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. 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, 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 …

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