in the event of a foreign invasion of the colony. Portugal was warring with Spain over the precise boundary between Spanish and Portuguese territories in South America, and governors across Brazil expressed concern at the prospect of Spanish attacks on the colony.1

In and of itself, there is nothing remarkable about this letter 240 years ago. Officials throughout the Atlantic World sent out similar missives and circulars to towns and villages in times of major political turmoil, whether it was during the Seven Years War, the American Revolution, or Latin American and Caribbean Independence Wars. However, in their response to this letter the municipal council of Jaguaripe informed the governor that his request could not be fulfilled. The reason the council gave was simple. It was not that landowners and officials of the town objected to the request, as was sometimes the case. Instead, the council stated that all able-bodied men who could have been called up to serve had either already been sent to Rio de Janeiro to protect the capital of the colony, were too involved in food production that was important to their local communities, or they had fled from the army before recruiters could arrive to their homes to enlist them.

The municipal council of Jaguaripe’s response to the governor of Bahia raises important questions about the relationship between military enlistment and fugitivity. Scholars of Brazil such as Hendrik Kraay have already demonstrated that the Brazilian military of the nineteenth century was a space where some fugitives from slavery could run away to and seek the “shelter of the uniform.” This kind of work has helped us better understand that the contours of marronage in the Americas did not always operate outside of colonial institutions. However, what if we thought about marronage not only from the standpoint of the enslaved, but also the many free people who chose to flee what they regarded as undesirable colonial developments, such as military impressment and enlistment?

Throughout the colonial period, the Spanish and Portuguese empires had to rely on soldiers of color to fill out the ranks of the colonial military. Though officials routinely sought to recruit white men to serve in the ranks, the low pay, corporal punishment, and surveillance that accompanied the life of a soldier deterred most white men from voluntarily enlisting. Yet despite the stigmas associated with military service, for many men of color it was an arena from which they could strive for a more secure and dignified existence. Aside from some pay, however meager, there was also something symbolically important about the uniform. Bedraggled and tattered as they were in the eighteenth century, the uniform still visually distinguished men of African descent from others among the free and freed population.

For these reasons and more, over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the colonial military became a platform not only for free colored soldiers, but for the political expressions and desires of free and freed colored people more generally. And this was not just a Brazilian phenomenon. The increase of free people of color in military positions during the late eighteenth century was also visible in Cuba, Mexico, and Saint Domingue prior to the rebellion and subsequent revolution.2

Letter from the . Courtesy of Biblioteca Nacional of Rio de Janeiro.
Letter from the governor of Salvador da Bahia, 1776. Photo: Biblioteca Nacional of Rio de Janeiro.

However, desertion by free men of color was also a common and recurring problem within eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American militaries, a fact that Jonathan Lande’s piece on black deserters during the Civil War underscores. The same governor of Bahia who suggested that elites arm all able-bodied men, boys, and slaves in the event of a Spanish invasion was also busy throughout late 1776 and beyond writing to the crown about cases of desertion. In December 1776 he wrote no less than three letters to local judges about pending cases of army deserters who had been captured. In January 1777 he wrote to the captain of a local town about “two Henriques [the Henriques was the name of the free colored regiment of the Bahian military] who have been imprisoned for desertion.” In February 1777 a letter detailed the desertion of yet another free colored soldier. Similar letters were written almost monthly until November of that year.3

These cases may have been annoying to colonial officials, but they could still be treated as isolated incidents. There was even protocol for dealing with isolated cases, as offenders would usually serve jail time and then be put to hard labor on public works projects and other tasks. Yet there appears to be no precedent for cases where large groups of able-bodied men chose to escape or flee before enlistment. This lack of precedent must have been vexing to military officers and judges. How could officials enact discipline over an entire town or parish if they could not even catch all of the men who had escaped? As the governor lamented, some of those who had fled before enlistment could possibly be captured and forcibly enlisted. Yet the most capable of them, he went on to say, “will escape again and go into the bushes” (“se refugirão o mais habeis para os matos”).

The language of the governor invites us to think deeper about the meaning of marronage, for the description of people fleeing into “os matos” was usually reserved for discussing fugitive slaves. The very name of the slave-catcher profession in Brazil—capitão do mato (“bush captain”)—further underscores this issue. Fugitives from impressment may not have been maroons according to traditional uses of that term. Yet their acts of fugitivity invite us to think of the military as an important nodal point in landscapes of fugitivity.

