Maroon resistance and settlement on Danish St. Croix.

Author:Roopnarine, Lomarsh


There is an overwhelming body of literature on how Africans resisted the imposition and institution of slavery in the Americas. (1) This literature has examined and documented African slave resistance in the Americas within two different but inter-connected categories. On the one hand, the enslaved Africans used overt or open and observable forms of resistance such as the destroying plantation property, killing their owners and engaging in outright revolts and rebellions. While thousands of overt forms of resistance occurred in the Americas, not all led to freedom for the enslaved. (2) Many slave conspiracies and rebellions were uncovered and suppressed by the more powerful plantation management. Some slave revolts, however, were successful. The most well-known are, of course, the slave revolts on Haiti (1804) and on St. Croix (1848).

On the other hand, the enslaved Africans used covert or concealed acts of resistance that included injuring plantation animals, going-slow or working inefficiently, damaging machinery, faking illness, burning canefields, and running away. These were milder but equally effective forms of resistance that stemmed essentially from the innate desire to settle personal injuries or to defy rule in order to achieve total freedom. The main difference between overt and covert resistance was that the former confronted and challenged the plantation system openly, which risked physical injuries and even death while the latter taxed the plantation system through passive actions, which were less recognizable and therefore more difficult to suppress. However, the planters got around these challenges by enforcing more physical punishment and by using the effective tactic of divide and rule. The planters granted more freedom and rewards to trusted slaves to watch over the other enslaved Africans. Nonetheless, these methods and techniques did not prevent resistance to the plantation system.

Of the different forms of resistance, running away or marronage was the most extreme in that it revealed a rather interesting perception of the enslaved. The word 'maroon' was first applied to cattle that had escaped or gone wild (cimarron) during Spanish colonization in the Caribbean. The word was later applied to Indians who had escaped the Spanish encomienda system. By the middle of the sixteenth century, maroon meant an African slave escaped from a plantation. The Danish Moravian missionary Oldendorph claimed that maroon meant ape because the escaped African slaves were living like apes in bushes. (3) The records of marronage, however, show that the enslaved persons' motives went beyond just resisting and fighting for freedom. They were attempting to establish an autonomous free society as an alternative to European imperialism and colonialism in the Americas. The maroons did not seek to take over white society. They wanted a separate community. This desire among the enslaved was a permanent feature of the plantation system that lasted as long as the institution of slavery itself.

Alvin Thompson notes that maroon communities and heritage existed in slave societies from the North, Central and South America to the Greater and Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean. (4) Wherever and whenever slavery existed, there was maroon resistance. There were actually two forms of marronage: petit and grand. Petit marronage was a temporary desertion of slaves from plantation life while grand marronage was a permanent escape from the plantations. (5) Recently, La Rosa Corzo added another category of marronnage in Cuba, caudrillas de cimarrones, armed bands of runaways with no permanent base. (6) The grand independent maroon communities were called different names in different regions in the Americas: Palenques in the Spanish Colonies, Quilombos or Mocambos in Brazil, Maroons in British Colonies, and Maronberg in the Danish Colonies. In French Guiana and in Suriname the maroons were called Bush Negroes. There were other less known names such as rancherias, ladeiras, mambises, magotes, cumbes, and manieles. (7) Over time, the European colonial system accepted the existence of petit marronage as a natural consequence of the slave system. The colonial authorities were, however, very concerned about grand marronage and sought ways to suppress it. Nonetheless, maroon communities, in general, tested and taxed the ingenuity of the colonial systems.

The most famous maroon communities were the Palmares Republic of Brazil, the Windward and Leeward groupings of Jamaica and the Saramaka, Ndjuka and Boni of Suriname. These were large, organized maroon communities, located in large territories with dense bushes and rough terrain that provided a refuge for maroons to hide and protect themselves from repeated expeditions by the colonial authorities. (8) Maroon communities also existed and even thrived in limited land-space territories, despite the attempts of the colonial system to occupy all available land. The smaller maroon communities shared similar characteristics with their counterparts in the larger territories. How they survived, however, was not necessarily the same. One small maroon community existed on St. Croix, an island of 84 square miles, known as Maroonberg or Maroon Hole. It was located in the present-day Davis Bay, east of Hamm's Bluff, less than ten miles from the power base of the colonial government. How this small maroon community developed and survived, as well as how it defied Danish colonial authorities, are some central themes in this article. The article also examines the status of Maroonberg after final emancipation in 1848 to the contemporary period to demonstrate the attempt to transform Maroonberg. The final section focuses on the conflict between local preservation and commercial development.


