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Escaped Slaves of the Forest

Alabi’s World

by Richard Price
John’s Hopkins University Press, 444 pp., $18.95 (paper)

Shortly after settling in the conquered New World, Spaniards began to use the word cimarrón, of debated etymology, to describe imported European domestic animals that had escaped from control and reverted to natural freedom. For obvious reasons the term was also applied in slave societies to escaped slaves living in freedom outside the world of the masters. It was translated into other masters’ languages as marrons or maroons. That the same word should also be applied by the Caribbean buccaneers to sailors expelled from their community and forced to live the life of nature marooned on some island suggests that freedom was not seen as a bed of roses.

Maroon life, whether in the form of (mostly temporary) individual fugitives (petit marronage) or larger communities of escaped slaves (grand marronage), inevitably accompanied slave plantation society. One cannot say that its history has been neglected—certainly not in Brazil or Jamaica—but there is no doubt that our knowledge of it has advanced enormously in the past twenty years. The “new social history” of the 1960s and 1970s could hardly fail to overlook a subject so obviously appealing to the technical and political interests of so many of its practitioners: one that combined social protest and the study of grass-roots anonymity, black liberation and anti-imperialism or at least third world concerns, and seemed ideally suited to exemplify that liaison between history and social anthropology which was then producing such exciting results. And the new interest in maroon history could not but point in the direction of Suriname.

For in Suriname, formerly a Dutch colony on the Guyana coast, now a disappointing independent statelet, six ancient maroon communities still make up 10 percent of the population of a small and extraordinary mixed country. This is remarkable. For maroon communities had trouble surviving, even though the last genuine individual slave fugitive lived long enough to recount his autobiography to a Cuban writer in the 1960s.1 Since slaves were most likely to abscond shortly after arriving from Africa, so free maroon communities beyond the range of colonial society were most easily established in the early stages of such societies, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The greatest of the Brazilian quilombos, Palmares, was at its height in the 1690s, shortly before its fall after sixty years of warfare. Even where colonial powers were obliged to make treaties recognizing maroon independence, as happened from time to time in a number of countries, they rarely lasted. It is doubtful whether outside Suriname any free black communities exist today that have not ceased to regard as binding the mid-eighteenth-century treaties recognizing their freedom.

Richard Price, whose Maroon Societies, together with a chapter of Eugene Genovese’s From Rebellion to Revolution provides the most convenient introduction to the subject,2 is at present the leading authority on marronage in general and on the Suriname maroons (“bush Negroes”), or rather on one of their communities, the Saramakas, to whom he has devoted many years of research. He has already written extensively about them, notably in his path-breaking First Time: The Historical Vision of an Afro-American People,3 an account of the Saramakas’ establishment and war of independence, based on written records and on their own orally transmitted “strongly linear, causal sense of history,” which is central to their identity and, incidentally, makes them fascinating to historians. Alabi’s World takes the story up after independence, as Saramaka society settled down, and it does so in the form of a “life and times” of one Alabi (1740–1820), who was supreme chief of his people for almost forty years. However, it contains enough introductory matter about the origins of the Suriname maroons to put readers into the picture; for, as the Saramakas say, “If we forget the deeds of our ancestors, how can we hope to avoid being returned to white folks’ slavery?”

Price has chosen a subject equally important to historians and social anthropologists, quite apart from the heroism of the maroons’ struggles. For maroon societies raise fundamental questions. How do casual collections of fugitives of widely different origins, possessing nothing in common but the experience of transportation in slave ships and of plantation slavery, come to form structured communities? How, one might say more generally, are societies founded from scratch? What are the relations between the societies of ex-slaves rejecting bondage and the dominant society on whose margins they live, in a curious kind of symbiosis, for, as Price has pointed out elsewhere,4 marronage was not a simple flight; a reversion to peasant life in the wilderness, but also, in a curious way, “a kind of westernization.” What exactly did or could such refugee communities—at least in the days when most of their members were African-born, derive from the old continent? For if maroon communities struck observers as African in feeling—and perhaps, a historic novelty, as conscious of a common Africanness, as they could not possibly have been in the old world—specific African models and precedents for their institutions are not readily traceable.

Unfortunately the author, though keenly aware of questions such as these, has not tried to answer them directly. His fascinating but puzzling book is really about cultural collisions, confrontations, and dialogues of the deaf, not least between Richard Price’s views about how history should be written and those of more traditional historians and anthropologists.

