Sylviane A. Diouf has set herself a formidable task in Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons. She attempts to write a social history that demonstrates the ubiquity and importance of maroon communities (settlements of escaped slaves and/or their descendents) to the history of the American South during the colonial period and antebellum era. The difficulty of this task arises not because marronage was uncommon or unimportant in the American South; it was neither. Rather the would-be historian of American maroons must contend with a lack of primary sources and the entrenched historiographic consensus that the South’s history of marronage was so lacking, particularly when compared to colonies such as Jamaica, Suriname, or Brazil, that the topic is hardly worthy of serious study. Diouf does her best to overcome these obstacles.
Slavery’s Exiles is a lively read that spans 393 pages and is divided into eleven chapters with an introduction and conclusion. The volume is richly illustrated, contains a solid bibliography, and is based on moderate archival research. Unfortunately, the press has done Diouf a disservice in copyediting and title selection. In the case of the former, the text is so littered with typos that they quickly become a distraction. In the case of the latter, “exile” is a poor and incorrect word choice since it refers to an individual who has been expelled from a polity usually against their will. As fugitive slaves, maroons willfully rejected slave society by escaping their bondage and creating communities beyond the reach of the plantation complex, making them something very different from exiles.
Throughout the book, chapters are organized thematically, chronologically, and around case studies. Slavery’s Exiles is at its best in the chapters (notably 6–8) that are case studies devoted to particular examples of marronage. While the first two chapters examine the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the remainder of the [End Page 101] book focuses heavily on the years from the American Revolution to the Civil War when primary sources become more prevalent. On a related note, throughout the book there is little attention paid to the importance of time and space in the analysis and use of evidence. Instead, examples of marronage from varying eras and regions are presented in rapid-fire order to support claims that often seem to stretch the limits of the evidence presented. This makes the thematic chapters somewhat less effective than those devoted to case studies.
Early on Diouf lays out an expansive definition of marronage that essentially includes any act of slave flight. While this might raise an eyebrow or two, scholars of borderlands will be very surprised by her definition of “borderlands” (areas that bordered plantations) and “hinterlands” (areas beyond the borderlands). These definitions are central to Diouf’s argument that marronage not only existed on a substantial scale in the South, but that the phenomena can be divided into cases of “borderland maroons” and “hinterland maroons.” Indeed, Diouf argues that these definitions contain such conceptual power that with them, she can re-imagine the history of American marronage, and by extension the South, with a degree of clarity and insight that has escaped generations of historians. A more systematic use of evidence with closer attention to the impact of time and space and engagement with multiple and dynamic historiographies might have strengthened these claims.
Ultimately, Slavery’s Exiles is a worthy introduction to the topic of American marronage that will appeal greatly to the reading public and undergraduates. This is because Slavery’s Exiles covers an interesting and important topic that few people are aware existed. It is filled with fascinating individuals and remarkable acts of bravery. Hopefully Slavery’s Exiles will spur more interest in the subject of Americans maroons. [End Page 102]
NATHANIEL MILLETT is an associate professor of history at Saint Louis University and author of The Maroons of Prospect Bluff and Their Quest for Freedom in the Atlantic World (2013).