The application of Guerrilla Warfare in Jamaican maroon communities

This post comes from a History and Anthropology student at the University of Birmingham.

Maroon communities, prevalent in the United States, South America and Jamaica, were formed of black slaves who had managed to escape their white owners and build different lives for themselves, whilst continuing to combat the plantocracy system; also known as a ‘slavocracy’, whereby society is ruled by a dominant class of plantation owners. The focus of this essay will lie with the maroons of Jamaica, as they are considered to be the slave society with the greatest number of revolts and successes. The study of maroon guerrilla warfare is vital when attempting to identify their most salient characteristics. To gain a thorough insight into the emergence of and nature of these communities, their offensive and defensive tactics will need closer investigation, as will their Spanish historical links, African collaboration and Patterson’s formula for slave revolts.

With the English colonial takeover of Jamaica in 1655, the Spanish left behind some of their black slaves, who are believed to be the earliest Jamaican maroons and existed in the interior mountains of the island. As a result of maroon settlements tending to cluster in inaccessible, mountainous areas, the English found tracking them extremely difficult . Jamaica had the biggest economy in the West Indies with a regular influx of new slaves and a low degree of ‘creolisation’  leading to a high frequency of slave rebellions and escapees who were able to join the already existing maroons. The historical background of the maroons in Jamaica offered slaves hope of freedom and the possibility of accommodation among those communities if they were going to risk escape. Whilst rebellions and escapes were largely the cause for great increases in maroon numbers, slaves were also captured by maroons during plantation raids . Also, slaves or free blacks sent to fight the maroons sometimes defected; this was of great military value to the maroons as these defected slaves often had arms, as well as knowledge of the plantocracy’s plans . These factors, coupled with the atrocious conditions experienced by the slaves, provide an explanation as to why maroon communities emerged and grew in numbers in the seventeenth and eighteenth century.

The maroons of Jamaica can be divided into two factions; those situated in the west came to be known as the Windwards and those in the east the Leewards. Although these two communities were fighting against the same oppressive system and were likely to have similar backgrounds, they lived separately and followed different lines of development . Whilst their political organisation, religious ideas and balance of authority may have differed , both showed excellent aptitude in fighting a guerrilla insurgency. The next section will explore the Leeward and Windward maroons’ fighting style and strategic culture, focusing on their offensive and defensive tactics and most importantly, their guerrilla characteristics.

An advantage of both the Leeward and Windward maroon communities was the inaccessible locations of their villages, their skill at guerrilla warfare, harsh discipline demanded by their military organisation and partial dependence on colonial society for recruits, arms, ammunition and other supplies . However, it was their use of guerrilla warfare and great strategic achievements, which has hailed them heroes in modern historiography . One reason that their guerrilla campaign was so successful was due to their use of camouflage, which enabled them to launch surprise attacks on the English. The maroons’ intimate knowledge of the terrain allowed them to move, evade and watch the enemy with relative ease, enabling them to lay in wait and hear the opposition’s plans so they could then adapt their own . This gave the maroons the luxury of trading space for time, a principle element necessary for a successful guerrilla campaign. This is because it meant they could dictate the terms of conflict so that they were favourable to them. Fighting was inherent in the maroon culture. Young maroons, boys and girls, received military training in the use of spears, machetes and bow and arrows from a very early age , illustrating the maroons’ confidence in the organisation and preparation for their communities’ future. By raiding plantations, killing settlers and cattle, abducting slaves and setting fire to cane fields, they were successful in inflicting great economic harm on the plantocracy , as previously discussed, concerning captured and deflected slaves being of huge military value to the maroons. Inducing panic in their opposition by sudden emergence from camouflage accompanied by loud screams, banging of drums and blowing of horns was an effective psychological tactic to dissuade the English from continuing to fight . Both maroon communities practised these strategies which could serve offensive and defensive purposes, highlighting their skill in guerrilla warfare and organisation. They were “masters in switching roles from hunted to hunter” .

Colonial literature presents the idea that all Africans have the same characteristics of being lazy, child-like, dull-witted liars . Whilst it can be disputed that the available colonial sources are unreliable and there is a lack of maroon sources to offer a counter argument because of their need for secrecy, these may not be completely unfounded. Werner Zips identifies these so-called ‘characteristics’ as the slaves’ tactics of causing nuisance and misbehaving; these were individual attempts at resistance to obstruct the system slowly over the long term , unlike Patterson’s conclusion as the slaves simply having uncooperative attitudes . This illustrates the underlying nature of rebellious slaves as clever and perceptive, being able to interpret their surroundings and conceal their own attempts at sabotage as merely personality traits.

