From her home nestled in the Blue and John Crow Mountains of eastern Jamaica, Ivelyn Harris can set her clock by nature.
“Listen good, you can hear them chirping,” she says, pausing on the phone. “The birds wake you up at five in the morning; they go back to sleep around 10; then at three, they wake up again.”
Birdwatchers, hikers, and campers are drawn here to the island’s only national park—which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015. The serene setting belies its stormy past.
Harris’s idyllic village of Moore Town is the ancestral territory of Jamaica’s legendary Maroons. Her foreparents were a band of escaped African slaves who prevailed against recapture by British regiments and became permanently free—six decades before the Haitian Revolution, and over a hundred years before the Emancipation Proclamation.
“The Maroons are the forerunners of Jamaican independence, and the independence of spirit,” says Harcourt Fuller, a Georgia State University associate professor of history and a Maroon from Moore Town. “Maroons say that they would rather die than live in bondage. I get emotional when I say that. It’s such a part of us: never to be bound, never to be subdued, always seeking justice, always striving to survive.”
Jamaicans have a saying, “we likkle, but we tallawah,” which translates to “we’re small, but we’re mighty.” It speaks to the quintessential disposition of the inhabitants of this Caribbean nation of three million people, which punches far above its weight in influence, with global exports of cuisine, music, intellectualism, language, and athleticism.
The Maroon legacy gets some credit for characteristics of ingenuity, fortitude, and mysticism, as shown by Jamaicans such as Bob Marley, Usain Bolt, Marcus Garvey, and 18th-century Maroon strategist Nanny.
In the United States, where nearly a million people identify as Jamaican American, people with Jamaican roots have made significant, wide-ranging contributions, most recently Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman elected to that office.
Free and self-governing
Deriving their name from the Spanish cimarron, which referred to runaway cattle, Maroons existed throughout the Americas—in Brazil, Mexico, Barbados, Suriname, and other regions—but the most famous were the West Africans who hailed mainly from the Akan tribe. They were brought to Jamaica to work the sugarcane fields by the British, who imported over 700,000 Africans between 1655 and 1807.
Sporadic groups of the enslaved periodically rose up to fight overseers and flee harsh plantation conditions for the island’s remote mountains and forests. They eventually split into two branches—the Leeward Maroons in the west, and the Windward Maroons in the east. They kept troops at bay with guerrilla tactics, like camouflaging themselves in trees, and using animal horns, called abeng, to blow coded messages, instead of engaging in direct combat.
After two exhausting Maroon Wars (1720-1739, 1795-1796), the British capitulated and signed peace treaties with the Maroons, enabling them to remain free and self-governing until slavery was abolished in the British Commonwealth in 1834.
The Government of Jamaica, established in 1962 when British rule ended, has largely respected the centuries-old Maroon agreements, although it has never ratified them. Although the government does not collect taxes on Maroon lands, which cannot be sold or used for collateral at a bank, it provides infrastructure—roads, bridges, schools, clinics—for the four main surviving Maroon villages: Charles Town, Moore Town, Accompong Town, and Scott’s Hall. The typically crime-free communities elect a council, led by a colonel or chief, to govern the populace, although residents are allowed to utilize Jamaica’s judicial system.
The self-reliant Maroon villages—home to about 700 Maroons and their children, according to the Institute of Jamaica—are sustained by agriculture and tourism. Ivelyn Harris’s livelihood is a combination of both. A seventh-generation Maroon herbalist, or “bush doctor,” she typically welcomes a stream of visitors to her wellness retreat, an hour’s drive from Kingston, Jamaica’s capital.
The pandemic has halted tourism to Maroon enclaves, which, perhaps as a result of their seclusion, have not reported a single case of the coronavirus among the four major villages, says Harris, 68. She attributes general Maroon haleness to “the air, the food, the atmosphere.” Locals also have enough rudimentary knowledge of herbal remedies to “heal themselves,” she says. “They know which herbs to use if their belly hurts, or if they have colic, or a sprain.”
On a recent morning, instead of the half-dozen daily tours she usually leads, Charles Town Colonel Marcia Douglas, 44, is monitoring 30 children doing virtual schooling inside the Asafu Culture Yard, which hosts visitors for lunch, drumming classes, craft workshops, and talks on traditional herbs and teas.
As kids chatter in the background, she laments the economic drought that has befallen Charles Town, located at the foot of the Blue Mountains, an hour-and-a-half drive from the Ocho Rios cruise port. “We use our culture to tell the story of our foreparents and also as a means of providing our main income,” says Douglas. But now, “all of our businesses are shut down.”
When the pandemic subsides, there are myriad ways to discover and enjoy Maroon history. The villages are free for anyone to visit, but it’s recommended to contact the local colonel in advance to arrange guided tours, special meals, and home stays.
Special holidays include June 23, when Charles Town holds a Quao Day celebration to mark the signing of the peace treaty between the British and Colonel Quao in 1739. Every January 6, Accompong Town celebrates its 1738 treaty and the birthday of Cudjoe, Nanny’s brother.
Heroes and heritage
Today’s Jamaica reveres its Maroon history. Among the seven figures designated as “National Heroes” by the government, the only woman is Nanny, who also appears on the country’s $500 banknote.
Historical reflection doesn’t always favor the Maroons. Some Jamaicans have been disappointed to learn that the treaties that cemented Maroons’ freedom also obtained the rebels’ agreement not to aid future runaways or slave uprisings. “That has caused tensions over the years,” admits Vivian Crawford, executive director of the Institute of Jamaica, and a Moore Town native. But he suggests that Maroons had to be wary of newcomers, because the British sometimes used African captives as spies to locate and destroy Maroon strongholds.
Additionally, because their communities are off-the-beaten track and the insular Maroons tend to stick close to home, present-day descendants are sometimes viewed suspiciously by fellow Jamaicans, and not always esteemed.
“We were not regarded as special, because it depends on who wrote the history. When I left home and went to college, I realized that history taught that we were wild,” says Crawford, 80, recalling the astonishment of his classmates that he could play piano. “That was what redeemed me; they figured a Maroon was only supposed to play drums,” he says, laughing.
Drumming is a significant part of Maroon culture; other Maroon contributions to the island’s heritage include traditional dances, the jerk method of cooking, medicinal use of plants, and, of course, a rebellious national spirit.
“We’re still warriors, but in a different way this time,” says Douglas. She explains how in recent years, her district organized peacefully against proposals for nearby bauxite mining. On another occasion, when the adjoining community wasn’t getting any water despite paying their bills, the Maroons came together and seized the vehicle of the water commission and blocked the road until the water problem was fixed.
“It’s not about throwing rocks,” says Douglas. “It’s about standing up for what you believe in.”
Ashante Infantry is a Canadian journalist based in Atlanta, Georgia. She is a former instructor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism and a 20-year veteran of the Toronto Star. Follow her on Twitter.