Freedom as Marronage as Anti-capitalism

maroon-boys
1908 photograph of Maroon adolescents collecting wood (Credit: H.H. Johnston).

On December 23, 1739, Captain Quao of the Windward Maroons penned an “X” and swore a blood oath to formally agree to the terms of a treaty with representatives of British Jamaica, marking an end to the broader Maroon Wars of 1720-1739 and cementing Maroon autonomy alongside the colony.

Within the historiography of Jamaican marronage, the Maroon Treaty of 1738-39 is understood as the formal political legitimation of Maroon communities on the island and the pacification of hostilities with the British. However, as Neil Roberts articulates in his work Freedom as Marronage, it is in the act of marronage itself that freedom is realized. In June 2016, Roberts’s book was the focus of a roundtable discussion on the African American Intellectual History Society’s blog in which participants further delineated marronage as the “liminal and transitional” space between slavery and freedom. The essential nuance of this re-conceptualization lies in the understanding of marronage as a state of existence that transcends the delimiting polarity presented by teleological frameworks – liberal, republican, and otherwise – that dichotomize slavery and freedom.

Questions regarding the conceptualization of freedom bring to mind a discussion I participated in while attending the Charles Town Maroon Conference the same month as the roundtable. Michael Grizzle, Chief of the Trelawny Town Flagstaff Maroon Council, engaged conference participants regarding underexplored aspects of marronage in Jamaica, such as its economic implications.

Current map of Jamaica, featuring Trelawny Town lying in the modern parish of Trelawny, with Charles Town located in Portland parish near Port Antonio.
Current map of Jamaica, featuring Trelawny Town lying in the modern parish of Trelawny, with Charles Town located in Portland parish near Port Antonio.

In this exchange, he detailed a narrative of his ancestors that emphasized marronage as the detachment from, and rejection of, all aspects of western life. While on its surface this appears obvious given the First and Second Maroon Wars and centuries of antagonisms, how does marronage align with a continuum that contrasts freedom both as the antithesis of slavery and as successful integration into “free society”?

Historical ideations of marronage in the Atlantic World emphasize political and social realities. Often neglected are economic impetuses, which can reflect very real anxieties of life in isolation for maroon communities. Emblematic of this aspect of marronage in the context of Jamaica is the 4th Article of the Maroon Treaty, which guarantees the right to plant and to engage in animal husbandry and commerce with the colony:

“Fourthly, That they shall have liberty to plant the said lands with coffee, cocoa, ginger, tobacco, and cotton, and to breed cattle, hogs, goats, or any other flock, and dispose of the produce or increase of the said commodities to the inhabitants of this island; provided always, that when they bring the said commodities to market, they shall apply fist (sic) to the customs, or any other magistrate of the respective parishes where they expose their goods to sale, for a license to vend the same.”

Article 4 precedes even guarantees of autonomy to the Maroons by the Crown. Returning to the conversation with Chief Grizzle, it was his assertion that the transitional, liminal understanding of freedom pertained not only to the political, social, and cultural realms, but that, “The ancestors did not simply reject colonial rule and enslavement. They opposed Western civilization in its entirety, which includes capitalism.”

In his reconceptualization of Jamaican Marronage, Chief Grizzle posits that the communities actively opposed the economic manifestations of English colonialism, such as private land ownership and wealth accumulation. The creation of new political forms and identities within recognized autonomous maroon communities – likewise known as “grand marronage” – that formed in Jamaica, one such being that of Quao, also required the creation of self-sustaining modes of production and/or consumption in response to their isolation. The Treaty underlines colonial awareness of these Maroon economic forms in 1738-39, as reflected by the specific language that guaranteed sovereignty, land rights, and market access by the Crown, and which challenges our understanding of the many interwoven processes that facilitated marronage in Jamaica.

Jamaican Maroon leader Queen Nanny.
Jamaican Maroon leader Queen Nanny.

