Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Gender and Marronage in the Caribbean

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Gender and Marronage in the Caribbean

Article excerpt


Within the last few decades there has been a growing fascination with the Maroon experience in the Americas, and especially the Maroon struggle to achieve human dignity in the face of great adversity. An outstanding feature of Maroon communities is that many of them survived for several decades and some of them for over a century without capitulating to the military forces sent against them. Among the most durable were Palmares in Brazil, Saramaka and Ndjuka in Suriname, San Basilio in Colombia, Esmeraldas in Ecuador, Le Maniel (present-day San José de Ocoa) on the Haitian-Dominican Republic border, and the Leewards and Windwards in Jamaica. As in most other aspects of New World history, the role of women in marronage has received only slight attention, and the general impression given in much of the extant literature is that they played largely muted, subservient and sometimes even peripheral roles in Maroon communities. While it is true that gender equality did not prevail in these communities, it is equally true that women played significant, and on occasion outstanding, roles in maintaining the integrity of these communities and contributing to the quality of life in them. Jean Fouchard, in his seminal work entitled Les matrons de la liberti, asserts that the role of women in marronage was as important as in colonial life in general.1

Interestingly, a number of Maroon communities were named after women. These included Magdalena, Maria Angola and Maria Embuyla (Colombia); Guarda Mujeres (Cuba); and Nanny Town, Molly's Town and Diana's Town (Jamaica). Though some of these names might have been mainly symbolic or honorific, it is likely that several of them speak to the significant role that Maroon women played in the particular communities. We know that this was the case with Nanny Town or "the Great Negro Town". While the debate still goes on as to whether Grandy Nanny (Granny Nanny, Nanny of the Maroons, Queen Mother Granny) was the maximum leader, or simply one of the leaders, in the Windward Maroon community in the 1730s, the fact that the main Maroon town was named after her underlines her role within the leadership ranks of the community. Equally significant is the fact that following the peace treaty that the Windward Maroons struck with the colonial authorities in 1739, the 500 acres of land that the colonial government allocated to them were (according to the official documents of transfer) given to "Nanny and the people now residing with her".2

Ideology of Freedom

Marronage was born out of the desire for freedom. Luciano Jose Franco refers to the Maroons in Cuba as persons who led a vigorous protest against the infamies of slavery and were the guardians of the flag of liberation. Carlos Aguirre insists that marronage implied a radical questioning of the right of the oppressor to determine the life and work of the oppressed. However, as David Davidson notes, severely adverse circumstances intensified the human desire to be free, which was the common factor behind slave resistance.3

Fouchard mentions several enslavers who gained notoriety for their cruelty and adds a list of punishments meted out to enslaved women in Haiti, including burning their breasts and genitals, raping them in front of their husbands and children, and cutting up their children in front of them.4 The sexual violation of women, both married and single, was one of the cardinal sins of the enslavers that led to frequent violence between them and their enslaved charges. It was often a reason for desertion, as illustrated by reference to the Venezuelan Maroon Juan Antonio, who declared that he had decamped because his overlord violated his wife (who presumably also absconded with him).5 What do we make of the sexual sins of a manager in Suriname who stripped naked a young coloured girl about eighteen years old, tied her up with her hands suspended to a tree branch and gave her 200 lashes because she had refused to allow him to invade her body sexually? …

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