Maronnage in Slave Plantation Societies: A Case Study of Dominica, 1785-1815

Article excerpt

Ever since the establishment of plantation colonies in the New World by European powers, the African who had been forcibly removed from his homeland and transported across the Atlantic to supply the labour force, reacted to his enslavement. This reaction took many forms. It ranged from collective and violent acts such as revolts to individual acts such as poisoning or murder, refusal to work, and flight from the plantation as individuals or in groups.

Even though individual acts of flight were annoying to the planter because of the loss of labour power, such actions were hardly a threat to the plantation system itself or social stability in the islands since they generally represented peaceful methods of resistance to slavery rather than collective or violent ones. When, however, the escaped slaves established viable self-sufficient communities and used them as bases for collective assaults on the settled plantations -assaults involving arson, plunder and murder, the very existence of the plantation system was at stake.

It is this type of activity which has been termed maronnage, and indeed, the Maroon communities which were to be 'found in almost every plantation colony in the New World,1 put up heroic struggles for their freedom and independencestruggles which seriously disrupted white economic activity and threatened to destroy the social order itself. In some of these struggles the metropolitan powers either suffered outright military defeats or were unable to gain a victory and in such instances were forced to sign treaties with the Maroons guaranteeing them their independence. The Maroons of Dominica were a part of these struggles.

The island of Dominica became a British colony in 1763 at the Peace of Paris which terminated the Seven Years War with France. At that time the island had a population of 1,718 Frenchmen and 5,872 slaves engaged in the cultivation of coffee, cocoa and spices. Within the next ten years; the British had established a sugar industry and a slave society with a population of 3,850 whites and 15,753 slaves. For the next forty-two years the existence of the plantation economy and the slave society was threatened by Maroon activity.

According to one contemporary writer, the Maroons were originally slaves of Jesuit missionaries resident on the island at the time it became a British possession. With the establishment of British rule, the missionaries sold their lands and slaves to English settlers. It is alleged that these slaves for some reason took dislike to their new masters and deserted the plantations with their wives and children for interior parts of the island where they were joined from time to time by runaway slaves from other estates, whom / they sheltered and protected. There they organised themselves into social and political units headed by chiefs, sub-chiefs and captains.4 From these bases, these "banditti"5 demonstrated their hostility to the British presence by making attacks on the plantations which resulted in the destruction of property and loss of life.

The actual number of Maroons cannot be established with a great degree of accuracy. One estimate given in 1785 put the number at 3006 and when they were defeated in 1 8 1 4, the tally was 578. Again in 1 8 00, military captains found a camp of eighty houses, each capable of holding: from ten to twelve persons.8 Whatever their actual numbers, however, they were certainly a force to be reckoned with.

According to Richard Price,9 Maroon communities had to be almost inaccessible and located in inhospitable,' out-of-the-way areas if they were to be viable. The topography of Dominica offered .such viability and effectively aided the Maroons in their struggles. As one governor reported in 1785, the mountainous interior which the Maroons inhabited abounded in fastnesses, places of concealment and roads that were almost impassable. In addition, there was "a great plenty of ground provisions in all parts" and streams of water on almost every acre. …