Photo By National Library of Jamaica

Another element of maroon culture is their understanding of their environment. Slaves had bought knowledge of botany, geology, zoology, herbal medicines and foods with them from Africa; by exploring their natural surrounding environment when working on plantations, they were able to combine this knowledge with new insights into the ecology of the Caribbean . By constantly developing their practical knowledge of the rainforest, confidence and belief of possible survival for rebel slaves grew, making maronage a real choice. However, bravery was an essential characteristic for aspiring maroons; confidence in knowledge was not enough for those planning to escape from plantations. The threat of being recaptured by the plantocracy instilled great fear within slaves. Slave owners would carry out horrific torture on recaptured runaways, often in front of the other plantation slaves, to scare and prevent them from attempting the same. Recaptured slaves’ fate was more or less sealed, illustrating the immense courage of runaways. Therefore, those who did manage to successfully escape and achieve maronage were likely to be the strongest and bravest of them all; thus a powerful community of resistant people was instantly established.

According to Orlando Patterson, “few slave societies present a more impressive record of slave revolts than Jamaica” ; thus what will now be examined is what enabled revolts to occur so frequently there. It has been suggested that high levels of slave rebellion over hundreds of years will ultimately lead to some successes, thus the emergence of maroon communities. Several questions arise when trying to extrapolate explanations for the frequency of Jamaican revolts. These are; what gave these slaves a greater possibility of maronage? And why was the Jamaican plantocracy system threatened by serious, large-scale slave revolts? Patterson presents a formula on the social and cultural conditions that allowed an abundance of Jamaican slave revolts and the resulting development of maroon communities. The master to slave ratio posed challenging security measures for the plantocracy , the complex ecology of the surrounding rainforest favoured guerrilla warfare and as a result of the huge influxes of Africans. Many were grouped together from similar ethnic or regional backgrounds providing opportunity for leadership , consequently providing the opportunity for political organisation and rebellion. Patterson also looks at Jamaican plantations’ lack of community feeling and social commitment. On the whole, the majority of slaves conformed and abided by their owners’ rules. However, the English were only interested in accumulating enough wealth to return home and live comfortably ; so the slaves felt an absence of security and little sense of society, filling them with fear, angst and animosity. No values or interests were shared by the rulers and the ruled, which caused the dysfunctional nature of the slave system . This, coupled with huge influxes of imported slaves, highlights how the English began to lose order and control over the Jamaican slaves and therefore demonstrates how the potential for rebellion developed.

This is an Image of the leader of the leeward maroons, Cudjoe.

The necessity of collaboration among Africans, despite their diverse backgrounds and heritages, in the maroon populations’ ability to steadily increase will be considered. The maroons of Jamaica were not a self-reproducing population. Diane Paton notes the demographic disaster that almost all slave societies faced, with the Jamaican maroon communities being able to grow only through massive imports of slaves . However, other historians have argued the importance of Africans coming together, bonding over their shared experience of slavery and suffering, which ultimately led to their shared experience of defiance . Conflicting social backgrounds, languages and cultures were relatively insignificant to Africans when they were faced with the greater crisis of enslavement. They developed similar patterns of behaviour and reactions, in the form of resistance . Jamaica had a strong concentration of Africans, born free in societies with prominent military traditions ; they knew of a better quality of life. African slave rebellion and the emergence of maroon communities can be categorised as an entire civilisation refusing to surrender.

“The elaborate ecological knowledge of the maroons, in connection with the military aspect of their resistance is a huge topic to study” . It is a difficult one too because of the lack of maroon sources and the abundance of biased colonial sources. A lot of reliance is placed on today’s maroon oral traditions; Edith Blake considers maroon ideas to be African at root , illustrated by the predominance of religions of African origin in the lives of black people in the Caribbean today . Although taking a more ethnographic approach to the study of maroon communities, Zips was able to acquire a detailed amount of information from the maroons’ oral history. Complex ecological knowledge, aspects of a guerrilla nature and religious practices still exist in the nature of present-day Jamaican maroons; demonstrating the lasting significance of these communities’ struggle for freedom. The maroon communities’ determination to resist slavery was a salient part of their nature. Having escaped the plantations and avoided recapture, the maroons represent hard-won freedom and independence . The Jamaican rainforest and surrounding natural environment provided ideal conditions for the practise of guerrilla warfare, which was undoubtedly one of the greatest features of maroon life. The emergence and conservation of maroon communities was helped by the environment being hostile and threatening to the English, who were susceptible to tropical diseases and untrained for the difficult terrain. The maroons’ confidence, bravery, ecological knowledge, guerrilla approach and resentment for the slave system allowed them control over their own territory and the ability to combat the English effectively.


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