Deep in the Swamps, Archaeologists Are Finding How Fugitive Slaves Kept Their Freedom

deep-swamp

“Wherever Africans were enslaved in the world, there were runaways who escaped permanently and lived in free independent settlements. These people and their descendants are known as ‘maroons.’ The term probably comes from the Spanish cimarrón, meaning feral livestock, fugitive slave or something wild and defiant.

Marronage, the process of extricating oneself from slavery, took place all over Latin America and the Caribbean, in the slave islands of the Indian Ocean, in Angola and other parts of Africa. But until recently, the idea that maroons also existed in North America has been rejected by most historians…By downplaying American marronage, and valorizing white involvement in the Underground Railroad, historians have shown a racial bias, in Sayers’ opinion, a reluctance to acknowledge the strength of black resistance and initiative. They’ve also revealed the shortcomings of their methods: ‘Historians are limited to source documents. When it comes to maroons, there isn’t that much on paper. But that doesn’t mean their story should be ignored or overlooked. As archaeologists, we can read it in the ground…’

‘Traditionally, we’ve studied the institution of slavery, not enslavement as it was lived,’ [Nancy Bercaw] says. ‘Once you start looking at our history through an African-American lens, it really changes the focus. Maroons become much more significant.’

The largest community of American maroons was in the Great Dismal Swamp, but there were others in the swamps outside New Orleans, in Alabama and elsewhere in the Carolinas, and in Florida. All these sites are being investigated by archaeologists.

‘The other maroon societies had more fluidity,’says Bercaw. ‘People would slip off down the waterways, but usually maintain some contact. The Dismal Swamp maroons found a way to remove themselves completely from the United States, in the recesses of its geography.‘”

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