Since the main character of this book, Alabi, eventually became a Christian, while the essence of being a Saramaka was the rejection, or at least the non-acceptance, of white peoples’ values, Christianity among them, the collision of cultures must be at the core of a book about him. Christians are still a small minority among Suriname’s “bush Negroes.” Since much, indeed most, of Price’s information about eighteenth-century maroon life comes from the bulky correspondence of the Moravian missionaries who were the only whites in constant contact with the Saramakas, two kinds of cultural misunderstanding are also central to it: that of the Moravian Brethren and sisters whose failure to understand what was going on around them seems to have been monumental, and that of modern researchers to whom the world view of eighteenth-century pietistic zealots such as the Moravians, with their sensual, almost erotic, cult of Christ’s wounds, is almost certainly less comprehensible than that of the ex-slaves. Trying (however unsuccessfully) to understand “their” chosen people is what all field anthropologists are supposed to do; but the commonest reaction of most rational moderns to the lunatic fringes of Western religions is still apt to be a mix of fascinated pity and repulsion.

However, cultural uncertainty is also built into Price’s book in a third way. In recent years anthropology-ethnography and, to a rather smaller extent, history have been convulsed and undermined (under such general headings as “post-modernism”) by doubts about the possibility of objective knowledge or unified interpretation, that is to say, about the legitimacy of research as hitherto understood. The various and conflicting justifications of such a retreat are both epistemological and political as well as social (is anthropology “an ethnocentric attempt to incorporate others” or “part of Western hegemonic practice,” not to mention male domination?)5 but they are all rather troublesome to the practitioner of these disciplines. Admittedly, when “the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er by the pale cast of thought,” talk can still amply replace action, as Hamlet proves and as what has been called “the literary turn of anthropology” confirms.6 But “a self-styled ethnographic historian” or ethnohistorian like Richard Price is still obliged to do the job he assigns himself.

For, however much we apply the fashionable and question-begging terms of literary creation to ethnography or history, “the grounding act of fiction in any project of ethnographic writing is the construction of a whole that guarantees the facticity of fact.”7 In short, it isn’t and can’t be fiction. And insofar as any attempt at anthropological description accepts the “facticity of fact” it can’t even totally avoid the awful accusation of “positivism.”

But does not any “whole” amount to “the imposition of some arbitrary order”? Price makes it clear that he shares the horror of such an order that many of his fellow anthropologists now follow. He therefore “eschew[s] modern Western categories, such as religion, politics, economics, art, or kinship as organizing principles” and, to the regret of readers and colleagues, he refuses even to compile an index “that encourages consultation along such ethnological lines,” in the belief that this practice plays “a pernicious obfuscating role in intercultural understanding.” He apparently considers two principles of organizing the material to be safe: chronological narrative, especially in the linear form of biography, and a sort of polyphony, in which the various voices of the sources speak side by side with the author’s, each distinguished, in this instance, by a separate typeface. Could relativism or the abdication of authorial authority (Western, imperialist, male, capitalist, or whatever) go further?

The result is certainly a splendid effort to recover the past of the kind of people, inarticulate and usually undocumented as individuals, which is usually beyond recovery. It is also the presentation of an extremely moving experience: that of a people whose identity even today, as they work on the French space station or for Alcoa, rests on memories of an armed struggle against outsiders two or three centuries ago, which they are still prepared to resume. But how helpful is it as history or anthropology, rather than as the raw material for both? And how far does it meet the postmodern requirements Price himself seems so concerned about?

Inevitably the planned polyphony turns out to be an accompanied aria. There is only one voice and one conception: the author’s. Among his sources the Dutch “postholders” colonial officials, charged with dealing with the free “bush Negroes” of the forest, do not speak for themselves at all. They are here cited primarily for events and dates suited to the author’s narrative, and for their frequently expressed frustration. We are left in the dark about the strategies of planters and authorities, although it is not hard to guess that, since it was impossible to stop the slaves from escaping into the rain forest in a continental plantation society, the logical policy, sooner or later, was to recognize the independence of maroon communities in the hinterland by treaty, in return for a promise to return subsequent refugees, paid for by bounty and by free deliveries (“tribute”) of coastal goods which bound the maroon economy to the colony. We gather that such a policy was followed and that leaders of the maroon community were sought out and persuaded to make agreements. How did the settlers in the colony think this worked? We are again left in the dark. Were they perhaps satisfied, while also bitterly complaining about the failure of maroons to comply, that the arrangement actually cut down slave escapes? Did it do so? We are not told.

