Maroon Slaves and Black Flags

, by @Alfred, Soopa Seb

During slavery’s reign of horror, solidarities were struck between human groups everything should have kept apart: white sailors, maroon slaves, black freedmen, white indentured servants joined in common, pre-revolutionary struggles. A thing to ponder in times of communautarist discourse, when some of our politicians fuel with xenophobic discourse the skewed debate over the “cultural” and “ethnic” divisions that allegedly characterize the populace.

Preparing for the upcoming presidential elections, French politicians have started playing their favorite game; it consists in emphasizing the alleged cultural and ethnic differences among the French populace. Actual issues have taken a backseat ages ago, and politicians do not even pretend to be interested anymore, renouncing to serve the common good and abdicating to the economic powers they both lead and serve.

For if the inhabitants of France have diverse origins, those have never been an obstacle to solidarity. And if there are ghettoes in France, they clearly were not built by communautarist obscurantism, but rather by the very specific immigration policies followed by French governments since WWII. The poorest of the French, the “scum” agonized by Minister Sarkozy, have been cooped up for ages in the same banlieues, in the same projects; they have learned to live in the same miserable conditions, to know the same joys and pains, to have the same hopes for their children and the same worries for their elders. In short, they have learned to know each other, and recognize each other as one and the same, wherever they might be from. If they form a community, it is one of interests.

This is the intangible reality that any person can pick up on by simply walking through a French working class neighborhood. Politicians cannot erase this fact, yet they can spin it. Their power to distort reality starts where it ends: in the media, and especially on TV. Their last resort in trying to push different sections of the populace one against the other is to create fear. To that effect, they have bagfuls of repressive laws and methods: they can hunt down immigrant minors all the way into high schools; solidarity with illegal immigrants has been criminalized in a law, the likes of which had not been seen since the time of the collaborationist Vichy government. They can murder immigrants at the gates of fortress Europe, as they did over a year ago in Ceuta y Melilla, Spain [1]. The point is, quite clearly, to do everything possible to divert the working class’s attention from its historic enemy by providing the ideal scapegoats. Quite conveniently, they happen to be easily identifiable for the abnormally high levels of melanin contained in their bodies (which should prove, if needed, their intrinsic strangeness): racism is the consequence of constant efforts to teach it and reinforce it.

They cannot completely break the ties of solidarity; Nazi occupation could not either, nor could slavery over a much longer period of time. There were always and at all times heterogeneous groups of people conscious of the similarities of their condition who stood firm, supporting and aiding each other, struggling side by side. When a rebellion was cut down, another one would spring up in a different spot of the Black Atlantic, like a Many Headed Hydra [2]. Such was the network constituted by maroon slaves and their companions of infortune, Native Americans and European indenture servants, Irish sailors and stevedores, and the Brothers of the Coast.

Maroons and Native Americans

From the beginnings of slavery as the systematic deportation of forced labor from Africa to the Americas, there were slave revolts. They would often occur before embarkment on the slave ships: some slaves fled the “ports of no return” to settle on the islands of Sao Tome and Principe to constitute maroon slave communities. Revolts occurred during the crossing of the Atlantic, or Middle Passage, and of course also at the ships’ destination, in the plantations of the West Indies, and in North, Central and South America. For example, as soon as 1580, a peace treaty was signed in Panama between European settlers and maroons that legalized palenques [3]

Once they succeeded in fleeing the plantation and forming a community, former slaves had to insure their survival. At first, basic needs were covered in exchanges with surviving Native Americans who had also been enslaved:

Throughout Afro-America, Indians interacted with slaves, whether as fellow sufferers, as trading partners, or in other capacities. Indian technologies - from pottery making and hammock weaving to fish drugging and manioc processing - were taken over and, often, further developed by the slaves, who were so often responsible for supplying the bulk of their own daily needs. [4]

Interactions between African slaves and Native Americans occurred often and in many different locations. Thus in 1526, in the Spanish colonies of North America-modern day South Carolina-we learn from settler Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon’s journal that because of the abuse they had suffered, “[...] several of the slaves rebelled, and fled to the Indians. The next month what was left of the [Spanish settlers], some one hundred and fifty souls, returned to Haïti, leaving the rebel Negroes with their Indians friends - as the first permanents inhabitants, other than the Indians, in what was to be the United States.” [5] This brings to mind Hakim Bey’s Gone to Croatan [6] section in his famous book T.A.Z. [7]:

So—the very first colony in the New World chose to renounce its contract with Prospero (Dee/Raleigh/Empire) and go over to the Wild Men with Caliban. They dropped out. They became "Indians," "went native," opted for chaos over the appalling miseries of serfing for the plutocrats and intellectuals of London.

The examples are too many to count, from the Black Seminoles in Florida to the Garifunas, or Black Caribs. Afro-Indian alliances sometimes led to joint attacks on neighboring villages, as in “1772, [when ?] a group of Negro fugitives and Indians attacked the village of San José de Maranhao” in Brazil [8].

In many cases, though, Native Americans and maroons clashed; over land, for example, as maroons looking to put distance between settler villages and themselves would end up on land occupied for the same reason by Native Americans. In other instances, Native American scouts were called upon by European powers in order to track down fugitive slaves: “In Jamaica, the government went so far as to import several shiploads of Miskito Indians from the Central American mainland for this purpose” [9]. But facing a common oppressor, and in opposition to the proto-capitalist plantation system set up by the Europeans, the most frequent reaction was cooperation.

