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Slave maroon communities in the Atlantic world
Journal of American Ethnic History. 35.4 (Summer 2016): p93+.
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Slavery's Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons. By Sylviane A. Diouf. New York: NYU Press, 2014. 403 pp. 21 halftones. $30 (cloth).

The Maroons of Prospect Bluff and Their Quest for Freedom in the Atlantic World. By Nathaniel Millett. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013. 360 pp. $74.95 (cloth); $29.95 (paper).

By introducing variations on marronage in North America, Diouf and Millett challenge a traditionally held view that large-scale marronage was only a Caribbean and South American phenomenon.

The relative success of these two works rests partly on how well the authors are able to define what constitutes a maroon. Here, Millett has an easier task. His subject, a community of no fewer than three hundred escaped slaves, began to take shape in the summer of 1814. On April 2 of that year, the British Navy commander-in-chief, Alexander Cochrane, issued from his station in Bermuda a proclamation that promised freedom to any persons living in the United States who would withdraw from that country and serve in His Majesty's military. All observers recognized that Cochrane's proclamation was obviously directed toward recruiting American slaves. Indeed, slaves from the American South and from Spanish Florida, joined by free blacks, responded to the call and found their way to the British military camp at Pensacola. The British leader there, Edward Nicolls, provided citizenship documents for the lot. Nicolls also preached a radical antislavery doctrine and taught his black soldiers about the rights that came with being British subjects. When American forces under Andrew Jackson invaded Pensacola, the mixed British force (which also included Seminoles and Red Sticks) fled to the Apalachicola River and built a substantial inland fort at a place called Prospect Bluff. They then led raids into Georgia and made a failed assault on Mobile, hoping to distract American attention from an impending British assault on New Orleans. Americans, meanwhile, were concerned that the news of black troops would inspire further slave resistance and flight. In May 1815, as the news of the end of the war reached the Southern theater, the British abandoned the fort, but they left behind a sizeable stock of weapons and supplies for their black allies. It is at this point in the story that Millett switches terms from "former slaves" and "black soldiers" to "maroons." In the language of the day, Americans did not call them "maroons" but rather "runaway negroes," "fugitives," or "exiles."

While the maroon community at Prospect Bluff existed as an independent entity for only fifteen months, its story, Millett claims, is essential for our understanding of marronage in a comparative perspective. Like maroon communities elsewhere, it formed during wartime. But the community was also unique in the sense that it was well supplied, materially wealthy, politically sophisticated, and educated in British antislavery rhetoric. Indeed, Millett argues, the maroon community at Prospect Bluff embraced the belief that they had been granted freedom as British subjects. He rightly sees Edward Nicolls as the crucial figure in the development of the community. At times, the book reads like Nicolls's biography as Millett follows this radical figure from his background in Protestant Ireland, through his military exploits on multiple continents, and to his later governorship of the island of Fernando Po. With little foreshadowing but many asides, the book ends with the destruction of Prospect Bluff in June 1816. American troops sent to destroy the maroons at Prospect Bluff met with some resistance, but when a cannon shot they lobbed into the "Negro fort" hit the fort's powder magazine, a devastating and decisive explosion followed. As Americans rounded up some of the survivors around the smoking crater of the fort, others fled and continued to live as maroons.

Despite the depth and breadth of Diouf's work, she does not recognize the community at Prospect Bluff in her myriad examples of maroons in the United States. Instead, she notes that the only documented war camp among maroons in the United States could be found on Belleisle Island in the 1780s. Perhaps Diouf has omitted the story of Prospect Bluff because it took place in territory just outside U.S. control, namely Spanish West Florida, which passed into American hands only in 1821, via the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819. A significant part of the inspiration for this treaty, Millett shows, was the American desire to prevent slaves from fleeing to Spanish Florida. In the nineteenth-century American South, the story of Prospect Bluff remained a well-known example of slave resistance.

Millett presents a case study through a chronological narrative swimming in literature about the Atlantic World. Diouf paints in broader thematic strokes and strays less frequently from the domestic picture. She is interested in marronage both petit and grand, and she insists that both were common in the United States from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century. Through the theme of borderlands, Diouf presents stories of runaway slaves who existed on the edge of plantation life. Always hiding within reach of the plantation complex, carefully disguising their tracks, these maroons chose a precarious existence in the wilds, but they frequently returned to the slaves' quarters under the cover of night to talk, trade, and even continue romantic relationships. Maroons spread knowledge between plantations, preyed on the plantation storehouses, and subverted the power of furious masters.

In addition to borderland maroons, Diouf describes in extensive detail the maroons of the hinterlands. In the early colonial era, escaped slaves fled over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Later, they hid together in the swamps of Louisiana, Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. At times, communities of hinterland maroons could reach upwards of fifty people. Most marronage was short-lived, but some maroons survived for years, even decades. In 1865, maroons emerged from the woods.

