Maroons in the Caribbean Are Fighting for Political Power

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Amanda Choo Quan (Teen Vogue) on the ongoing legacy of the Maroons.

Akilah Jaramogi and her family live in a forest partly of their own making, partly of the Earth’s. She knows that her family and their community cannot take all the credit for the hundreds of acres of land they have helped to replant — 300, estimates Jaramogi, more fondly known as Mama Akilah. Doing so is not in keeping with the traditions she learned as a child.

Mama Akilah’s ancestors, African Americans who escaped from bondage, participated in an influential, nearly lost part of American history. While slavery continued in the United States and the British West Indies, they established villages in the latter, living off the land. Long after slavery ended, it was here that Mama Akilah was sent by her grandmother to pick herbs like ditay payee, its leaves a luminous green, but with edges serrated like a knife. 

“If you pick [plants] in the night,” Mama Akilah says, “you have to ask the permission of the tree.” It is a practice that she, now an elder, still performs today. “You pick a leaf, you drop it on the ground” she explains. “And then you pick your herbs.” 

Ditay payee is an adaptation of either French or Spanish, meaning, roughly, “tea of the country.” Its etymology seems minor — as small as a seed. But it isn’t, because Mama Akilah was born and lives in Trinidad and Tobago. The southernmost island in the Caribbean, Trinidad was one of the earliest settled by Indigenous groups rising from what is now South America —before their genocide at the hands of the Spanish, the island’s capture by the British, and the deliberate atrocities of the Euro-American slave trade.

Language — designation — matters. And though conquering is the reigning narrative arising from this time in history, it is not the only one. Throughout history, formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants resisted by becoming Maroons: fleeing plantations, in many cases forming communities they ruled on their own terms, and even taking up arms, using sophisticated military strategy against their colonial oppressors.

“Someone goes Maroon when they escape the plantation, but remain within the slave state,” says SJ Zhang, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago currently writing a book on the topic.

The term “Marronage” is broad in that it generally describes this resistant form of running away. But it’s also a specific term used to name and describe the societies that retained and developed a culture and society while defiantly living in isolation and autonomy. Throughout the Americas and beyond, many of these folks, like the Jamaican Maroons and the Merikins of Trinidad and Tobago — the latter of whom are Mama Akilah’s people — still observe centuries-old traditions and live on territory inherited from their ancestors.

Some descendants of those who “[went] Maroon” are in fact of mixed heritage, with free Africans and their descendants joining with Indigenous peoples of the Americas, hiding and forming societies together in tricky, hilly terrain inaccessible by the British, as was the case with the Jamaican Maroons who claim Taino heritage.  

Their collective resistance and rebellion helped change the course of history. Marcus Garvey, the famous Pan-Africanist, was the son of a Maroon, while Dutty Boukman, a Senegambian Vodun priest, helped start the Haitian Revolution. 

Today, amid efforts by Indigenous peoples across the world to protect and reclaim their lands and societies, the Caribbean Maroons and Merikins are doing the same. Faced with rising stakes, including threats to their land, to their bodies, and criticism from detractors who claim that their Indigeneity is nullified by their Blackness — that they cannot claim a kinship to a land to which their ancestors were brought — these communities are blazing forward anyway.

A new movement, started by Caribbean women descended from runaway slaves, is fighting for acknowledgement. This movement wants the United Nations and Caribbean governments to formally recognize them as Indigenous, as tribal. Lead by Ga’ama Gloria “Mama G” Simms, the Paramount Queen of the Maroons, Fidelia Graand-Galon of the Okanisi/Ndyuka Nation, and Mama Akilah herself, the CEO of the Merikin Heritage Foundation, it represents groups from Dominica, Guyana, Saint Lucia, Guadeloupe, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname, Jamaica, Grenada, Carriacou, St. Vincent, and Belize. A global cadre of scholars, lawyers, activists, and former diplomats, some of whom are also Indigenous, Maroon, or Merikin, joins them.

“We would like to be recognized and acknowledged by the present-day government of the country, and especially on matters concerning us,” Mama G, as she is more usually known, says on a call from a former Maroon stronghold in Jamaica.

“When we address our need from our own perspective, bearing in mind who we are,” Mama G continues, her tone cordial but commanding, “it is more meaningful, and more worthwhile, and more beneficial to everyone.” Mama G speaks of the Westminster model of government, of a colonial education system that doesn’t teach the community what it needs, of little consultation with the community regarding its public health needs in the face of a pandemic.

Even though Jamaica technically gained its independence from Britain in 1962, her people are still struggling to preserve their autonomy, even while there is a baseline need — what with the fight over discussions of slavery in U.S. history books, and with the Caribbean’s own private war over its internalized racism — to simply prove that they exist. [. . .]

It is impossible to ever fully know what survival demanded of these Black communities claiming Indigeneity, who must still prove their worth to a modern public consisting, in part, of their own countrymen. Looking through comment sections, it’s clear some Jamaicans see the Maroons’ need to preserve their culture as an affront to their own. They thank the Maroons for their maintenance of Cockpit Country and for their cultural contributions, but cannot reckon with the trickier task of seeing this labor as attached to a self-determined people.

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