Black Sails: Maroons and the History of Escaped Slave Communities

We bring you another history lesson to help you contextualize Starz's excellent pirate drama, Black Sails.

The first thing you want to know, of course, is why they’re called “Maroons.” The origin of the Maroon people dates back at least to 1512, and the word is a Spanish one, “cimarrones” which meant wild, or feral. To the early Spanish settlers in the Caribbean, Maroon people were feral people, slaves who had escaped their servitude, in the same way that feral dogs are dogs that have escaped the rule of humans.

The word is also related to the practice of “marooning” meaning to leave someone in the wilderness. Once again, the word speaks to someone who is “out of place.”

To the former African slaves who became Maroons, it was quite a different story. These people, taken from their homes during Africa’s internal wars, knew that they didn’t belong in chains. They broke free and formed subsistence settlements on the wildest parts of the islands they inhabited. The Caribbean is full of mountainous terrain, heavy brush and downright jungle. Determined people could find a place to hide out.

Many of the escaped slaves were from the Ashanti tribe. It was common at the time for the winner in a battle or war to take the soldiers of the defeated tribe or nation as slaves (think of what the ancient Romans did). However, groups captured together were still effective fighting forces, being trained warriors who wanted to escape.

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The slave-holder Africans solved this problem by selling these “platoons” of captured soldiers to Europeans. Strict rules – chains, cells, and constant watching by armed guards got these people across the ocean to the Caribbean, but once they were set loose to work they frequently rebelled and/or escaped.

(In later years, European slave-dealers would learn to buy slaves from different nationalities, who could not communicate and had a harder time raising a successful rebellion. But it was a hard-won lesson.)

Joining these escaped African slaves were members of the Arawak natives, especially the group known as the Taino. These were the original inhabitants of the Caribbean islands. Their numbers had been decimated by European conquest and European diseases, but they seem to have been happy to welcome escaped slaves. The cultures of the two groups merged, and eventually, as more and more Africans escaped their chains, the African languages and customs became predominant.

Language was often a problem. Groups often spoke a mix of Native and African language, but were also forced to mix in the languages of their former owners, as sometimes these were to only words that both groups knew.

The Taimo and the Africans both had a tradition of rulers also being spiritual leaders who performed religious ceremonies, and physical or emotional healing. The Taino were led almost entirely by men, but some women leaders emerged out of the African traditions.

The most famous of these was a woman named Nanny, often called Queen Nanny. She led a resistance group in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains that resisted all efforts by the British Army to subdue it. In the end, the British ceded land to this group of Maroons in exchange for a promise to return newly escaped slaves and cease raids into English plantations.

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At one time or another, Maroon communities existed on most of the large island in the Caribbean, Cuban, Dominica, Haiti, Puerto Rico and Jamaica, to name the most successful. On the mainland, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua and Panama were also home to Maroon groups. “Maroon” has become the default name for a community of formerly escaped slaves, and as such, Maroon communities reach as far north as Quebec, and as distantly as Asia.

One thing remains the same, however. Each community was unique, and none of them had an easy time. Nanny, who protected her community for years, took on the mantle of a legend. Her death was reported at least three times, yet she seems to have almost risen from the dead. The Maroon community of Nanny Town is named for her, and she is the only woman listed among Jamaica’s official roll of national heroes.

In Black Sails, it’s stated that some contact with the outside world is required, but I have a hard time imagining what these communities would not be able to make for themselves. Steel needles, perhaps, or saw blades and knives. With the traditions of the Taino behind them, the African newcomers were taught how to farm in the most inaccessible of locations, build homes from native materials, and eat a diet close to the land, which included native fruits and vegetables, and even worms and insects, which had been a traditional part of the Tiano diet.

The existence of Maroon communities terrified European settlers and plantation owners. . Like most people who have mistreated others, they lived in terror that the oppressed would rise up and do to their former masters what had been done to them. And since slaves on these island often outnumbered Europeans by a factor of 30 to one, their fears were far from unfounded.

Many times, military presence on settled islands was not strong enough to make plantation owners feel safe. Islands formed and exercised active militias, whose specific purpose was to protect plantations from Maroon raids. The gentleman pirate Stede Bonnet got his first taste of battle as leader of his local militia, which was considered a position of honor.

Some Maroon communities won their official freedom before any other African group in the Caribbean. Maroons were instrumental in the creation of the religion of Vudu, and were also the instigators of the Haitian Rebellion which led to that nation becoming free from France in 1804.

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Today, Jamaica is home to eleven still-existing Maroon communities. The conditions which allowed these people to fend off both militia and army attacks for hundreds of years now makes them inaccessible and has made modernization difficult. However, since the people still practice their traditional way of life, including vibrant festivals, they now profit from the tourist industry. Tours can be arranged, and it’s possible to still see these people carrying on their lives.  

TS Rhodes is the author of The Pirate Empire series. She blogs about pirates at