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The Maroons

The Maroons

In Jamaica, the first Maroons were the indigenous Tainos, a group of Arawak people that migrated from South and Central America. They moved to the hills when the Spanish invaded Jamaica in 1494. A number of the first Africans that were brought into Jamaica by the Spanish, 1513 onwards, moved straight to the hills. They came into contact with and lived among the Tainos.

The Blue Mountains of Jamaica are really blue, sometimes bluer than the sky and sometimes when their bases are lost in the heat haze their summits appear enskyed, distant, remote, removed. It was to their vastness, to their hidden secret valleys and remote plateaus that men and women, in pursuit of freedom, fled to be marooned.

In the earliest days of Spanish settlement those Africans who preferred to take a chance of freedom in the mountains rather than bear the burden of slavery on the ranches and estates ran away into the wild parts, to the mountains like those that rise up from behind Port Antonio. The runaway slaves were called Maroons from the Spanish word 'cimmarron' meaning "wild" or "untamed." As the number of African slaves brought to Jamaica increased so too did the number of Maroons.

Some held the wild lands known as the 'Cockpit Country' or the 'Land of Look Behind,' with their chief base at Accompong. Another band was based on Nanny Town. These kept Port Antonio in a state f terror early in the 18th century. A third band held the eastern Blue Mountains under the leadership of men like Quaco. Experts in guerrilla warfare, they would win battle after battle against the British. The maroons would sweep down in the silence of the pre-dawn shifting in and out of the circling mist.

 It is important to state here that the first Taino and African Maroons in Jamaica were never slaves. They saw the signs of things to come and acted speedily to get away from it. The growing number of runaway slaves, however, later expanded the Maroon groups across the island.

Beginning in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Jamaican Maroons fought British colonists to a draw and eventually signed treaties in the 18th century that effectively freed them over 50 years before the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. To this day, the Jamaican Maroons are to a significant extent autonomous and separate from Jamaican society. The physical isolation used to their advantage by their ancestors has today led to their communities remaining amongst the most inaccessible on the island. In their largest town, Accompong, in the parish of St. Elizabeth, the Leeward Maroons still possess a vibrant community of about 600. Tours of the village are offered to foreigners and a large festival is put on every January 6 to commemorate the signing of the peace treaty with the British after the First Maroon War.

18th century. map of Jamaica showing 14 parishes.

  • 1656 - Jamaica. English military commanders whose forces invaded this Spanish colony reported
    "The by themselves in several parties, very often, as our men go into the woods...destroy and kill them with their launces...our English...seldom killing any of them."

(see Admiral Sir William Penn).

