Most people know about the harsh conditions of slavery, but few are familiar with the communities developed by slaves who managed to escape. Once slaves evaded their owners, they could become part of free society. Of course, blacks and mulattoes could also be set free, or they could earn their freedom. Caribbean communities of free blacks are most often called Maroons.
The term Maroon was coined by the Spanish, and it refers to the slaves the Spanish let loose on Jamaica when the British took the island. These slaves were left to harass the British troops, and they did so for many years. However, they also developed their own communities during this time. The word is derived from the Spanish cimarrón meaning untamed or wild.
Although these first Maroons lived on Jamaica, many other free black communities of escaped slaves began to develop throughout the islands. Slaves would often escape to the interiors of islands, where the terrain was rougher. But when the colonists began expanding sugar plantations, slaves had no room to hide on many of the smallest islands, and they were often recaptured.
Maroon communities only existed on islands with land that remained unsettled by European colonists. On St. Vincent and Dominica - islands that were left to the Caribs - Maroon settlements developed. The Black Carib people are a mixture of the Caribs and the escaped slaves on St. Vincent. Maroons also lived on the French and Spanish sides of Hispaniola as well as on Guadeloupe and Cuba.
The Maroons on Jamaica had two major wars with the British colonists, but the first war established the group's freedom, acknowledged their communities, and designated territory for Maroons to have towns of their own. In turn, the Maroons would return escaped slaves to the whites.
In 1752, an escaped slave named Mackandal united both Spanish and French Maroons on Hispaniola. Planters believed that his secret organization intended to poison the whites of the island, and eventually he was captured. He was burned alive in 1758. Later, Le Maniel led a group of 137 against French troops on Hispaniola. This 1784 attack ended with a peace treaty between the Maroons and the French.
The Spanish had little power in the Caribbean, but by accepting and welcoming escaped slaves, they found an important way to undermine the power of other nations. If the male escapees accepted the Spanish king and converted to Catholicism, they would be accepted onto the island as free men.
This way to freedom was one many slaves chose. Most Dutch, Danish, and British slaves from the Lesser Antilles fled to Puerto Rico, the nearest Spanish holding. French slaves often escaped across the political boundaries on Hispaniola to become free on the Spanish side, while very few made the attempt to leave Jamaica for Cuba or British Tobago for Spanish Trinidad.
It was not uncommon for slaves to have offspring by a white master. In fact, slave codes often accounted for this match by giving the child the status of the mother, who was usually a slave. However, it was also common practice, particularly in Jamaica, for the children of mixed races to be freed.
A mulatto community on Jamaica developed to become quite strong, even fighting for the freedom and equality of the blacks. However, laws on the French islands kept mulattoes from performing certain jobs. These mixed-race people had an important role in the history of these islands.
Although slavery was a common practice, the islands were also home to several communities made up of free blacks. Whether they escaped or were freed by a master, their position was usually precarious, and social unrest was extremely common.
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