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« The Sea Maroons », a poetic expression for sometimes tragic destinies: those of men and women who escaped slavery by taking the path of water. The title of the book had caught my attention in the university library shelves and its accessible content made me want to share this reading with you. Today, I am talking to you about maroonage and particularly the French book Les Marrons de la mer, évasion d’esclaves de la Martinique vers les îles de la Caraïbe (1833-1848).
From the mountains to the city, small and large maroonages.
If you are not familiar with the history of the Caribbean, we use the term » maroon » [marron] or » maroon Negro » [nègre marron] to refer to a runaway slave. The word comes from the Spanish cimarron. It is generally accepted that there were two essential types of maroonage: small and large maroonage. The small maroonage consists of a temporary escape, the slave disappeared for a few days and usually returned on his own, sometimes introduced by a third person. He often did not leave very far from the master’s home, he escaped because he was hungry, because his partner was at another site, because he feared punishment, and for a host of other reasons explained by the violence and the deplorable living conditions of the people deprived of their freedom.
The great maroonage consists of a flight that is intended to be definitive, the enslaved person was trying to reclaim his freedom. The two most common forms that come to mind are the escape to the mountains and the escape to the cities. You may have heard of the escape to the mountains in Jamaica, where the size of the territory has allowed some maroons to reorganize themselves into small communities away from the plantations, but also in Suriname or Guyana with the Bushinengués… On the other hand, for the small territories of the Lesser Antilles islands, the maroonage towards the mountains was more difficult to structure in the long term. Nevertheless, it was practiced and mountain militias were specially assigned to search for the escaped women and men. But many maroons also tried to integrate into the mass of cities among the slaves and the Free of Colour. They could rent their workforce there and hide with the help of accomplices.
Sea maroons, escapes of slaves from Martinique to the Caribbean islands (1833-1848)
With the book, I discovered another form of great maroonage that I had hardly heard of until now, maroonage by the sea. To understand this phenomenon, I need to give you some contextual elements that some may have guessed from the subtitle of the book. On August 28, 1833, it was the Abolition Bill; England proclaimed the abolition of slavery in its colonies. Certainly, it was a gradual abolition for most of the Crown territories. Slaves were thus subjected to a form of learning freedom and it was not until 1838 that slavery was completely and definitively abolished. Nevertheless, for the French colonies, it took another ten years for the abolition of slavery to be proclaimed, 1848.
During these fifteen years, many slaves from the French colonies were therefore tempted to look for their freedom in the neighbouring English islands. Antigua, Dominica and Saint Lucia, to name but a few, could be seen as destinations for the maroon slaves of this period. Georges B. Mauvois thus describes throughout the pages what the sources have allowed him to learn from these sea maroons, the questions they raise, the possible analyses. It’s really exciting.
Running away by sea was one form of protest among others, not always easily observable. But canoe thefts were a crime; as such, they were the subject of reports. This shows the watermark of missed or successful escape attempts, some of which have been prepared for a long time. The phenomenon was so important that a boat police force was charged with carefully monitoring the surveillance of skiffs throughout the island. But canoes were not always stolen from a master; improvised boats were sometimes built hidden from prying eyes in the woods, mangroves or even in the middle of canes.
In July 1836, the colonial administrator estimated the number of escaping slaves at more than 800; compared to the population at the time, it was more or less 1% of the slaves who tried to leave the country! All in nuance, Georges B. Mauvois describes the profiles of the different candidates at the departure. It notes that women are less represented. To explain this, he hypothesizes that they had better access to legal emancipation, but also that they were responsible for the children, which further restricted their mobility. I also found it particularly interesting when he highlighted the exodus of « talent slaves », those who possessed a skill and who already held a form of mobility that hoe (field) slaves did not have. The taste for freedom nourishes the desire for freedom.
In short, if you read French and want to know more about Les Marrons de la mer, I really recommend you this little accessible book, the last posthumous opus that the historian gave us. And you, did you know about this phenomenon of maroonage by the sea? Have you read this book and especially the appendix in which the author shares a translation from a superb source: a text written in Saint Lucia on May 19, 1845, offering a reflection on Martinican refugees? Do you have any other references on the subject in English literature?
Georges B. Mauvois, Les Marrons de la mer, évasions d’esclaves de la Martinique vers les îles de la Caraïbe (1833-1848), Paris, Karthala/Ciresc, 2018.
I would like to take this opportunity to share the research project of Professors Jean-Pierre Le Glaunec and Léon Robichaud, who created an online database containing more than 12,000 slave runway advertisements in Santo Domingo (Haiti) in the 18th century. Major Work!