  • 1670 - Jamaica. Reward offered for Juan de Serras, leader of one of the free settlements on the island.
  • 1673 - Jamaica. Rebellion in parish of St. Ann. About 200 freed slaves escape to the mountains and are never dislodged.
  • 1674 - Jamaica.
  • 1675 - Jamaica. martial law declared, 35 slaves executed for conspiracy in Parish of St Mary. Slave leaders identified as Peter, Scanenburg and Doctor.
  • 1678 - Jamaica. Martial Law declared in connection with uprisings at Caymanas in St. Catherine.
  • 1683 - Jamaica. Conspiracy involving 180 slaves is betrayed in Vere.
  • 1685 - Jamaica. Rebellion on 4 plantations at Guanaboa Vale. 7 rebels are killed and 50 captured, 63 escape.
  • 1686 - Jamaica. A guerrilla band numbering 40 - 100 slaves whose ship had been wrecked of the island are reported operating in St. Mary, St. George and St. Thomas ye Vale.
  • 1685-88 - Jamaica. 52 slaves executed for rebellious behaviour.
  • 1690 - Jamaica. 500 slaves rebel at Suttons in Clarendon. Some 150 armed rebels establish a strong settlement in the central mountains.
  • 1702 - Jamaica.
  • 1704 - Jamaica. Insurrection involving 30 slaves, 12 of whom die. The island Governor reported that "the ringleaders were taken and executed and the rest sent off the island".
  • 1718 - Jamaica. Reports that rebels are freeing slaves from plantations.
  • 1728-29 - Jamaica. Troops sent from Britain to assist the local militia. This causes the escaped slaves to come together in two main groupings. This is the start of the Maroon Wars.
  • 1730-40 -1st Maroon War, Jamaica. The Windwood Maroons were lead by Nanny and the Leeward Maroons were lead by Cudjoe. Nanny ruled as an African Queen and an obeah Woman and carried on African culture and traditions amongst her people. When there was fighting the women and children under her protection would hide in 'Girls' Town' or 'Women's Town' in the John Crow Mountains. Nanny made a vow on Pumpkin Hill in 1737 to fight the British to death. When she did sign the treaty with the British she was wearing the teeth of her dead British enemies. She established Nanny Town which is still in existence. In 1977 she was awarded the posthumous honour of 'National Heroine'.
  • 1739 - Jamaica. Cadjoe, the leader of the Maroons, signs peace treaty with the British.
  • 1746 - Jamaica.
  • 1760 - Jamaica. Two major rebellions, one smaller one and many conspiracies were discovered. The first rebellion is known as, 'Tacky's Revolt', in the parish of St. Mary. It took two army regiments, the local militia and the use of marines from a British warship allied with Maroon mercenaries to quell the rebellion. This was immediately followed by a small rebellion at Manchioneal in St. Thomas, this was put down. However, on June 2nd an extremely large rebellion took place on plantations in Westmoreland. It is thought to have involved some 600 slaves who came up against 3 army companies, the militia from the three western parishes and 100 marines. Yet by November 7th the Lieutenant Governor thought that the rebellion had not been completely put down. The Lieutenant Governor also reported the discovery of four other conspiracies in the parishes of Clarendon, St. John, St. Dorothy and St. Thomas in the east of the island. The leaders of these rebellions were treated thus: burned alive, hung in irons and starved, 400 were executed, 600 were transported to the Bay of Honduras in Central America. 
  • 1765 - Bay of Honduras (Belize). A number of slaves, including some of those deported from Jamaica in the 1760 rebellion rose up and escaped from their owners.
  • 1765 - Jamaica. A ill-timed uprising in St. Mary lead to defeat and 13 slaves were executed while another 33 were transported to be sold.
  • 1766 - Jamaica. Between 33 - 45 slaves rebelled in Westmoreland - those not killed during the rebellion were executed after capture.
  • 1769 - Jamaica. Conspiracy for a rebellion was betrayed. Many slaves were put to a 'painful' death.
  • 1795-96 - Jamaica. 2nd Maroon War.
  • 1795 - Jamaica. Acting under instructions from the Earl of Balcarres, who was the Lieutenant Governor, troops attacked one of the 5 Maroon 'towns' on the island. This started the 2nd Maroon war. The Governor thought the War would last a few days but it lasted four and a half months with the British having to, once again, sign a peace treaty with the maroons. In accordance with the terms of the treaty the Maroons involved gave up their arms. The island Assembly then agreed to the transportation of the maroons involved. They were eventually sent to Sierra Leone.
  • 1798 - Jamaica. 19 escaped slaves moved to the area formally occupied by the Maroons of the 2nd Maroon War. The island government sent troops against them, some were killed but others survived.
  • 1799 - Jamaica. When French slave owners brought their slaves to Jamaica to escape the Haiti revolution a conspiracy was discovered and around 1,000 slaves were deported.
  • 1803 - Jamaica. Conspiracy discovered in Kingstown and two slaves executed.
  • 1806 - Jamaica. Conspiracy discovered in St. George, one slave executed and 5 others deported.
  • 1808 - Jamaica. 50 involuntary slave recruits of the 2nd. West India Regiment mutinied at Fort Augusta killing two officers.
  • 1809 - Jamaica. Conspiracy discovered in Kingstown, two slaves hanged and others transported.
  • 1815 - Jamaica. Major conspiracy discovered involving around 250 Ibo slaves, their leaders were hanged.
  • 1823 - Jamaica. Conspiracy discovered, leaders executed.
  • 1824 - Jamaica. Conspiracy discovered in Hanover and suppressed by a large military force. 11 slaves hanged others transported or flogged. Also, at the other end of Jamaica 4 rebels were hanged. Slaves had to be restrained from interfering with the executions. One of the leaders said that the revolt had not been subdued but that "the war had only just begun."
1831-32 - Jamaica. The Emancipation rebellion of Western Jamaica. This was the largest rebellion in the British West Indies involving some 20,000 slaves and was lead by Sam Sharpe whose main plan was a 'General Strike' against slavery. If the demands of the strike were not met then there was to be military and arson attacks. 'An extensive and destructive insurrection' broke out in the Western District. The Great House and sugar works at Kensington Estate in St. James were set on fire. Other arson attacks on plantations followed. 201 rebels were killed in fighting the combined forces of the British army, navy and local militia. Some 750 slaves and 14 free persons were put on trial and convicted to death or severe flogging (200 - 500 lashes). 21 were transported. When Sharpe was waiting to be executed (May, 23rd, 1832) he said, "I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live in slavery!"