For Millett, independence, number, and relative isolation seem to be defining characteristics of maroons. Diouf, on the other hand, argues that the traditional emphasis on "number, distance, longevity, and guerilla-type activities" should not be the primary characteristics in defining maroons (p. 6). She challenges us to not think of maroons only as isolated groups, but also as individual outsiders who continued to be dynamically involved with established society. Maroons developed mutually beneficial relationships with slaves, free blacks, and even whites. In the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina, for example, untold hundreds of maroons produced shingles below cost for sale to white lumbermen. Even hinterland maroon communities were not entirely isolated but relied on trade for essentials. Diouf defines maroons as runaway slaves who "settled in the wilderness, lived there in secret, and were not under any form of direct control by outsiders" (p. 1).

To highlight the uniqueness of the Prospect Bluff maroon community, however, Millett prefers a more traditional definition of maroons that emphasizes size and strength of their communities. As if to challenge the status of other examples of marronage in American history, Millett places quotation marks around the word "maroons" when referencing the "desperate bands of runaways" who never coalesced into more definitive communities (p. 6). This tension leads to an inevitable question. Can marronage be an individual or temporary phenomenon, or should we, like historians of an older generation, restrict the term's use to studies of enduring communities of resistance? While it would not necessarily be anachronistic to call American runaway slaves "maroons," historically, the word was never used in an American context. Those whom Diouf calls "maroons" were traditionally called "outlying slaves" or "bandits."

Diouf's reconceptualization of maroons is attractive and useful. If Diouf is not describing marronage per se, then she is describing something very similar and certainly worthy of comparison. By expanding the definition of maroons in her favor, the usefulness of the comparative perspective becomes more obvious.

Similar patterns of flight and resistance in the Caribbean and in South America help explain the American scene. Both authors draw on the historiography of Caribbean marronage to explore the geographical, demographic, and cultural factors that shaped slave resistance in the United States. They show that men far outnumbered women among American maroons, and that African-born slaves were more likely to flee than slaves born in the United States. By placing their studies within the historiography of the Atlantic World, the authors demonstrate convincingly that violence and retribution, while not infrequent, were not the ultimate goals of American maroons. In fact, Diouf demonstrates that borderland and hinterland maroons went to great lengths to preserve their freedom, and that violent acts were bound to give them away. The maroons at Prospect Bluff sought to defend their freedom as British subjects, but apparently they entertained no idea of waging a large-scale uprising. American marronage, then, should not be seen as a precursor of revolt, but as a widespread alternative form of resistance.

Ultimately, these books are an indictment of American slavery, and the authors ought to be thanked for highlighting the extent of an understudied form of slave resistance in America. Diouf describes the inhumanity of punishments that masters inflicted on captured runaways, and yet she is successful in demonstrating that the power dynamic of the plantation required slave masters to sometimes temper their punishments as to not incite more slaves to flee into the woods. The ability to run away, despite the poor odds of survival, served as a slight release on the pressures of slavery, while also indicating just how terrible slave life must have been. The extent of American marronage also shows that slaves were willing to pay a high cost for freedom. Many maroons died in the woods or were captured, but some voluntarily returned to plantations when they could no longer survive on their own. Despite her thoroughness, however, Diouf never risks estimating the total number of maroons in American history, and she hesitates to guess at the numbers of maroons for any particular place or time. To Diouf's credit, sources are generally vague or contradictory about the number of runaways. Yet she is well placed to make such an estimate. What is the ratio of African American slaves who found limited freedom as maroons to those who became relatively more free as fugitives in free states and in Canada?

Diouf's work is laden with insight and is bound to become a standard text alongside other studies of slave resistance by Eugene Genovese, Richard Price, and Philip D. Morgan. One of her particularly interesting observations should not be overlooked: Diouf notes that African-born slaves often tried to flee at the first opportunity on American shores. She reasons that these Africans imagined the New World to be politically divided like Africa, where they could escape servitude by fleeing to other societies that might allow them to live freely. Africans fled with blankets (a sure sign of their intent), but they had trouble adjusting to the new environment. Also insightful is Diouf's chapter 4, "Daily Life at the Borderlands," which is reminiscent of the works of Herbert Gutman and Leon Litwack in that it describes African American slaves' relationship to nature and the environment. Maroons became experts on hiding, hunting, and stealing. They developed many ways to trick hound dogs and set them off the trail. They planted a variety of crops and made clothes from animal skins.

Diouf will be praised for telling a conceptually difficult story and for telling it well. She calls on a diverse, extensive array of sources. She convinces us that information about runaways is quite extensive, but that it has never before been aggregated in this form. Millett, for his part, has resurrected an interesting chapter in the early American republic. He shows that Americans went to great lengths to ensure that maroon communities would not develop in North America like they did in the Caribbean. Millett's study is quite useful, but it is thorough to the point of being excessive, and the narrative is slow to develop because it is interrupted by frequent forays into comparative marronage. While Diouf's prose is superior, both provide rich analysis. Together, these two works greatly expand our knowledge of American maroons.

Michael J. Douma

Georgetown University

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Douma, Michael J. "Slave maroon communities in the Atlantic world." Journal of American Ethnic History, vol. 35, no. 4, 2016, p. 93+. General OneFile, Accessed 19 Oct. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A456276194