Aline Helg: Slave runaway communities: the ongoing struggle

Slave No More by Aline HelgToday we welcome a guest post from Aline Helg, author of Slave No More:  Self-Liberation before Abolitionism in the Americas, just published this month by UNC Press.

Commanding a vast historiography of slavery and emancipation, Helg reveals as never before how significant numbers of enslaved Africans across the entire Western Hemisphere managed to free themselves hundreds of years before the formation of white-run abolitionist movements. Her sweeping view of resistance and struggle covers more than three centuries, from early colonization to the American and Haitian revolutions, Spanish American independence, and abolition in the British Caribbean. Helg not only underscores the agency of those who managed to become “free people of color” before abolitionism took hold but also assesses in detail the specific strategies they created and utilized.

Slave No More is available in both print and ebook editions.

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Slave runaway communities: the ongoing struggle

Today, descendants of slave runaway communities all over the Americas struggle for survival on land that their ancestors worked on for generations after their successful flight to freedom. In the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, the Pacific lowlands of Colombia and Ecuador, the forests of Suriname, and throughout Brazil, they realize that their subsistence is once more under tremendous threats. The legal gains they made in the 1990s and 2000s, when new national constitutions and international court rulings recognized their cultural and territorial ownership rights, are under the attack of the very States supposed to protect them. In the name of national development, States allow, discretely or explicitly, national and multinational companies to invade their lands and launch mining, logging, and other extractive activities. These invasions jeopardize the livelihood of the descendants of slave runaway communities and generate violence, including the murder of their leaders and forced displacement. They also present global environmental threats, as they contribute to the destruction of forests and lowlands today considered ecological sanctuaries.

Slave runaway communities originated in the transatlantic slave trade that disembarked a total of over ten million enslaved Africans alive, to work in plantations, mines and all kinds of production and services. In fact, until the early nineteenth century, forcibly deported Africans were almost four times more numerous to arrive in the Americas than European colonists. As a result, whites were a minority in a population mostly comprised of Amerindians, Africans and their descendants. Moreover, colonization went along with slavery, and in the process large numbers of enslaved Africans managed to escape their harsh conditions and headed for the interior, into uninhabited or Amerindian territories. Throughout the continent and the Caribbean islands, runaway slaves, sometimes with indigenous peoples and other fugitives, fashioned settlements known as maroon communities in English, palenques in Spanish, and quilombos in Portuguese.

Their history is at the heart of my book, Slave No More: Self-Liberation before Abolitionism in the Americas, which examines the distinct strategies slaves developed to achieve freedom in the whole Western Hemisphere, from Canada to the Southern Cone and the Caribbean, and over four centuries. By comparing flight and marronage with manumission and self-purchase, military service, and insurrection, it reveals that enslaved men and women adapted their liberation strategies according to their context, and that marronage was effective.

Indeed, between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, countless Africans and Afro-descendants seeking freedom favored marronage and the creation of fugitive slave societies, notably because those forms of revolt corresponded well to a context of gradual colonization that left immense spaces uncontrolled by authorities and slaveholders. Most maroons did not live in complete isolation, however. They often constructed fortified camps from which they carried out raids against plantations; others joined vast mining, farming, or smuggling networks. As piracy developed, some maroon groups settled near the coast and provided cattle, agricultural products, and skins to privateers in exchange for weapons, tools, and money. Colonial forces waged a constant war against them, launching at time military expeditions to exterminate them. Though militias and soldiers destroyed many maroon camps and captured an indeterminate number of fugitives, often sentencing them to a cruel death, a great many runaways escaped for good the yoke of slavery. Two or three generations later, as colonial borders advanced, their descendants were integrated into free populations and grew to represent the majority of inhabitants of vast regions, in Louisiana, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, the Guianas, Brazil, and several Caribbean islands, perpetuating their ancestors’ victory over slavery.

Several maroon communities resisted military attacks so well that colonial powers negotiated peace treaties with their leaders that included amnesty and freedom to all the community members who, in return, agreed to return any new runaway to the authorities and to contribute to the military defense of the colony. Among these, some are now the focus of national celebrations and their sites have become tourist destinations: in Jamaica, the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park, ancestral home of the Windward Maroons; in Colombia, the Cultural Space of Palenque de San Basilio; or in Brazil, the Parque Memorial Quilombo dos Palmares, to name only a few.

Yet land titling and cultural recognition do not protect descendants of maroon communities—nor indigenous communities—from illegal attacks on their land and livelihood, as they discover when neoliberal States collude with extractive companies to exploit their lands, forests, rivers, and underground resources. Worse, still, in Brazil, the government of Jair Bolsonaro has undertaken the destruction of all the legal gains made by indigenous and quilombo communities since 1988.

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Aline Helg is professor of history at the University of Geneva.  You can read her previous UNC Press blog post here.