Discover more from Out & Back
Maroons, Runaway Slaves & Dr. V's Revolution
Current obsessions, Edouard Glissant, Patrick Chamoiseau & Dr. V's Revolution
The great Martiniquan novelist Edouard Glissant called maroons and runaway slaves the ones who refused, a phrase I find deeply moving in a dozen ways, expressing as it does the absolute bedrock of existential freedom available to all humans. What Glissant does with this phrase is restore freedom and agency to enslaved African people in a way that most histories do not. Choosing freedom over slavery mostly meant death. Runaway slaves embodied the New Hampshire state motto: Live Free or Die. They did this before New Hampshire was invented. A good number of Africans chose freedom by leaping over the sides of their slave ships or starving themselves to death. And when they reached the Carribean islands, running away was an exceedingly risky option. Most were hunted down and killed or brutally punished. Nonetheless, over and over African men and women managed to forge free communities of maroons outside the plantation industrial complex. Sometimes these communities fought lingering guerilla actions against the planters, sometimes they were exterminated, sometimes they joined the slaves in revolt, and sometimes they made deals with the planters to return other runaways.
Glissant dramatized “the ones who refused” in three novels, The Ripening, The Fourth Century, and The Overseer’s Cabin. The last two mentioned are especially interconnected, presenting a sprawling multi-generational set of inter-woven stories, at the root of which are two African men brought to Martinique on a French slave ship, the Rose-Marie. The men are already at war with one another when they land (in The Fourth Century); in The Overseer’s Cabin, we learn that they were best friends in Africa, brothers, as it were, who fell out over a young woman they were both in love with. The one brother betrayed the other to slave catchers, but in the end he too is caught up in the net, and they sail on the same ship. Soon after they reach Martinique, the betrayed brother escapes into the hills while his betrayer remains a slave on the plantation, thus setting up Glissant’s basic structural dichotomy. Their twinned fates then work themselves out through generations of Martiniquan history.
Patrick Chamoiseau, another Martiniquan novelist, a disciple of Glissant (who wrote a wonderful book about William Faulkner, by the way), took up the theme of the runaway in his novel Slave Old Man. The French title is actually more descriptive of the book, L'Esclave vieil homme et le Molosse, The Slave Old Man and the Mastiff, because the central action of the plot is the hunt for the escaped slave using a huge, abuse-maddened dog. Indeed, part of the novel is written from the point of view of the dog (I love this book for its technical playfulness). The story opens with the old man, a nonentity, a shell of a man, after decades of slavery, ignored and despised even by the other slaves; he is getting ready to die. But first, in a burst of divine afflatus, “he blazed up abruptly in a beautiful bonfire of life.” The first sign something is amiss is that the old man doesn’t come out of his hut to answer the work call. It takes a few paragraphs for the plantation to come alive to the fact that he is gone. “The slave old man — most docile among the docile — has gone marooning.” The chapter ends with this exhilarating paragraph:
The Master abruptly realizes that for a long time already, the mastiff has been howling, and that this howling, all by itself, défolmante — is dis-in-te-gra-ting — the substance of his world.
I am thinking about Glissant and Chamoiseau and maroons right now because I am writing a section of my book (project, obsession) about a real-life maroon named Hume who lived in Grenada in the early 19th century. I only know about him because his name shows up on the slave registry of 1817 for a sugar plantation called Mount Rich. These registries were a sort of annual census. They begin in 1817, so no prior record of this kind exists. In 1817, Hume’s age is listed as thirty; he had been born in Africa. But the astonishing thing is a tiny note appended to his entry: “runaway since 1804.” This means, almost certainly, that Hume was a maroon, living in the densely forested mountains of interior Grenada.
I’ve looked at a good number of these registries without seeing this kind of note before. There were any number of runaways in Grenada, but they tended to be recorded in newspaper notices, with names, descriptions, and rewards offered. And, if you read planter diaries, you get the sense that a plantation was a porous entity with slaves slipping away for an hour or overnight or a week, sometimes even for good. They would go off to see friends or relatives on other plantations or to escape a punishment or to hunt or to sell produce. Usually, they returned on their own. Sometimes, the estate manager would send other slaves out to bring them back. Apparently, the folk often knew where the runaways had gone. In this case, the registry notation indicates that the plantation manager knew that Hume was still alive and was still out there in the woods somewhere, possibly supported by other maroons or even his friends on Mount Rich. But in thirteen years, he hadn’t been brought back. His name stays on the registry until 1821, when the estate manager finally strikes him off the list (the estate had come under new management and perhaps they decided just to cut their losses; alternatively, they found out that Hume had died).
The other thing you can say about Hume is, of course, that he came to the island from Africa before 1804. In 1804, he would have been sixteen or seventeen, the age of a high school junior, perhaps. Probably, he had only recently arrived; it took a year or two of “seasoning” to get the newcomers to settle into the routine of being enslaved. So, a hot-headed boy with the tenacity to stick it out in the woods, alone, a powerful individual, a bit of a gangster, perhaps. I like to think of him in his secluded hut, looking down on the sugar fields below, hungry, wary, lonely, and free.
This brings me to Dr. V, Neil Vaz, descendant of Africans brought to Carriacou and Grenada, an expert on maroons (he is writing a book). He did his MA at Howard University on the origins of slaves in Africa (you can buy it from Proquest) and his Phd. on the maroon communities on the island of Dominica (where Jean Rhys was born). His doctoral thesis is on my laptop, always one click away as I write. We’ve been corresponding and talking on Zoom. He is teaching at Seminole State in central Florida.
You can look up Neil’s work, but a quick way to get to know the man (and let him INFECT your minds) is by looking at his amazing YouTube channel, Dr. V's Revolution Will Not Be Pesticides (it’s a pun; maybe you all got that before I did). Words like highly and delightfully informal, erudite, clever, curious, original, passionate and fun come easily to mind. Also, a man who keeps chickens in his backyard and doesn’t edit them out when they interrupt a lecture is a man to reckon with. See, specifically, the first lecture I watched, The Igbo in the African Diaspora; the chicken makes an entrance shortly after the 14-minute mark. Then forget about the chicken. Neil is on a mission.