As provided for by the treaties of 1739 that ended the First Maroon War, the Maroons were instrumental in putting down the most serious slave rebellion in Jamaica’s history, Tacky’s Rebellion of 1760. In fact, it was a Maroon marksman, Davy, who shot Tacky, the leader of the revolt, and cut off Tacky’s head to guarantee payment of the bounty. Historian Edward Long in his 1774 History of Jamaica wrote:
Whether we consider the extent and secrecy of its plan, the multitude of the conspirators, and the difficulty of opposing its eruptions in such a variety of places at once,” this revolt was “more formidable than any hitherto known in the West Indies.”
Long tells us about a time in 1760 when fifteen hundred slaves staged an uprising in Jamaica, which began in the parish of St. Mary’s and continued in other parishes for about 18 months. The uprising was really a series of revolts that have been grouped under the title of Tacky’s Rebellion.
The leader, Tacky, was an Ashanti slave overseer on the Frontier plantation, who some believe to have been a chief in his Ghana homeland before being transported to Jamaica.
The rebels killed over 60 white people and destroyed thousands of pounds worth of property. Over five hundred male and female slaves died during the revolt. Some were killed in battle while others were executed by the British in retaliation for the uprising and still others committed suicide. Another 500 were transported from the island to serve as slaves in British Honduras, Central America. Colonists valued the total cost to the island at £250,000.
The Second Maroon War broke out in 1795. Many claimed the Maroons were encouraged by French agents and inspired by the formation of a black republic in Haiti. The public flogging of two Maroons convicted of stealing pigs from a white planter is, however, considered the casus belli that set off the conflict. Maroon efforts to incite slaves to revolt were mostly unsuccessful—slaves had developed a dislike for the Maroons, some of whom made a living hunting down and capturing runaway slaves for the government. Maroons had also fought on the side of planters in slave revolts.
After fierce fighting, the British forced the Maroons back into the Cockpit Country, a 500-square-mile area in northwest Jamaica, which provided natural defenses for Maroons communities.
The Cockpit Country, also known as “The Land of Look Behind,” is part of Jamaica’s great White Limestone plateau and has typical karst topography, with conical and hemispherical hills covered with scrubby trees, rising hundreds of feet above sinkholes, giving the area its name, “cockpits.”
The name “The Land of Look Behind” refers to the custom of British soldiers—fearing ambush from Maroons—always looking over their shoulders as they passed through the area.
For about five months, they mounted raids on plantations where they seized food from the slaves’ provision grounds. They killed European residents they encountered and ambushed government troops as well.
The Jamaican Legislature obtained a pack of hunting dogs from Cuba and used them to track down the Maroons.
After a few months of fighting, the Maroons surrendered. The British offered peace terms that would allow the Maroons to remain at liberty, but only to those who surrendered by a certain date.
Due to a misunderstanding of the terms of the treaty (some blame British duplicity) not many surrendered before the stipulated date, which placed their fate in the hands of members of the Legislature, who then decreed the Maroons be deported.
The British transported nearly 600 Trelawny Maroons, including men women and children, to Nova Scotia.
They landed in Halifax in July 1796 where they stayed for about four years. At first they lived in tents and barracks on the Citadel’s grounds and on other Crown-owned property. Later, the Crown granted them lands at Preston, Nova Scotia and they subsequently moved there.
In time, though, the Maroons became disenchanted. They had difficulty adapting to the harsh climate and unpalatable food of Nova Scotia and resented government attempts to convert them to Christianity and use them as cheap labourers. They also resented Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia Sir John Wentworth’s attempt to impose ‘civility’ on them .
Growing dissatisfaction eventually led nearly all the Jamaican Maroons in Nova Scotia to accept an offer from the Sierra Leone Company to resettle in a new British colony in Africa. In August 1800, 500 Maroons sailed for Sierra Leone where they founded Freetown. They were part of a group of 1,100 free black settlers, the majority of whom were former slaves of the American colonies who had been freed by the British during the American Revolution and forced to relocate to Nova Scotia after the British defeat.
Back in Jamaica, Maroons continued as a semi-autonomous agrarian nation living alongside the British colonists in relative peace. The treaties of 1739 reinforced Maroon cultural differences between them and the colonial slave and free-black population. Through these treaties, they became a legally free people with a unique Jamaican identity and with deeded territories held in common.
Between 1739 and the general emancipation of slaves in 1834, Maroon distinctiveness was further emphasized by them being used by the British as a sort of police force to track down and capture runaways and to put down slave rebellions. Even as late as 1865, Maroons played what had become their traditional role by helping the government to put down the Morant Bay peasant rebellion led by Paul Bogle.
Over the years, Maroons fought on the side of the British in several foreign wars, including expeditions in the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, numerous campaigns against the Spaniards in the Caribbean, wars against the Ashanti in Africa and in both World Wars.
Queen Nanny of the Windward Maroons is now a national heroine of Jamaica with the title, The Right Excellent Nanny. Also, Nanny’s portrait graces the Jamaican $500 bank note. It is safe to say, I think, that Nanny is the single most influential force in Maroon identity.