- Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons by Sylviane A. Diouf
While maroon communities have received significant attention from scholars of Caribbean, Central American, and South American slavery, American historians have been slow to acknowledge the importance of maroonage in the United States. In a brief historiographical discussion in the introduction to Slavery’s Exiles, Sylviane A. Diouf argues that southern historians like Eugene Genovese have deliberately pushed maroons to the margins of the history of the enslaved. Part of the reason for this inattention is a perceived dearth of primary source material, but the absence of large-scale revolts or vast maroon communities of the sort that emerged in the southern regions of the Atlantic world is also to blame. Diouf has scoured archives across the United States, examining accounts of fugitives throughout the Slave South to uncover the hidden history of American maroons, and produced a highly readable, original study that deserves a broad scholarly and popular audience.
Arguing that traditional divisions of maroonage into petit and grand categories hold less applicability for American history, Diouf instead calls for classifying American maroons by their proximity to plantation slavery. Borderland maroons, she argues, intended to stay in swamps and forests near plantations, relying on the aid of plantation slaves for food, tools, and protection. Such fugitives might stay away for only days or weeks. Hinterland maroons, by contrast, intended to remain free as long as possible, building elaborate caves with furniture and cooking hearths, farming small plots of land, and arming themselves against slave patrols, white militia, and others determined to drag them back into bondage. In fact, Diouf reports that hinterland maroons grew peas, corn, squash, and rice and even raised animals.
Diouf does not delve into the broader history of the region or of slavery, but it is clear that anemic southern state governments prior to 1830 inhibited the ability of white authorities to prevent or disrupt many maroon communities. Maroons settled in swamps, on islands in the middle of rivers, and in forests, living in secret but not necessarily far from plantations or cities. One of the largest maroon communities, numbering perhaps one hundred or so men, women, and children, took root in swampy marshes just eight miles from New Orleans, indicating that maroons considered inaccessibility the key to a successful hideaway. Wilderness meant silence; maroons were always on guard for the sounds of approaching patrols. Diouf finds the most evidence for maroonage in the Great Dismal Swamp [End Page 593] in the Carolinas and Virginia, the marshy areas along the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina, and the cypress swamps of Louisiana. Adding to the dangers posed by Native American trackers hired by slave masters, fellow African Americans who might give away their hiding spot, or white gangs determined to capture or kill runaways, animals prowled the hinterlands. But as one maroon named Tom Wilson put it, “I felt safer among the alligators than among the white men” (96). When white southerners were able to capture maroons, they meted out severe punishments, including beatings, brandings, whippings, and even execution.
Though Diouf remains focused on maroons, her depiction of the role of whites in protecting or ignoring maroons expands our knowledge of the subtle workings of black-white relationships in the antebellum South. For some whites, maroons were dangerous free agents who might spur revolts among bondpeople; Diouf recounts numerous examples of whites implicating maroons in imagined or actual revolts throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831. Other whites, particularly poor southerners in rural areas and middle-class whites in and around cities, aided maroons, not out of generosity but because whites could benefit economically. Poor whites traded with the self-emancipated, knowing that the food or other goods acquired were likely to be stolen. White southern merchants and mill owners sometimes used maroons as cheap labor, fully cognizant that they were likely supporting fugitives but placing their own financial interests above regional exigencies of racial...