Reference Entry

Suriname and French Guiana, Maroon Communities in

in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195170559
Suriname and French Guiana, Maroon Communities in

Show Summary Details


For nearly 500 years, maroon societies have dotted the peripheries of plantation America. Ranging from tiny bands that survived for less than a year to powerful states encompassing thousands of members and surviving for generations or even centuries, these communities still form semi-independent enclaves in several parts of the hemisphere. They remain fiercely proud of their maroon origins and, in some cases, continue to carry forward unique cultural traditions that were forged during the earliest days of the arrival of Africans to the Americas.Historical BackgroundOver the past three centuries, maroon communities have existed in the forested interior of Suriname, which until 1975 was a Dutch colony also known as Dutch Guiana, in northeastern South America. The Suriname maroons (formerly also known as Bush Negroes) have long been the largest maroon population in the Americas, representing one extreme in the range of cultural adaptations that persons of African descent have made in the hemisphere.From the mid-seventeenth century to the late eighteenth century, the ancestors of present-day maroons escaped from the coastal plantations on which they were enslaved, in many cases soon after their arrival from Africa, and fled into the forested interior where they regrouped into small bands. Their hardships in forging an existence in a new and inhospitable environment were compounded by the persistent and massive efforts of the colonial government to eliminate the threat that the maroons posed to the plantation colony.The colonists reserved special punishments for recaptured slaves: hamstringing (crippling by cutting leg tendons), amputation of limbs, and a variety of deaths by torture. The organized pursuit of Suriname maroons and expeditions to destroy their settlements date at least from the 1670s, but these efforts rarely succeeded because the maroons established and protected their settlements with great ingenuity and had become expert at all aspects of guerrilla warfare.By the middle of the eighteenth century when, in the words of a prominent planter, “the colony had become the theater of a perpetual war,” the colonists finally sought to make peace with the maroons. In 1760 and 1762 peace treaties were successfully concluded with the two largest maroon peoples, the Ndyukas and the Saramakas, and in 1767 with the much smaller Matawai, guaranteeing maroons their freedom and territory (even though slavery persisted for another century in coastal Suriname). In return, the maroons pledged nonaggression and agreed not to harbor runaway slaves. New slave revolts and the large-scale war of subsequent decades, for which an army of mercenaries was imported from Europe, eventually led to the formation of the Aluku (Boni), Paramaka, and Kwinti groups.Culture and Way of LifeToday these six maroon peoples, each a distinct group, continue to live in Suriname and French Guiana. The Ndyuka and Saramaka each have a population of about 24,000; the Matawai, Aluku, and Paramaka of about 2,000 each; and the Kwinti number fewer than 500. Large numbers of maroons also live outside of their traditional territories, mainly in Paramaribo (the capital of Suriname) and the coastal towns of French Guiana.Although formed under broadly similar historical and ecological conditions, these maroon societies display significant variation in everything from language, diet, and dress, to patterns of marriage, residence, and migratory wage labor. From a cultural point of view, the greatest differences are between the maroons of central Suriname (Saramaka, Matawai, and Kwinti) on the one hand, and those of eastern Suriname and western French Guiana (Ndyuka, Aluku, and Paramaka) on the other. For example, Saramakas, Matawais, and Kwintis speak a creole language called Saramaccan, whose vocabulary has many words derived from Portuguese and English as well as from a variety of African languages. Ndyukas, Alukus, and Paramakas speak Ndyuka, which has more English-derived words and is closer to Sranan-tongo, the creole language of coastal Suriname.In politics, a loose framework of indirect rule has prevailed in each society. Except for the Kwinti, each group has a paramount chief (who from an internal perspective might better be described as a “king”), as well as a series of headmen and other village-based officials. Traditionally, social and political leaders govern with the guidance of oracles, spirit possession, and other forms of divination. Ancestors play an active role in community affairs and many problems of daily life are dealt with in a ritual context. The justly renowned artistic production of maroons ranges from spectacular woodcarvings made by men to decorative textiles and carved calabashes (the gourd-like fruit of a tree) made by women. Arts of performance include a variety of song, dance, and drumming styles as well as tale telling and other verbal genres.Until the mid-twentieth century, almost all maroons lived by a combination of forest horticulture, hunting, and fishing, on the one hand, and men doing wage labor on the coast to buy and bring back Western-manufactured goods, on the other. This way of life began to change rapidly in the 1960s, as the widespread use of outboard motors and the development of air service to interior areas encouraged increased traffic of people and goods between maroon villages and the coast. At the same time, Alcoa, an American aluminum company, and the Suriname government jointly constructed a giant hydroelectric project on the Suriname River, bringing a dramatic migration toward the coast. Some 6,000 Saramaka maroons were forced to abandon their homes as the artificial lake gradually flooded almost half their territory. In French Guiana in the 1970s, the Aluku were subjected to intense pressures from Paris to abandon their traditional culture and adapt to French ways of life. This has caused wrenching economic, cultural, and political transformations.Suriname's independence from Dutch control in 1975 had less consequence for most maroons than for coastal populations. From 1986 to 1992, however, a civil war pitted the national army of Suriname against a rebel group known as the Jungle Commandos, which was largely made up of Ndyukas but also a significant number of Saramakas. The Jungle Commandos waged a guerrilla war, which they likened to their ancestors' eighteenth-century liberation struggles against the military government of Dési Bouterse. Ndyuka villages along the Cottica River were annihilated, and some 10,000 maroons fled across the eastern border to French Guiana. Continuing battles over control of the valuable mining and timber rights in the interior affect every aspect of contemporary maroon life in Suriname. The national government claims sovereignty over the territories the maroons' ancestors died for. Many outside observers fear the government has embarked on a policy of ethnic genocide against the maroons.See also Human Rights in Latin America and the Caribbean; Maroonage in the Americas; Punishment of Slaves in Colonial Latin America and the Caribbean.

Reference Entry.  1221 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

Full text: subscription required

How to subscribe Recommend to my Librarian

Buy this work at Oxford University Press »

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.