What will become of Jamaica’s Maroons?

Does Jamaica’s government have plans for this state within a state?

2 October 2021

9:00 AM

2 October 2021

9:00 AM

Jamaican police entered farms in the village of Accompong in August to destroy ganja crops. The village chief, carrying a rifle, drove them away. ‘This is a gross disrespect and violation of Maroon territorial jurisdiction,’ said the chief, on his Instagram. Richard Currie talks a lot about sovereignty: he was elected colonel, or chief, on a platform of taking back control. A breathless profile in the Jamaica Gleaner refers to him as being like a cross between the hero and villain in Marvel’s Black Panther, but Accompong, with its 788 inhabitants, is no Wakanda. For nearly 300 years it has been more like Asterix’s village in Gaul, holding out against a hostile Empire.

Some history. The year is 1739. Jamaica is entirely occupied by the British. Well, not entirely… Several small villages of indomitable Taíno hold against the invaders. They are reinforced by escaped slaves, and together become known as ‘maroons’, from the Spanish word cimarrón or ‘untamed’. They have been skirmishing with the British army for over a century, using their knowledge of the interior and ambush tactics to resist any direct attack. The colonial government finally accepts the stalemate, and over the next two years makes treaties with the Maroons as sovereign nations. Throughout the colonial period, British governors received their leaders as if they were foreign dignitaries.

And the Maroons still exist. Their towns are still states within a state, they still pay no taxes to the Jamaican government on ‘treaty land’, and they are still led by a chief known as a colonel. This title, which goes back to the treaties, is pure propaganda: the commander of the British troops in Jamaica was a colonel; the leaders of the Maroons must be colonels too. Any lower rank would give the (correct) impression that a British regiment had been defeated by a smaller force.

Colonel Wallace Sterling, of the Moore Town Maroons, told me that this was tact on the part of his ancestors. ‘The British did not want to tell the public in England, here is a king of African descent in Jamaica… So we let them make something up. You can’t be telling the people back home that this wild bunch of [people] are beating you with jongas and machetes… It’s kind of embarrassing.’

I met him on a visit to Jamaica — in fact, my honeymoon. My wife understood that I am more interested in romantic histories than romantic dinners, and she agreed to come with me to Moore Town, high in the mountains above Port Antonio, to meet him. We drove up a dirt track teetering on the edge of the valley of the Rio Grande (Colonel Sterling later told me that a bus had slipped off this road, killing 15 people) until we arrived in Maroon country, where the land opened out in a bowl of tropical vegetation. Everywhere there were brightly coloured parrots, circling in chattering flocks and landing on the trees before they were chased away. Here, parrots are just pests that eat your citrus.

We parked by the grave of Moore Town’s founder and first chief, Nanny of the Maroons, an escaped Ashanti slave from Ghana. A Rastafarian flag flew above. Unlike other Maroon leaders, who agreed to return run-away slaves to their owners, Nanny was untainted by compromise with the British. She is a national hero and her portrait appears on the Jamaican $500 bill. I counted five murals of her before I found the colonel.

Colonel Sterling was dressed in a T-shirt, thornproof trousers and a grubby baseball cap. He came down from the field where he had been working, wiped his machete on some leaves and grumbled about the parrots. He’s more of an elder statesman than Colonel Currie, more of a diplomat. When I asked whether he thinks of himself as a head of state, he demurred: ‘In a sense, because the Maroon community is a state by itself, in one aspect, as some people would want to look at it.’ But, sitting on a plastic chair on his veranda, the colonel did not invite me to sit down with him. I remained standing for an hour — as protocol demands in the presence of a head of state — as he gave me a lecture on Maroon history.

His sources were quite unlike those of any other lecturer I’ve ever heard. I asked him, for example, whether Nanny actually existed. Many of the stories sound more like myth than history: she was said to have ‘a lot of Science about her’, and would catch English bullets between her buttocks and fart them back at the militia, which seems improbable.

The colonel sighed. ‘Let’s put it this way. The history of our foreparents is pretty much wrapped up in the Kromanti songs that we sing. I’m not a good singer, but I’ll tell you the words anyway. Grandy Nanny come-oo/ ya ye yanimi/ me bin a Anabo/ ya ye yanimi…’ As he recited the words, his eyes closed, and within three lines he had begun to chant. Anabo is a town in Ghana, now known as Anomabu, where Ashanti slaves were held prior to the Middle Passage. ‘Singing Kromanti songs is spiritual, yes, but it is record-keeping too. So we know Nanny exist.’ In the same way, he knows that the Maroons were sovereign nations even before the treaties were signed. ‘Our foreparents were independent long before the signing of the treaty — some even before the British arrived. It is that reason why they call themselves Yenkunkun: it’s an Akan word — it means an independent people.’

Not everyone agrees with the Maroons’ record-keeping. Despite the treaties being unimpeachable written sources, the Jamaican national security minister, Dr Horace Chang, commenting on the ‘kerfuffle’ at Accompong, said there was no such thing as ‘Maroon land’. Up until now, the government in Kingston has not seriously tried to impose its will on the Maroons. The decision to send the police in to destroy a ganja farm looks like escalation.

Colonel Currie is determined to fight for his people’s independence — not just to grow ganja, but also to prevent the mining of bauxite on Maroon lands. Colonel Sterling is pushing for a ‘siddung’ to negotiate a way forward with the Jamaican government. ‘It seems to me,’ he said in an interview with Jamaica’s Sunday Observer, ‘like the word sovereignty is where the problem lies.’ It always is.

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