Again, while the Moravian Brethren speak for themselves at considerable length, their voluble letters serve the author overwhelmingly as an old-fashioned ethnographic source. Their merit is to have been in the field two centuries ago, but, unlike Price, who can correct them, they did not understand what they were observing. The contemporary Saramakas, of course, speak for themselves literally, since the author has spoken to them and recorded their own attempts to describe the past through the stories passed on to them; Price also transmits some of past writings of Saramakas themselves. But it is safe to say that these words would tell the uninstructed reader very little by themselves, without the setting and commentary that the author supplies. For, even if we suppose that the texts would be readily understood by Saramakas, they are not our kind of “historical writing,” and, in any case, it is the nature of writing about other cultures that it has to explain what needs no explanation at home. The only voice that really speaks to us is Richard Price’s.

However, the nature of his project is far from clear, apart from the fashionable insistence on fieldwork anthropology as self-analysis (“though I cast this book in a biographical rather than an autobiographical mode”) and the admirable intention to remind us that his people’s struggles, and ours, are by no means over. On the one hand Alabi’s World “is intended as, among other things, an ethnography of early Afro-American life.” On the other, Price shares the view that “the primary aim of historical analysis is the recovery‌of the lived reality of people in their past,” an aim which does not exhaust historical analysis for many of us and a statement devoid of meaning unless there is prior agreement on what bits of an infinite “lived reality” we are talking about.

That, of course, is precisely the difficulty of a history-cum-social anthropology that abandons the old belief in the procedures and vocations of both disciplines, inadequate as they may be sub specie aeternitatis, especially for the sort of intellectual models that have swept literature departments. It becomes very difficult to give both intellectual and expository or literary structure to one’s writings, quite apart from the risk that one’s subject will be deconstructed into fragments united only by the common experience of an incommunicable identity crisis.8

This difficulty is illustrated by the author’s decision to divide his book into a main text and an extensive and in itself unstructured “Notes and Commentaries section which is nearly as long as the main text.” It is safe to say this second section contains 90 percent of what would interest most old-style historians and possibly anthropologists. Apart from passing references in the text it is here alone that we discover how the groups and clans that make up Saramaka society came into being, “deriving their respective common identity from a combination of putative plantation origins and putative matrilineal kinship.” This matrilineal system apparently developed in maroon societies in the post-slave era in ways that remain obscure, but Price’s notes delve into the question why certain women (sometimes late arrivers) were retrospectively chosen as founders of new clans. The notes, but not the text, also investigate the necessary syncretism of a society in which a young. Saramaka, even in the mid-eighteenth century, might have “great grandparents who hailed from as many as eight different African groups” and the coexistence of African rites of different origin shared to some extent by all Saramakas but maintained by special groups of adepts. Here we find information about demography, settlement, distribution, and even the, under the circumstances, natural, Saramaka way of referring to their territory in linear terms: “upstream,” “downstream,” “inland,” “toward the river.”

The notes alone give us more than oblique information about how the Saramakas gained a living in the rain forest, what crops they grew, what they hunted (thirty-three species according to the Moravians) and refused on certain ritual occasions to hunt (twenty-five of them). And to what extent they traded, what they sold and what they bought (peanuts, canoes, lumber, and rice against salt, sugar, household goods, tools, ornaments, and illegal guns). It seems odd that such obvious aspects of “lived reality” are only treated as part of the learned apparatus.

Again, only in the notes can we discover something about the maroons’ complex and ambiguous relations with the Indians, from whom they learned so much about how to live in the hinterland, and a variety of other matters which the author thinks “would have unbalanced the narrative/descriptive alternance of the main text.” This procedure may indeed be “textually richer than any that has yet been attempted,” but it undoubtedly complicates the reading of what looks like a major contribution to a major subject.

As for the text, some readers may ask themselves what (other than plain curiosity about remote and exotic places) can sustain them through the elaborate biography of a man who was, by the author’s own account, at best a not very enterprising or influential chief of some four thousand Guyanese backwoodsmen in unexciting times. For the author, of course, the story is important, not because he has spent twenty years on Saramaka affairs, but rather because only thus can he demonstrate the extraordinary historical memory of this community, a corpus of oral knowledge preserved, partly in ritual secrecy, which allows them to recall in detail people, events, and connections of the eighteenth century. Price’s comparison of sources shows this beyond doubt, thus providing a scholarly rationale for his procedure.

