Fri | Jul 1, 2022

Peter Espeut | Are the Maroons indigenous people?

Published:Friday | August 27, 2021 | 12:06 AM
In this file photo, Accompong Town Maroons sing at a ritual.
In this file photo, Accompong Town Maroons sing at a ritual.

It is often restated that people are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. Such restatement is necessary because many people advance their opinions (and wishes) as if they are facts.

Take the matter as to whether the Jamaican Maroons in Accompong, Moore Town, Scott’s Hall and Charles Town are indigenous people: I have heard strongly and loudly voiced, unequivocal statements that they definitely are indigenous people, and moreover, that – by treaty – they are a “state within a state”. Can these opinions stand up to scrutiny?

The term ‘indigenous people’ first came into use by Europeans, who used it to differentiate the peoples resident in the Americas (at the time they invaded) from enslaved Africans brought there as forced labour. James Anaya, former UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, defined indigenous peoples as “living descendants of pre-invasion inhabitants of lands now dominated by others. They are culturally distinct groups that find themselves engulfed by other settler societies born of forces of empire and conquest”.

The Maroons of Jamaica are descendants of Africans enslaved by the Spanish, who at the time of the English invasion in 1655 were armed by the Spanish and used to fight against the invaders. They took up residence in the hinterland, and fought a largely successful guerilla war (dubbed the ‘First Maroon War’) against the local militia and the regular English/British army. In the 17th and 18th centuries, they were joined by runaways from plantation slavery, and were a formidable fighting force, whose exploits have not been adequately recognised.

TAINOS WERE INDIGENOUS

The indigenous people of Jamaica were the Taínos, New World people who at the time of European contact in the late 15th century were the principal inhabitants of most of Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, The Bahamas, and the northern Lesser Antilles. Although the vast majority of Jamaican Taínos were the victims of genocide perpetrated by the Spanish invaders, it is believed that when the Maroons established themselves in the fastnesses of the Blue Mountains, they encountered a number of Taínos hiding there from the Spaniards, with whom they mixed.

Nanny Town – an early Maroon settlement on a spur of the Grand Ridge of the Blue Mountains – was explored by a team led by UWI archaeologist Dr Kofi Agorsah during three field seasons (1991-1993). According to Agorsah, “three phases of occupation” could be distinguished: (1) ‘Pre-Maroon’, an “independent Amerindian activity area”; some terracotta figurines were found. (2) The ‘Maroon level’, occupying the period from 1655 to 1734. (3) The ‘top cultural level’, dated 1734-1735, corresponding to the occupation of Old Nanny Town by British colonial forces.

There is reason to believe that the Taínos and the Maroons were both present in Nanny Town at the same time, and therefore it is likely that they mixed. I have no doubt that should the DNA of some Maroons be analysed, traces of Taíno ancestry will be found. But does that entitle the Maroons of Jamaica to be considered an indigenous people?

Culturally, modern-day Maroons identify as Africans, not Taínos. If you visit a Jamaican Maroon settlement you may observe African-styled clothing, and you may be greeted with “ Salaam alaikum” (Arabic for “Peace be with you”) – recent affectations adopted from visiting Afrophiles. Nowhere will you see even feeble attempts at Taíno clothing, or be greeted in the Arawak language. The attempt to characterise the Maroons as indigenous people – which is a cultural category – fails. Culturally, Jamaican Maroons are indistinguishable from other Jamaicans: they have the same family structure, practise the same religion(s), and are divided into the same political tribes.

The Maroons do have a unique history – and a treaty – which accords them special status, but not the status of ‘indigenous people’.

If the Maroons are not classified as indigenous people, then they are not entitled to benefits under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People adopted in 2007; these rights include the right to autonomy, self-determination, and self-government. The Mopan people of Belize, and the Waiwai people of Guyana – and many other genuinely indigenous peoples – benefit under this UN declaration.

This brings us to the Maroon Treaties of 1739, which I will discuss next week.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and a former vice-president of the Jamaica Historical Society. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.