Maroons: How Runaway Slaves Created Startup Societies

The Atlantic slave trade is a dark period of history that no nation likes associated with itself: African natives were often sold into slavery by their own tribesmen, and a pincer movement of the Islamic slave drivers from the East and highly organised western exploiters left a scar on African culture for centuries to come.

Many of these slaves’ destination were the “West Indies” — what we now know as the Caribbean. After brutal capture, inhuman auctions and appalling transport across the Atlantic (that many didn’t survive), the slaves were put to work in fields of cash crops like sugar-cane, cotton, peppers and cinnamon.

However, resistance was fast, hard, and ever-present. A main problem for a slave escaping his masters’ clutches was: Where to? The choice was often between more amenable jurisdictions (e.g. Canada), Piracy, or a third option: a startup society.

Maroon societies are communities of runaway slaves in the Americas, a recurrent feature of the history of African slavery over nearly 300 years. The term derives from the Spanish cimarrón, originally referring to feral dogs or cattle but by the early 1500s also signifying runaway slaves.

Maroon societies were most common in the Caribbean and Brazil but were also widespread in North America and elsewhere. To slave owners and ruling groups they represented a constant and serious challenge to the institution of African slavery generally, while to slaves they represented the possibility of life outside the shackles of the slave regime. Caribbean societies were called palenques, and Brazilian ones were known as Quilombos.

The Quillombo San Dugal, in Puerto Rico

Some of these communities would be settled by thousands of people and could endure for decades, or even generations — relying on a subsistence agriculture economy. These startup societies rose in parallel to the Atlantic slave trade, and some of them survived to become nations in their own right.

The pearl of the Antilles

French colonial rule was brutal and efficient, ranging from French Polynesia, across the East coast of Canada, to the northern coast of South America and the Greater Antilles. One of these Greater Antilles was the island of Hispaniola (Called Haiti by the native Taino people) that the French set up shop in.

Haitians revolted against the French from 1791–1804. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, provincial governors were unable to secure reinforcements that would beat down uprisings. The political turmoil half a world away was a blessing for the peoples of Haiti: native, African, and those in between.

Over 85% of Haitians are of African origin.

The uprising was successful and a new republic of free people came to be. Understandably, Maroon societies stopped being as prevalent once a Haitian government that outlawed slavery and even went so far as to disallow voting rights to white persons was established. Runaway slaves from Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Cuba and elsewhere flocked to the newly-independent nation, in one of the most monumental cases of competitive governance in the world.

One of the most important outcomes of this revolution was that it forced Napoleon Bonaparte to sell Louisiana to the U.S. in 1803, resulting in a major geostrategic windfall for the United States. When Haitians took their independence in 1804, they changed their colonial name from Saint Domingue (the name given by the French) to its Taino name of Haiti. The newly-acquired land made cultural influence of the French-speaking Haiti and Louisiana seep into the mainland U.S.

The First African Republic

A mere 13 years after the independence of Haiti, American Evangelical and Quaker abolitionists decided to join their efforts, minds and thoughts in the creation of an African nation for slaves who were freed by way of manumission (purchasing and then freeing a slave), which the founders of the American Colonization Society (ACS) often practiced.

The ACS secured donations in the hundreds of thousands of dollars (many millions today) from State, local, Federal and private sources. Ships containing freemen mostly from Virginia and South Carolina arrived in what is now Monrovia, Sierra Leone.

Through pressure tactics, threats, bribery and stealth, the ACS secured land concessions from the local tribal leaders. The intentions and methods of the ACS were far from good: they considered black people to be unfit for civil life in the US, and desired instead to create an artificial state they could send undesirables.

The ACS first met in 1816, and the Freetown project was started in 1821.

This new nation was called Liberia, with the capital city of Freetown. The first attempt at creating “Freetown” was a group of just under 100 people, 10 of them being white. The expedition died of yellow fever within weeks, and further attempts were better prepared. Today, Liberia is a west-African nation that (despite pop-culture representations) has a booming economy and tourism sector.

What can we learn?

We have to understand that the world was no less intelligent then than it is now — it was also very much globalized. The empires of yesteryear faced systemic, complex problems in much the same way our nation-states face similar issues.

What was once the issue of runaway slaves can now be extrapolated to mean the problem of refugees and stateless persons. There are people who are not being well serviced by their respective governments — in the 18th century as well as now. “Owning” human beings is essentially just bad governance: rights not being universally applied to all within a society.

The same goes for political dissidents and other people who are not being given a fair deal by their government, who have the right to leave and start their own.

Too long, didn’t read

1. Maroon societies are startup societies created by escaped slaves in the Americas.

2. Haiti successfully became an independent nation after a revolution in 1804.

3. What is now Liberia was started by wealthy Americans who didn’t want black people in the US, but didn’t want them to be slaves, either.

4. The problems of yesteryear are still present: all problems of human rights are problems of governance, and startup societies are more often than not effective ways of fighting those problems.

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