Thursday 22 December 2011

The Maroons of the Blue Mountains

The Blue Mountains of Jamaica are spectacular. Almost twice as high as our own Cierro Aripo, they appear to have heaved themselves upwards at some distant and prehistoric moment when Atlas shrugged, easing his shoulder bone from the worlds weight.
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 run away slaves were called Maroons from the Spanish word ‘cimmarron’ meaning “wild” or “untamed.” As the number of African slaves brought to Jamaica increased so to 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 of 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. The plantation dogs, curiously silent at their approach, appearance sudden, their departure swift, taking with them supplies of food, women and young people. Legends about them grew that they had the ability to appear and disappear, to stand so still in the evergreen that a party of soldiers could pass them by sight unseen. They could ambush and wipe out columns sent against them.
Caribs brought in from the Mosquito Coast of Central America to track them down were wiped out. Two British regiments were brought from England but the soldiers took to rum so enthusiastically that they never had a chance against the elusive maroons in a 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 over looking the villages and blew them to pieces. Those who survived went further 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 recognized 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. Sir Phillip Sherlock remarks in his paper on the maroons, “The Maroon has been absorbed into Jamaica though anyone who knows West Africa would find signs of Africa clearer in the Maroon villages than anywhere else in the West Indies.” The novelist Peter Abrahams found this when he went some years ago to Accompong to speak with the Colonel, as the leader of the Maroons from generation to generation over the centuries is described. He had recently returned from the Gold Coast and found the similarities in physical appearance and lifestyle striking. Impressed by the dignity of the Colonel, he described him as “a tall, slender man, very dark with a lined but tranquil face...”
Sir Phillip Sherlock in his closing remarks catches well the spirit of the Blue Mountains in saying:
“The Maroon is not representative of a national movement. He is tribal rather than national. He sometimes fights as an ally of the oppressor of Africans. But he is a symbol of man’s love for freedom, a token and agent of active protest against slavery. If you were to go to the Maroon village at Moore Town in the Blue Mountains you would find that there was no difference between the Maroon and the other men who gather towards the evening in the rum shop to talk and take their tot of white rum, or Cowneck as it is sometimes called since only a cows throat can tolerate the hair raising stuff; or who still go pig hunting in the shadow of Stoddart’s peak or Sugar Loaf or Candlefly, hacking their way through the thickets of sharp bladed bamboo grass or hog grass; or who sell leathery highly peppered jerk pork in the streets of Port Antonio, or tell tales at night of the giant wild hog that their fathers hunted, a great red boar that killed six dogs and a man. Of the giant boar: it is a backra duppy, a bad man duppy, says one. Or they speak of the common bushman’s belief that if you are so unlucky as to have to camp near Nanny town for the night, white birds will come and perch in tiers in the surrounding trees. You can let off all your shot in vain. It goes through them. They are all ghost of the Nanny Town dead..."
There is an enormous significance in this colonel talking over a glass of rum in an old house set in the forested mountain side above Accompong, for he has behind him a long history of protest and the rejection of slavery - more than 250 years of freedom!

No comments: