Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Gradations of Freedom: The Maroons of Jamaica, 1798-1821

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Gradations of Freedom: The Maroons of Jamaica, 1798-1821

Article excerpt

During a 1991 conference on Maroon Heritage held at the University of the West Indies at Mona, Colonel Martin-Luther Wright of the Accompong Maroons (who are situated in the mountains of St Elizabeth in western Jamaica) defined Maroons as "a group or groups of people who resisted European slavery, defeated the colonial forces and gained for themselves everlasting freedom." "The true Maroon," he went on to say, "is the one who is committed to this ancestry and spirit of freedom from any kind of slavery and the preservation of human dignity and selfrespect."1 In this context, Maroon communities became the ultimate symbols of power and freedom in studies of resistance in the Atlantic world. However, some residents of the Maroon communities in colonial Jamaica did not experience the freedoms of self- or legally emancipated peoples. Late eighteenth-century colonial documents confirm that Maroon communities in Jamaica contained a small, but constant, population of unfree people, who the white census takers referred to as slaves in the colonial records.2

The people categorized as slaves in the colonial census records may best be understood as unfree. That is, they faced civil-social disabilities that prevented full participation in the endogamic Jamaican Maroon communities. These communities were organized around inter-dependent social relations similar to those known from the Gold Coast. A significant concentration of enslaved people arrived in Jamaica from the Gold Coast region in modern day Ghana during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Kromanti, an ethnic identity that developed among the Akan-speakers who embarked on slave ships from the fishing village Kromantine on the Gold Coast, particularly influenced the identity that emerged in ethnically diverse Jamaican Maroon villages. Kromanti influences have been widely recognized in the music, language, religion, and social and political structures of the Jamaican Maroons.3

Many different forms of free and unfree dependency coexisted in precolonial Gold Coast communities. Each group had specific rights and privileges, but also faced limitations. The extent of a person's privileges or disabilities was determined by a number of factors, including the wealth and power of the family, the person's age and sex, and his or her relationship to the family head. Junior kinsmen, wives, and children - especially those born into the villages - characterized free dependents. Next on the continuum were the quasi-free dependents, the clients and awowa (the Twi word for pawn). Their bondage was related to a debt and usually temporary. Finally, there were the slaves. Ofie nipa (literally "house person") were born into slavery, while masters purchased odonko (roughly translated as "he who joined us and will not go back") from outside the community. Anthropologist Barbara Kopytoff, who has written extensively about the emergence of the Jamaican Maroon identity, found many similarities between their social and political structures and those of the Akan speakers of the Gold Coast. The continuities between the Akan and Jamaican Maroon socio-political organizations support the argument that Maroons, like the Akan, had unfree people living in their communities. Considering the sparse documentary evidence of slavery among the Maroons, I maintain that studies of Maroon communities must be placed within a broader corpus of scholarly works, which will facilitate a much needed discussion of freedom and unfreedom in Maroon history and societies.

This study of slaveholding among Jamaican Maroons offers a more complex understanding of Jamaican and Maroon history, master and slave relationships, and notions of freedom across time, places, and cultures. It establishes a counter-narrative, not at the expense of a celebratory Maroon narrative, but rather as a nuanced revision. This in turn will hopefully inspire a closer examination of other slave groups, who have been inadvertently subjected to underestimation due to our image of the "free" Maroon figure. …

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