The history of the Virgin Islands can be divided into five time periods: the Amerindian (?-1493); Spanish (1493-1650); Dutch-English-French (1630-1733); Danish (1733-1917); American (1917-present). The largest of the three islands, St. Croix, was sighted by Columbus on his second voyage in 1493, but the Spaniards left the islands alone on basis that they were useless. The Spaniards claimed that the islands were relatively dry, lacked precious metals and were inhabited by fierce Caribs. By the 1600s, however, other Europeans, mostly privateers, pirates and smugglers, used these islands as a base to launch attacks on the Spanish Caribbean and Spanish Latin America. The Virgin Islands remained a pirate base for a number of years, and St. Thomas, while largely infertile and mountainous, had an excellent harbor, served as depot for European traders carrying goods (slaves included) from Europe, Africa and the Caribbean.

By the 1620s, St. Croix and St. John were attracting the attention of Northern European sugar planters--British, French, Dutch. The development of sugar plantations proved futile, however. After the islands changed hands several times from one European nation to the other through inter-colonial Caribbean warfare, the French sold the islands to the Danish West India Company in 1733. The Danes developed a sugar plantation system on St. Croix. The flatness and the clay soil proved more suitable for plantation agriculture than St. Thomas and St. John. To meet the labor demands, the Danes like their European counterparts elsewhere in the Caribbean, turned to African slavery. Hugh Thomas's study shows that an estimated 4,000,000 (34.4%) Africans were transported to Brazil; another 2,500,000 (22.1%) to the Spanish Empire; 2,800,000 (17.1%) to the British West Indies; 1,600,000 (14.1%) to the French West Indies; 500,000 (4.4%) to British North America; 500,000 (4.4%) to the Dutch West Indies; 28,000 (0.2%) to the Danish West Indies; 200,000 (1.8%) to Europe and the islands, a total of over 11,328,000. (9) Recent studies indicate that Thomas' figure for the Danish West Indies is too low. It is probable that about 53,000-57,000 African slaves were brought to Danish West Indies to work on the sugar plantations. (10)

The figure for the Danish African slave trade was comparatively lower to the larger movement. The reality of pain and suffering as well as death rates, nonetheless, though varied from ship to ship, were relatively the same throughout the three centuries of slave trade. The Middle Passage, in particular, took a heavy toll on Africans. On the Danish Fredenborg, 11% of the slave cargo of 265 died. (11) The late Caribbean historian Issac Dookhan claims that the Danes in 1697 took 506 slaves from Africa and only 229 reached St. Thomas, a loss of over 50 %. (12) Joseph Loftis shows that from 1778 to 1787, of 6,106 slaves brought from Africa, 1,060 died en route and 4,905 were sold in St. Croix, a loss of nearly 20 %. (13) It is, however, commonly thought that at least 40 to 50 % of enslaved Africans perished in almost every slave ship that left Africa bound to the Danish West Indies. Poor treatment, poor nutrient, poor ventilation, overcrowding and diseases, combined to create havoc on board the slave ships bound to the Americas.

The arrival of Africans brought about a profound demographic and sociological change in the Danish West Indies. Blacks superseded Whites as the numerically-dominant racial group but wielded no significant power in the plantation system. Table one shows the increase of Africans in St. Croix from 1755 to 1846.

By 1835, 1,892 whites and 19,876 slaves lived on St. Croix, 3,520 whites and 5,298 slaves lived on St. Thomas; 344 whites and 1,929 slaves lived on St. John. (15) The population of the enslaved never grew beyond 30,000 on St. Croix, but the white community by the 1750s had become minority inhabitants of the island.

The racial imbalance created a social hierarchy of slave society in the Virgin Islands with Whites, Free Coloreds and Free Blacks, and Enslaved occupying the higher, middle and lower classes...

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