- Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons by Sylviane Diouf
Sylviane Diouf. New York University Press, New York, NY, 2014. 403 pp. Maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index, and about the author. $30.00 cloth. (ISBN 9780814724378)
Slavery’s Exiles explores the phenomenon of maroonage—autonomous settlements established by runaway slaves—in the American South. The book examines the myriad ways that slaves sought freedom on their own terms during the antebellum period in the United States, and argues for an inclusive understanding of how maroons in the United States fit into broader discussions of maroonage in the Americas. Through intensive archival analysis, including slave narratives, WPA interviews, court proceedings, newspaper articles, runaway notices, personal correspondence, and petitions, Sylviane Diouf presents a vivid picture of the ingenuity present among maroons, as well as the difficulties they faced in evading a society predicated on their oppression.
Diouf argues for a more comprehensive understanding of what it means to be a maroon, critiquing past scholars for their over-emphasis on Latin America and the Caribbean and their assumptions that maroons in the U.S. are undeserved of the title due to the lack of large colonies and maroon wars. Countering this, Diouf argues that three criteria signal the existence of maroons: settling in the wilderness; living in secret; and not being under [End Page 378] any form of direct control by outsiders. By operating with this definition, Diouf innovates the study of maroon societies by dividing them into two categories; borderland maroons and hinterland maroons.
Borderland maroons were those maroons that lived on the periphery of farms, plantations, and cities in settlements hidden from outsiders. Beyond the Big House, slave cabins, and plantation fields there were woods, bayous, marshes, swamps, wetlands, and creeks, which provided refuge for escaped slaves. Of the many examples of resourcefulness found among borderland maroons, their living quarters were perhaps the greatest. While some lived in tree trunks, tree stumps, in treetops, and in caverns, Diouf posits that caves, or dugouts, may have been a uniquely American maroon innovation. These caves were underground houses, completely inconspicuous from the outside. The life of the borderland maroons was one which was very much dependent on assistance from the enslaved, freed Blacks, and even, occasionally, sympathetic Whites. This was necessitated by the fact that their proximity to white society prevented them from engaging in large-scale farming, leading to trade with, and assistance from, outside actors.
Hinterland maroons comprised those communities that settled in areas more isolated from mainstream society. By living in areas generally inaccessible to their enemies, hinterland maroons were able to produce for themselves, and therefore had a greater level of autonomy than borderland maroons. These maroons often sited their settlements in swamps or cane brakes, which provided protection from slave hunters or other unfriendly actors searching for runaway slaves. The locations of these settlements were strategic in that they not only needed to provide concealment and inapproachability, but had to have vantage points for sentries, proximity to an escape route, access to a clean water source, soil suitable for cultivation, access to edible fauna and flora that could be used for food and medicine, and could not be too far from a city of plantation, in order that things could be traded and appropriated. While there exist clear distinctions between the practices of borderland maroons and hinterland maroons, Diouf demonstrates that many maroon settlements had elements of both in them.
Diouf profiles three maroon communities that existed at different times in the American South: Bas du Fleuve, which existed in Louisiana in the 1780s; Belle Isle and Bear Creek, located in Georgia and South Carolina in the 1780s; and the Great Dismal Swamp, which lasted for more than a hundred years—from the early 1700s until after abolition—in North Carolina and Virginia.
Bas du Fleuve was formed and destroyed in the 1780s in Bernard Parish, Louisiana. The settlement consisted of two camps and was home to around 21 people from fifteen different plantations. Bas du Fleuve’s populace shifted between the hinterlands and borderlands, depending on their needs and the maneuverings of...