Maroons were defiant Jamaican slaves who fled their oppressive existence on plantations and formed their own communities in the rugged, hilly interior of the island. They were considered skilled fighters and hard to defeat. Under Spanish rule, up to the 1650s, slaves escaped and intermarried with the native islanders, Arawaks, in their communities. Later, when the British assumed control of the colony, more slaves were able to escape from plantations to join the two main bands of Maroons in Jamaica: Leeward and Windward Maroons, headed respectively by Nanny of the Maroons and Captain Cudjoe.

The Maroons mainly consisted of people from the Akan region of West Africa. The Ashante tribe, from which Nanny came, lived in this region. However, slaves originating from other regions of West Africa joined the Maroons in their escapes. For over 150 years, the Maroons helped to free slaves from the plantations whilst they damaged land and property belonging to the plantation owners.

Maroon Lifestyle

The lifestyle of the early Maroons was a combination of Taino and African traditions, which were similar in many ways. There was a chief and a council of elders. They spoke several languages – the most common was called Kramanti, which was similar to the Twi language of the Asante people of Ghana. Their main contact with the outside was their secret trade in jerk pork with the Spanish resistance, which extended to Cuba, and trade with the pirates for who jerk pork was a favourite.

Boys aged 14 and above went with the men to hunt wild hog. They used dogs to locate and chase the pigs. This was a gruelling and dangerous activity as the Maroons had to keep up with the chase through gullies, over boulders, under bushes and across streams. When the pig slowed down from exhaustion, it was speared in the heart. The pig was then deboned, salted, and seasoned with pimento, pepper and herbs before jerked on pimento wood for up to six hours. Men were generally responsible for the heavy clearing and tilling of the land. Women did the weeding and everyone participated in harvesting the crops.

Women were well respected – they were mothers, wives and farmers and the first teachers of the young. Women also participated in providing leadership and direction for their clan, for example Queen Nanny who was also known as Granny Nanny, Champong Nanny and Grandy Nanny. She was a spiritual leader, fighter and strategist.

Like among the Tainos, age was respected among the Maroons. Children were taught to respect their elders, community leaders and chief. Their education was through story telling, to learn their cultural traditions, and observation and participation, to learn bush survival. As the children grew older, they helped to clear the land for cultivation and were responsible for feeding the poultry. Plantain was the main produce.

Each village had a midwife and herbal doctor, although every family was knowledgeable in the everyday use of herbs. Much of the knowledge was carried with the original Maroons from their villages in Africa or learnt from the Tainos. Herbal doctors were able to find cures for many illnesses, from colds and fevers to infertility and eye infections. The knowledge of the herbal doctor was passed down from the ancestors, who the Maroons believed were wiser and greater than they were and was always around them and in easy reach. They believed that these ancestral spirits watched over the community and shared in their concerns and were even able to intervene in the life of the community. Maroons believed in a creator God that was called Nyancompong or Yankipon and drumming and dancing were used in religious ceremonies.

Music was very important to the Maroons. Some of the musical instruments used were the Kramanti and Goombay drums, a string instrument called banjo, a wind instrument called fife and a variety of rattles, shakers, scrapers and cymbals. The abeng or akete is a war cry instrument, which was used for warning, calling and celebrating. Their songs told stories of their African past and ancestors and moral stories of the trickster called Anancy. Songs were sung to commemorate different events. Stories and proverbs were told to teach children about their heritage and how to conduct themselves in everyday life.

Jamaican Maroons fought British colonists to a draw and eventually signed treaties in the 18th century that effectively freed them over 50 years before the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. To this day, the Jamaican Maroons are to a significant extent autonomous and separate from Jamaican society. The physical isolation used to their advantage by their ancestors has today led to their communities remaining amongst the most inaccessible on the island. In their largest town, Accompong, in the parish of St. Elizabeth, the Leeward Maroons still possess a vibrant community of about 600. Tours of the village are offered to foreigners and a large festival is put on every January 6 to commemorate the signing of the peace treaty with the British after the First Maroon War


Two British regiments were brought from England but the soldiers took to rum so enthusiastically that they never had a chance against the illusive maroons in the fortress of the Blue Mountains. An expedition under the command of Captain Stoddart fought their way into the mountains above Nanny town and succeeded in dragging two cannons into the heights overlooking the villages and blew them to pieces. Those who survived went farther into the mountains. They showed the British by their subsequent counter attacks that they had not been destroyed. The British war against the maroons was costly in terms of men and materials.

Peace came only when a treaty was made with them in 1739. The remarkable document recognised them as a free people and handed over to them 1, 500 acres of land. It further allowed them to administer their own laws. The maroons agreed to ally themselves with the government of Jamaica against any invader, such as the French from nearby Haiti or the Spaniards from Cuba as well as to hand over any runaway slaves.