While grand marronage communities who signed the Treaty – which did not include Jamaican national hero Queen Nanny – attained a measure of recognized autonomy, in return they assented to repelling any new runaway slaves. Such an obligation complicates this case study of “sovereign” marronage – or, independence achieved through mass flight from slavery and the recognition of the individual and community by the lawgiver – given the contingent nature of the autonomous isolation. Roberts emphasizes that, “Political recognition has been a philosophy of the limit, a finitude whose freedom is Janus-faced and involves strictures deeper than the parameters of spatialization,” and thus requires a careful consideration of the means by which grand marronage was sustained in Jamaica. However, just as we consider the implications of marronage in a continuum of freedom, we must endeavor to understand historical actors in the context of their complicated social, political, and economic realities. Put simply, to what extent did the Articles of the Maroon Treaty reflect the motivations and determine the actions of those who signed?

After the formalization of the Treaty in 1739, Maroon signatories and their communities were required to return all runaway slaves to colonial authorities. However, the need to include financial compensation in the Article underscores the tenuous nature of such accords. Viewed within the context of Article 1, which allowed any enslaved persons taken or welcomed by Maroon communities in the preceding two years to remain without reprisal, along with the ambiguous wording of the document, tensions and loopholes pervade the Treaty. The Proceedings of the Governor and Assembly of Jamaica, commissioned at the outset of the Second Maroon Wars in 1795-96, details the actual execution of Treaty measures related to runaways,

“In the year 1760…slaves…rose into rebellion, and the Maroons were called upon, according to treaty, to co-operate in their suppression…The Maroons were ordered to pursue (the rebels), and were promised certain reward for each…They accordingly pushed into the woods, and rambling about for a day or two, returned with a collection of human ears…yet it was afterwards found that they had not killed a man; that no engagement had taken place, and that the ears which they had produced, had been severed from the dead bodies…lain unburied at Heywood-Hall.”

As such, irregular compliance with the Articles of the Treaty appears contingent on the disposition of the Maroon communities, even despite guarantees of compensation. Actual adherence to these measures, or a lack thereof, underlines tensions between grand marronage communities seeking to maintain their qualified isolationism and individual acts of petite marronage, which at times threatened the stability of the former. Roberts’s liminal and transitional reconceptualization of freedom as marronage thus enhances our ability to understand how sovereign marronage communities navigated realities and, in the process, constructed vital methods of exchange, communication, and subsistence.

The history of sovereign marronage in the context of Jamaica compels us to contemplate the broader economic implications of grand marronage. While the analysis of sociogenic forms of marronage – or, as Roberts defines it, the “collective and productive set of actions that creates something entirely new” – necessitates an active understanding of economic forms, explorations of sovereign marronage, as well as petite and grand marronage, are often bereft of such considerations. In the opposition to not only enslavement, but slavery itself, there lies a structural tension with plantation economies and their transatlantic slave labor force that is not merely conceived out of constitutionalism, but instead in the very flight from slavery. In the conception of both sovereign and sociogenic forms of marronage, the actors retreat from, engage in warfare with, and construct communities beyond the bounds of colonies. While warfare fostered unique and syncretic social and political identities within Maroon communities in opposition to colonialism, so too did it stimulate endogenous and exogenous networks of subsistence and exchange,

“the Maroons had a method of curing the flesh without salting it. This commodity they frequently brought to market in the towns; and, with the money arising from the sale…they purchased salted beef, spirituous liquors, tobacco, fire-arms, and ammunition…”

How then do we consider the economic implications and ramifications of marronage in the context of the encroachment of Jamaican plantations and its colonial economy? The Maroon Treaty and the actualization of its Articles therefore problematize how we conceptualize iterations of marronage – both petite and grand, sovereign and sociogenic – and the alternative social, political, and economic forms engendered. In our conversation, Chief Grizzle suggested that economic motivations were central to Jamaican Marronage and require greater consideration. Freedom as Marronage therefore offers a theoretical lens with which to return to primary source material and discern how economic impetuses and implications informed acts of marronage.


Patrick Nichols is a PhD student in the Department of History at Georgia State University. He is in the first year of the program and specializes in Atlantic History and Marronage. Nichols is primarily interested in intersections of society, race, and identity in the context of early modern Jamaica and the Caribbean.  Follow him on Twitter @pnichols87.

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