It is estimated that some 5 million kidnapped Africans died en route to slave plantations across the Atlantic ocean. Most were killed by their captors during transit — some before reaching the point of departure from their African holding ports and others during the journey aboard the slave ships — some succumbed to illnesses of the mind and body, and some made the conscious decision to choose death over subjugation. Then they were the survivors: people who through sheer determination held on to their grip on life and on to their sanity as they made the voyage under the most barbaric conditions imaginable. From this hardy group — the fittest of the fit — a band of warriors would emerge, a people brutalized and dehumanized but who would nonetheless arrive in the West with their spirits unbroken, their resolve unshaken, their heads unbowed. This group would become known as the mighty Maroons.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines maroon as “a fugitive slave….” This dismissive, belittling definition fails to capture the essence of who those warriors really were. The Maroons of Jamaica, for example, didn’t just flee from slavery, that is but less than one third the story. The Maroons would return to engage the enemies time and time again. They put the fear of God in slaveowners and colonial administrators alike. They took on the mightiest armies of the time and beat them back time and time again. They fought two declared wars against the British and forced that great power to the bargaining table. In Haiti, they chased both the British and the French armies outta town. Over in the Lesser Antilles, the Danish were sent scrambling from the islands they had captured.
A fair amount of people still do harbor the view that black struggle for human rights and justice started with Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech so I am not surprised that people do not know of the Maroons and of their contribution to the rich tapestry of the Americas. How they influenced geopolitics and the cultures of North, South, and Central America and the Caribbean Islands. After all, as my Grandma was fond of saying, “When the hunter writes the story, the lion is always dead.” Anglo-American textbooks were largely written by white folks and for the glorification of white folks. For example, do you know who reaped the most benefits from the hard work of the Maroons? What if I were to tell you that the United States of America gained some 14 states dirt cheap as a direct result of the rebellion inspired and led by Maroons on the island of Hispaniola?
The Louisiana Purchase
One of Thomas Jefferson’s greatest achievements was the Louisiana Purchase, in which the United States acquired 828,800 square miles of the French territory La Louisiane in 1803. Encompassing all or part of 14 current U.S. states, the land included all of present-day Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, parts of Minnesota that were west of the Mississippi River, most of North Dakota, nearly all of South Dakota, northeastern New Mexico, portions of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado east of the Continental Divide, and Louisiana west of the Mississippi River. Today, the land included in the purchase comprises approximately 23% of the territory of the United States.
Yes, Maroons forced Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte to abandon his ambitious plans for extending his French empire to the doorsteps of the United States. Without the strategic advantages — and the authority to continue to plunder the natural resources of the island — San Domingo provided, it was impossible for the French to effectively defend the vast territory and thus the US got those lands at cents on the dollar.
How dare we then presume to use the word maroon to mean anything other than fierce, formidable, indomitable, freedom fighter?
Maroons in Jamaica
Beginning in the late 17th century, Jamaican Maroons fought British colonists to a draw and eventually signed treaties in the 18th century that effectively freed them over 50 years before the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. To this day, the Jamaican Maroons are to a significant extent autonomous and separate from Jamaican society. The physical isolation used to their advantage by their ancestors has today led to their communities remaining among the most inaccessible on the island. In their largest town, Accompong, in the parish of St. Elizabeth, the Leeward Maroons still possess a vibrant community of about 600. Tours of the village are offered to foreigners and a large festival is put on every January 6 to commemorate the signing of the peace treaty with the British after the First Maroon War.
Queen Nanny of the Maroons, aka Granny Nanny
Both legends and documents refer to her as having exceptional leadership qualities. She was a small, wiry woman with piercing eyes. Her influence over the Maroons was so strong, that it seemed to be supernatural and was said to be connected to her powers of obeah. She was particularly skilled in organising the guerilla warfare carried out by the Eastern Maroons to keep away the British troops who attempted to penetrate the mountains to overpower them.
Her cleverness in planning guerilla warfare confused the British and their accounts of the fights reflect the surprise and fear which the Maroon traps caused among them.
First person account of a meeting with Queen Nanny
In Memoirs and Anecdotes of Phillip Thickness Late Lieutenant Governor, for instance, reference is made to Nanny as, ï¿½The Old Hagg. . . had a girdle around her waist with (I speak within compass) nine or ten different knives hanging in sheaths to it, many of which I have no doubt, had been plunged in human flesh and bloodï¿½ (Gottlieb, 2000, 25).
Maroons in Haiti
Other slave resistance efforts against the French plantation system were more direct. The maroon leader Mackandal led a movement to poison the drinking water of the plantation owners in the 1750s. Boukman declared war on the French plantation owners in 1791, sparking off the Haitian Revolution. A statue called the Le Nègre Marron or the Nèg Mawon is an iconic bronze bust that was erected in the heart of Port-au-Prince to commemorate the role of maroons in Haitian independence.
Maroons in Suriname
In the plantation colony of Suriname, which England ceded to the Netherlands in the Treaty of Breda, escaped Blacks revolted and started to build their own villages from the end of the 17th century. As most of the plantations existed in the eastern part of the country, near the Commewijne River and Marowijne River, the Marronage (i.e., running away) took place along the river borders and sometimes across the borders of French Guiana. By 1740 the Maroons had formed clans and felt strong enough to challenge the Dutch colonists, forcing them to sign peace treaties. On October 10, 1760, the Ndyuka signed such a treaty forged by Adyáko Benti Basiton of Boston, a former enslaved African from Jamaica who had learned to read and write and knew about the Jamaican treaty. The treaty is still important, as it defines the territorial rights of the Maroons in the gold-rich inlands of Suriname.
