Magazine article The World and I

Mountain Rebels : The Flight from Slavery of Jamaica's Maroons

Magazine article The World and I

Mountain Rebels : The Flight from Slavery of Jamaica's Maroons

Article excerpt

Blue Mountain lay silhouetted against a moonlit Jamaican sky. The languid murmur of insects drifted through the valley, rising and falling in a listless refrain. Minutes before a fierce downpour had roared down upon my tin-roofed cabin, sheltered some thirty-five hundred feet up in the highlands between the John Crow and Blue Mountain ranges. Now the ridges and peaks emerged in eerie luminescence, the lush vegetation wet and glistening.

Below my cabin I could just make out Ivy's house through the maze of dripping banana fronds. Sister Ivy Harris, a Maroon herbalist, was hosting my stay, introducing me to the rich traditions and history of the Maroons, and administering a variety of herbal teas and remedies.

Earlier that evening I had watched distractedly as she slashed about the bushes with a machete while her English-born husband, Simon, boiled a huge pot of water. Ivy's trademark herbal bath was to culminate my immersion into Maroon traditional remedies. Just recovering from a bout of flu, I dutifully steeped myself in the scalding copper-colored water.

A thoughtful, iconoclastic woman, Ivy had returned to the Rio Grande Valley on Jamaica's northeast coast after running away to Kingston as a young girl. Some years later, she said, "I had a vision of my grandmother in a field of calendula [marigolds]. She came again a second night. So I got the urge. I came back to see my great-aunt. This was in 1980. She was the one who enlightened me about our traditions.

"Now our history and culture are not so strong," Ivy said. "People don't recognize creation and praise what man has made. They go to the doctor and get drugs at the pharmacy, and when they don't get better they come to me.

"We used the herbs for all kinds of sickness," she explained. "When we were small, we were sent out to pick some fits weed or fever grass. If someone had belly pain they would tell the kids, 'go out and pick something for the stomach.' I never see a doctor in this village when I was growing up."


Among the Maroons of the Rio Grande Valley such traditions date to the earliest European contact, some even earlier. The Maroons trace their origins to the years following Columbus' arrival in Jamaica in 1494. Led out of their West African homelands by Spanish slavers and severed from their past by the Atlantic, Jamaica's Maroons chose the perils and unknowns of the wilderness interior to the relative security and paternalistic care of the Spanish hacienda system.

Frequently employed as hunters of wild cattle and hogs (cimarr-n, in Spanish, of which some scholars claim maroon is a corruption), the free- ranging Africans formed small armed bands that attacked Spanish overland commerce. Their numbers grew as they abducted slaves and gathered runaways. Adapting to the environment under the tutelage of Arawak Indians, themselves victims of ruthless exploitation and enslavement by Spanish overlords, the Maroons settled into established communities high in the mountains.

Recent excavations at Nannytown, the most important early Maroon settlement, support Maroon oral traditions that the first African refugees found accommodation among the Arawak. Correspondence from the last decade of the sixteenth century also suggests that Spanish colonial officials were aware of indigenous settlements in the Rio Grande Valley. Thus scholars believe that through cultural interchange--most especially critical knowledge of the many uses of indigenous plants--and intermarriage with the Amerindian population, Maroons were able to prosper.

With the arrival of the British in 1655, a new and implacably hostile presence increasingly constrained Maroon life. Overthrowing the loosely organized hacienda system with a rigid racial slavocracy, the British tried for decades to subdue the mountain insurgents. Finally opting to cut their losses, the British signed a treaty in 1739 guaranteeing the Maroons their right to live unmolested. …

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