Author:Walker, Jesse

WE DON'T KNOW the location of the first European settlement in the land that would become the United States.

We know that Spanish colonists founded it in 1526. We know that they called it San Miguel de Guadalupe. We're pretty confident that the site was in either what is now South Carolina or what is now Georgia. But we don't know the exact location, because the people who didn't die there cleared out in less than a year. Disease and hunger ripped through the town, the leaders took to fighting among themselves, there was a clash with the local Indians, and the settlement's slaves revolted. Hundreds of colonists were dead within a few months, and the remainder fled to Hispaniola.

Well, some of the remainder fled to Hispaniola. The rebel slaves disappeared into the wilderness, where they are believed to have settled among the Indians. The formal colony failed; the underclass stuck around. The first arrivals from the Old World to stay here permanently were mutineers seizing that most essential of freedoms: the right to walk away.

The liberated chattel of San Miguel de Guadalupe were not the only Americans in bondage who escaped either to assimilate into an Indian community or to create an independent colony of their own. The Western Hemisphere was dotted with settlements known as maroon societies, where former slaves, their descendants, and anyone else who joined them lived in one configuration or another. Some simply tried to avoid the world they'd escaped, while others raided or traded with outsiders. Some were relatively autocratic, with a military leader, a probationary period of servitude, and a strict code of secrecy; others were more loose. Some lasted a long time--Palmares, a federation of thousands of maroons in the mountains of Brazil, persisted for nearly a century--and some were fleeting.

For most maroon communities, anything we say about how they were organized or how long they existed has to rest on a lot of conjecture. Open A Desolate Place for a Defiant People, the American University archaeologist Daniel Sayers' 2014 book about the maroons who lived in the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina and Virginia, and the caveats leap from the page: "I suspect that..." "We can be reasonably certain that..." "It is also quite possible..." "It would not be particularly outlandish to also suggest..."

The Great Dismal Swamp was what the Yale political scientist James C. Scott calls a "nonstate space": a region, as he puts it in 2009's The Art of Not Being Governed, where "owing largely to geographical obstacles, the state has particular difficulty in establishing and maintaining its authority." Those obstacles can take different forms in different parts of the world--Scott mentions "swamps, marshes, mangrove coasts, deserts, volcanic margins, and even the open sea"--but they all offer the advantage of greater autonomy.

Of course, those obstacles could make life difficult for the maroons as well as their pursuers. They call the great swamp dismal for a reason.

Geographic barriers weren't the only potential protection for walkaways. Political rivalries could be quite helpful. In the Caribbean, the English deliberately allied themselves with maroon colonies, joining them in attacking the Spanish. Further north, the situation was soon reversed: Spanish Florida offered a haven to slaves fleeing English South Carolina. When another set of British colonists established Georgia, the government there outlawed slavery but continued to return runaway slaves to their masters--a combination that the English hoped would help the colony serve as a buffer zone between South Carolina's slave society and the relative freedom of Florida. (This didn't placate those Georgians who wanted to own other human beings. Eventually the would-be masters prevailed, and the colony ended its slavery...

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