In fact, we might envision the military as a revolving door for fugitives: some fugitives penetrated military lines to sneak into the institution, while others deserted their ranks to sneak out. And then there were those whose fugitivity was ignited by the thought of impressment and who preemptively escaped enlistment. In short, the military could be the end point of fugitivity for some, the starting point of fugitivity for others, or merely a temporary safe haven for people attempting to escape from slavery or other onerous social and labor arrangements.

While those who fled in October 1776 may have merely relocated, there was always the option of fleeing into actual runaway settlements, or into communities of wandering itinerant workers or groups of highwaymen. As Laura Premack reminds us, quilombos like Palmares at times included a minority of residents who had never been enslaved or who had come to the settlement as legally free persons seeking alternative settlements to the colonial state. Thus, in the wake of Neil Roberts’s challenge to rethink marronage and maroons as foundational to the development of western theories of freedom, we might ask how the military and experiences with attempted impressment drives can help us better understand marronage as both social practice and political thought.


Greg Childs is Assistant Professor of History at Brandeis University. He is currently completing a book entitled Seditious Spaces, Public Politics: The Tailor’s Conspiracy of Bahia, Brazil and the Politics of Freedom in the Revolutionary Atlantic.

  1. This conflict would eventually result in the current states of Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina being recognized as Portuguese territories, while major areas of present-day Argentina and Uruguay remained under Spanish control.
  2. See, for example, Ben Vinson III, Bearing Arms for His Majesty: The Free-Colored Militia in Colonial Mexico; and Kraay, Race, State, and Armed Forces in Independence-Era Brazil: Bahia, 1790s-1840s (both, Stanford University Press, 2001.)
  3. All cases located in “Cartas do Conde de Resende a Dom Fernando José de Portugal, Governador e capitão General da Bahia, comunicando as providências que tomara para socorer a Bahia na esterilidade por que passava. Rio de Janeiro, 20 de Março de 1796.” Biblioteca Nacional, Rio de Janeiro.

Greg Childs

Greg Childs is Assistant Professor of History at Brandeis University. He is currently completing a book entitled Seditious Spaces, Public Politics: The Tailor’s Conspiracy of Bahia, Brazil and the Politics of Freedom in the Revolutionary Atlantic.

Comments on “Revolving Doors of Fugitivity: Marronage and the Military

  • Thanks for the excellent post; it provides a very useful window on freedom-producing Afro-American strategies of engagement with colonial military structures.

    As indeed is the case with Roberts’ own piece, I’m a little uncertain about the need to classify such instances as “marronage” instead of simple fugitivity. While all Maroons are fugitives, not all fugitives are Maroons (the pithy example being the fictional Richard Kimble, who ran away from a sort of bondage so that he could ultimately rejoin a bourgeois society).

    The eighteenth-century Maroon Wars of Suriname provide a useful example of why it may be valuable to maintain Maroons and non-Maroon fugitives as discrete yet importantly overlapping categories of investigation. Among the best sources for which is J. G. Stedman’s “Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition, Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam”.

    The colonial state, growing its military and unable to rely on largely inept and illness-prone European units to win unaided victories against Maroons in the interior, allowed slaves to join the effort, with the promise of post-campaign emancipation. While some slaves joined only in order to get close enough to join the runaways, others did so earnestly.

    The campaign was vicious, with Maroons targetting black troops, regarding them as more morally culpable for the campaign than their hapless white officers who would have been unable to navigate and fight in the forest without aid. The black troops, called “red caps”, were better-armed than the Maroons, who nonetheless maintained strategic advantage. Stedman writes of one night, one of the few instances where the violence was merely rhetorical, when Maroon and Red Cap camps were in hearing distance of each other: the Red Caps derided the Maroons as lacking the work ethic needed to thrive in plantation society, while the Maroons called Red Caps servile.

    At the end of the war, both were free: the Maroons far in the hinterland, in defiance of the racist colonial state, and the Red Caps closer to coastal plantation society, with the grudging endorsement of it.

    Now, it is possible to reconcile both as having been “types” of Maroons by deploying a range of European concepts in analysis, from divide et impera to false consciousness. But it’s not clear why we would need to go to that trouble when we could more easily just say Marronage and military enlistment were two different types of fugitivity that were in some ways complimentary, and in other ways violently opposed.

    Turning back to your post, I can’t see what would be lost from its many evident strengths by framing Afro-American enlistment as a key form of freedom-assertion that is not called “marronage”; I could well be missing something, however.

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