But if it satisfies the author, does it help the reader “to penetrate existential words different from his own and to evoke their texture”? This is not clear. Central to any attempt at an understanding across cultures and centuries is the maroons’ attitude to slavery and nonslavery. (According to my count a word translated by Price as “freedom” occurs only once in all the Saramaka texts quoted, which are said to amount to 80 percent of all the relevant written material for the period.) The question is complex and obscure. Our assumptions and theirs have only one point of contact: both probably agree on the status of white owners’ slaves as pieces of living property like cattle (“chattel”) at the unrestricted disposal of their owners. Even here it is not clear whether maroons, who sometimes themselves picked what whites described as “slaves” and certainly sometimes hunted and returned plantation runaways, regarded all chattel slavery as always theoretically unacceptable, or only rejected some situations of absolute dependency, e.g., those in which the owner by excessive cruelty, or in some other way, transgressed the limits of what was tacitly accepted as the “moral economy” of power over people. However, though this book naturally contains many references to the subject, I cannot see that it is possible for even the attentive reader to get a sense from Price’s narrative of how Saramakas saw such matters as slavery and the ownership of people and land. It just cannot be done by the mode of exposition he has chosen.

But it has often been done, as a matter of course, for periods and societies at least as remote as the Saramakas, by analytical medieval historians, from F.W. Maitland to Georges Duby, unaware of the requirements of postmodernism, but perfectly conscious that the past is another country where things are done differently, that we must understand it even though the best interpreters still remain biased strangers. To judge by the sensitivity and quality of his research, Price is fully capable of following in their footsteps when not hampered by a project better suited to deconstruction than to construction.

What Alabi’s World can convey vividly however, is misunderstanding. How and why forest blacks could not get it in their heads that all whites were not very rich. How Christianity became entirely unconvincing once the Saramakas applied their practical-minded, instrumental view of spiritual forces to it. A person who had not sinned, they concluded, obviously did not need Christ, who had been resurrected because of men’s sins. Anyway, if one were a sinner, the gods would have done something about it long ago. “The people here pray every day. Won’t their god be angry because they burden him so?” Observing the Moravians with a sound sense of statistics, they noted that “Christians get sicker more often.” It was not a convincing argument for Jesus.

Voltaire (who, incidentally, denounced the tortures of slaves in Suriname) would not have understood much of Saramaka affairs, but in this respect he would have applauded them. As, indeed, did other observers of the era of reason and enlightenment, always on the lookout for proof of the eighteenth-century German poet’s “See, we savages are better human beings after all” [“Seht wir Wilden sind doch bess’re Menschen“].

It is a great pleasure [wrote an ex-missionary] to see a people who are who are so content with their fate. They enjoy the fruits of their labor and are unacquainted with the poison of hatred.”

Well, things were more complicated than that, but after making the acquaintance, through Alabi’s World, of these independent, self-confident, relaxed, and proud men and women at ease with the world, one can see what he meant.

Let us, however, spare a final thought for those whose strange “lived reality” is evoked successfully by Price’s technique: the Moravians. They came to the benighted heathen in conditions which often seemed “a foretaste of what hell must be like.” Unprepared for the forest, inexperienced, they suffered and died like flies—honest, uncomprehending German tailors, shoemakers, or linen weavers in unsuitable European costumes, who could be expected to last a few months or weeks, preaching Jesus the Crucified with Blood and Wounds, among the scorpions and jaguars, before contentedly going home to Him. They were entirely dependent on the maroons, who did not like them as whites, made fun of them, and occasionally persecuted them. They played music, and were uncomfortable when the blacks danced to it. They failed in all their endeavors except the heroic task of compiling Brother Schumann’s Saramaka-German dictionary in nine pain-wracked months. Their successors are still there and still the Saramakas’ only road to reading and writing.

They remain as hard for us to understand as they were for the forest maroons. But let us not withhold admiration for men and women who, in their own way, knew what their lives were for.

  1. 1

    Miguel Barnet, ed., The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave (Pantheon, 1968). The title of the original was Cimarron.

  2. 2

    Richard Price, ed., Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979); Eugene D. Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution, Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World (Louisiana University Press, 1979).

  3. 3

    Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

  4. 4

    Maroon Societies, p. 12n.

  5. 5

    The quotations are from a breast-beating session of postmoderns, “Critique and Reflexivity in Anthropology” in Critique of Anthropology Vol. IX, No. 3 (Winter 1989), pp. 82, 86.

  6. 6

    Critique and Reflexivity in Anthropology,” p. 83.

  7. 7

    George E. Marcus, “Imagining the Whole: Ethnography’s Contemporary Efforts to Situate Itself” in Critique of Anthropology, cited above, p. 7.

  8. 8

    However, the author is to be congratulated for deliberately avoiding references to Barthes, Bakhtin, Derrida, Foucault, et al.

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