Maroons in the US
By 1787, this band of guerrilla fighters posed a serious enough threat that the Georgia legislature sent a force of state troopers to find and destroy the maroon village. Although six maroons were killed and others wounded, most of the people fled into the South Carolina swamps. Heeding the advice of James Jackson, commander of the Georgia militia, the governors of South Carolina and Georgia launched a joint mission against the maroons. Lewis was captured, tried, and hanged. Afterwards, his head was severed and placed on a pole. Despite this brutal warning, numerous instances of guerrilla attacks continued to be reported.
In 1795, a maroon community led by "General of the Swamps" formed near Wilmington, North Carolina. After numerous complaints by whites, a bounty was placed on the General's head, and special hunting parties succeeded in routing the fugitives and killing the General.
Guerrilla attacks by maroons continued until the end of slavery, despite numerous but ineffectual attempts to wipe out such settlements.
Maroons in Mexico
Gaspar Yanga—often simply Yanga or Nyanga (May 14, 1545 - ) was an African known for being the leader of a maroon colony of slaves in the highlands near Veracruz, Mexico (then New Spain) during the early period of Spanish colonial rule. He is known for successfully resisting a Spanish attack on the colony in 1609. The maroons continued their raids on Spanish settlements. Finally in 1618, Yanga achieved an agreement with the colonial government for self-rule of the maroon settlement. It was later called San Lorenzo de los Negros, and also San Lorenzo de Cerralvo.
In the late 19th century, Yanga was named as a "national hero of Mexico" and “El Primer Libertador de las Americas". In 1932 the settlement he formed, located in today's Veracruz province, was renamed as Yanga in his honor.
As I said before, it doesn’t surprise me that one wouldn’t know of the Maroons and their fight against colonial powers; but it does disappoint me that after one is gently told about them, one would respond by trying to school me about the meaning, origin, and history of the word as used in Loony Tunes. It’s insulting to imply that I'm taking exception to the word being used to describe obnoxious Deplorables like Steve King — who represents everything the Maroons fought against — because of my failure to understand the sophistication and complexities of (racist) cartoons.
By now, most of us must know that cartoons played a pivotal role in the promotion and reinforcement of white supremacy on one hand, and the corresponding dehumanization and demonization of black and brown peoples on the other. What cartoonists did by employing and reinforcing racist, hateful stereotypes was no accident. They had a job to do and it’s a job they did methodically, with gusto, and yes, with sophistication. The noun “maroon” used to describe African “runaway slaves” predates the advent of Bugs Bunny by centuries. Why would they put that word in the mouth of the rabbit to mean stupid? “Oh, get over it!” I’m told. “It’s just a cute mispronunciation of the word moron, for crying out loud! You make everything about race.”
This article/comment is worth a read:
[...] That one doesn’t fit either. Which only leaves…
“A fugitive Black slave in the West Indies in the 17th and 18th centuries. A descendant of such a slave. In the West Indies and Guiana, a fugitive slave, or a free negro, living in the mountains.”
Interestingly enough, that one is the only one that seems like it could fit. But Bugs couldn’t be insulting Elmer Fudd or Porky Pig by referring to them as a slave could he?
So I think that maybe I have the wrong word. But no, I managed to find the word used on the Looney Tunes website…
“6. Please do NOT discuss committing crimes of any sort – unless you are a complete maroon! And even then – do NOT discuss!
So yeah, I do have the right word. But, Bugs Bunny calling someone a slave? What could explain that? Well, you do have to keep in mind that Bugs Bunny debuted back in 1938 and as Wikipedia points out…
“Cartoons from the 1930s and later often feature characters in blackface as well as other racial caricatures”.
So is it entirely possible that Bugs Bunny means “fugitive slave” when he says “maroon”. Yeah, I think it is.
We all do accept that cartoonists are/were not averse to using racist tropes, right? That’s an established fact. We can debate whether the use of the term by Bugs Bunny was meant to appeal to the sensibilities of racists back in the day by reinforcing the idea that black people were lazy and stupid, and we can debate whether it was a logical leap for a rabbit’s mind to jump from moron to maroon, but what is not up for debate, I don’t think, is what it means to continue to use the word as a pejorative after you’ve learned something about the formidable people who fought for their freedom and the freedom of others at great personal risk.
Racist, xenophobic, homophobic, Islamophobic, idiotic, Neo-Nazis are not maroons. They do not exist in the same moral universe as Maroons. Using their own words, they are “MORANS” or idiots, but most decidedly not Maroons. And no, as surprising as it may sound, this is not a plea for you to stop using the word to describe racist, idiotic, Neo-Nazis. I’d love it if your response would be as beautiful, as classy, as understanding as this one (which was written after I shared my concerns with him), but at the end of the day, you’ll do as you choose and you have that right. The word used in that context brings back fond childhood memories for you? It offends me. Now, what will you do?
So in my supposedly enlightened mindset I was unwittingly associating some courageous, unconquerable folk with a commitment to freedom from slavery with...conservative morons. Well, damn. And here I was feeling all proud of myself. So much for that, heh.