African Americans, Maroons, Slavery, U.S. South
Slavery’s Exiles is the first book-length study of African and African American maroons in the American colonies and the United States. In her Introduction, Diouf argues that scholars have frequently denied or downplayed the existence of U.S. maroons, and explains how this can be traced back to the period her study encompasses: ‘‘Southerners . . . reserved the terminology maroons for the people of Jamaica and Suriname. They called the people in their midst outliers . . . or runaways and banditti; and . . . never called maroon settlements by their name, thus negating their very existence’’ (3). Indeed, most studies of maroons focus on the Caribbean and Central or South America; Herbert Aptheker’s article, ‘‘Maroons Within the Present Limits of the United States’’ (1939), was the first to look at the United States, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that further such work began to appear.1 As for the treatment of maroons by northern abolitionists, Diouf writes, ‘‘For the maroons, the alternative to bondage was a clandestine life outside white-controlled space and abolitionists had no use for them, except to paint them as lost souls living among and like wild beasts, so as to underscore the cruelty [End Page 683] of slavery’’ (12). Slavery’s Exiles announces itself as a bold corrective to these omissions and erasures, revealing the sustained existence of U.S. maroons and maroon communities throughout the slaveholding South from the eighteenth century to the Civil War.
Diouf states that maroons share three ‘‘key characteristics’’: ‘‘They settled in the wilderness, lived there in secret, and were not under any form of direct control by outsiders’’ (1), thus differentiating them from runaways, enclaves of free blacks in the North, and slaves who sought refuge in Spanish Florida or among American Indian nations. Instead of imagining maroons entirely cut off from the plantation systems from which they had fled, she uses the term ‘‘maroon landscape’’ to describe the interconnected, overlapping geographical, affective, and exchange networks in which maroons participated. ‘‘Borderland maroons’’ and ‘‘hinterland maroons,’’ respectively, are used to describe maroons who lived ‘‘in the wild land that bordered the farms and plantations and cities and towns,’’ and in ‘‘areas further away than the borderlands’’ that were ‘‘secluded and hard to reach, not primarily because of distance but because of the difficulty of the terrain’’ (5).
Working thematically and building on a wealth of archival documents, including legal acts, codes, petitions, letters, county books, parish records, travelers’ accounts, plantation records, runaway slave notices, jail advertisements, trial records, newspapers, and Works Progress Administration interviews, Diouf emphasizes maroons in Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Louisiana. She devotes three chapters to particular maroon locales that are some of the most well documented but whose stories are largely absent from historical scholarship: the maroons of Bas du Fleuve, Louisiana; Belleisle and Bear Creek in Georgia and South Carolina; and the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina.
We learn, for example, about how some maroons dug out underground caves complete with furniture and cooking equipment, with a tunnel system channeling smoke from cooking fires away from the cave. We learn how maroons participated in an underground network of exchange, boldly entering cities like New Orleans to sell timber, fish, oysters, honey, game, and black moss to traders in exchange for other supplies. In one case in the 1780s, a group of maroons, numbering near 100, established a fortified war camp along the Georgia and South Carolina sides of the Savannah River, complete with twenty-one huts, developed farmland, and breastworks for protection. These settlements came [End Page 684] closest to resembling the fortified compounds constructed by the maroons in the mountains of Jamaica. It took two extended militia campaigns to finally rout the settlements, though by employing their most effective means of survival—fleeing deeper into the wild—not all the maroons were killed or captured.
Some maroons were employed as shingle-workers by whites looking for cheap labor without asking questions. Swampland was especially...