Maroons and white settlers

Under constant threat of attack from slaveowners, knowledge of the surroundings learned from Native Americans was not enough for maroons to survive. In order to lead guerilla operations against settlers’ troops organized rigidly in the fashion of European armies, maroons “[depended] on reliable intelligence networks among non-maroons (both slaves and white settlers)” [10]. As Price notes:

Two points deserved special emphasis: the extent of maroon dependence on colonial society for certain essential items, and the surprising amount of collusion by members of almost all social classes with the rebels, whenever it served their individual self-interests.[...] a large number of individual members of theses societies found the maroons useful suppliers of goods and services and had few scruples about supplying them, in return, with the items they needed [11].

One can imagine that in the course of those exchanges, ties other than strictly commercial were created between maroons and some of the settlers, ties serious enough so that maroons would consider the information they obtained to be trustworthy. We can even imagine that the fierce competition imposed by the great landowners for land, but also for production, might have made the poorest of settlers closer to maroons than to rich settlers. Moreover, as Gabriel Debien notes, maroonage “existed among white indentured servants as well as among black slaves” [12]. Indentured servants, whose living conditions were comparable to slaves’, can thus potentially be seen as the trustworthy information sources maroons depended on, if not as their allies. Finally, it has been reported that maroons and whites joined forces to fight colonial governments:

On at least one occasion - the Balaiada Revolt (Maranhão, 1837-40) - mocambo bands, bandits and political dissidents joined forces against the state and national governments [13].

These events shed an interesting light on the obsession with legally defining differences between whites and blacks, and on the harsh punishment met by those who crossed the arbitrary racial border. In spite of the brutal application of race separation, revolts such as the Balaiada Revolt did occur in the middle of the 19th century, and in many other moments and locations on the shores of the Black Atlantic. Freedom-loving people around the world were ready to challenge an order they considered illegitimate. “One of the strangest of the "alliances of convenience" that arose in this setting was between maroons in the Spanish territories and the pirates who represented Spain’s enemies” [14].

Black sailors, Irishmen and radical ideas

Many among the sailors of the 17th and 18th century were black. In major harbors such as London, runaway slaves from across the ocean joined the Royal Navy, hiding in the anonymous mass of freedmen, as was the case in other coastal towns in America like New York or Charleston, where “[...]slaves dominated Charleston’s maritime and riverine traffic, in which 20 percent of the city’s adult male slaves labored” [15]. As Gilroy adds, “it has been estimated that at the end of the eighteenth century a quarter of the British navy was composed of Africans for whom the experience of slavery was a powerful orientation to the ideologies of liberty and justice” [16]. By working as sailors or stevedores, Africans, often maroon slaves, completed their experience of work in protocapitalist plantations [17] with that of a social organization derived from the division of labor in times of economic and social change. On the plantation, maroon slaves had been able to set up innovative means of struggle reminiscent of the strike. In one example, faced with a particularly cruel bookkeeper, a group of slaves from the French West Indies fled the plantation during the day in order to avoid exhausting chores. “They would return to their houses every evening saying that they would not give themselves up as long as the bookkeeper remained on the plantation” [18].

In major harbors across the world, slaves, maroons and freedmen met Irish sailors and dockers strongly influenced by Leveller ideology, which had spread in Ireland during the bitter war against the British invader. The English colonization of Ireland in the 17th century was characterized by the systematic expropriation of land through the enclosure of open fields, commons and waste lands. Leveller ideology played an important role in the English Revolution of 1649. The Levellers later expressed their opposition to the invasion of Ireland by Oliver Cromwell, without being able to stop it [19]. The corollary to the expropriation of all those Irish peasants was their exile to London and the Caribbean. This exile, though sometimes voluntary, was more often simply deportation:

Sir William Petty estimated that one sixth of the adult males, some thirty-four thousand men, were shipped out of Ireland and sold abroad in the aftermath of the 1649 conquest. By 1660 there were at least twelves thousand Irish workers in the West Indies, and nine years later, eight thousand in Barbados alone [20].

The meeting of Africans and Irishmen would prove explosive; they shared a history of struggle against oppression and slavery, and many were the similarities between their societies of origin in Ireland and Western Africa. They were characterized by “a pastoral economy, the relative absence of commercial sector, the predominance of large kinship groupings as the social basis of production, the absence of "individualism", and the emphasis upon collective mores, identities, music and culture” [21]. The example of Frederick Douglass comes to mind, “whose autobiographies reveal that he learnt of freedom in the North from Irish sailors while working as a ship’s caulker in Baltimore” [22].

Sailors, stevedores and workers from other port corporations gathered in different locations and developed “a subculture [that] revolved around common work experiences and a common cultural life[...]. Apprentices, servants and even Negroes “drank together in Hell Town in Philadelphia,” just as “seamen and Negroes” caroused “at unseasonable hours” in Charleston, and workers black and white congregated at Hughson’s tavern in New York” [23]. These groups would later provide the muscle behind tough strikes and be the initiators of insurrections like the popular uprisings against the practice of impressment (forced enrolment) in the Royal Navy throughout the 18th century along the Eastern Seaboard. They were instrumental in the propagation of the revolutionary ideas they embodied:

Through the harsh winter of 1740-41, [...] workers [that, which ?] met at John Hughson’s waterside tavern in the city of New York to plan a rising for St.Patrick’s Day. The conspirators included Irish, English, Hispanic, African, and Native American men and women[...]Eventually they put at least part of their plan into action, burning down Fort George, the Governor’s mansion, and the imperial armory, the symbols of Royal Majesty and civil authority, the havens and instruments of ruling-class power in New York [24]

GIF - 92.2 kb
Crispus Attucks représenté sur la gravure du Massacre de Boston par John Pufford
(source:Wiki Commons)

A few years later, in 1770, we find the black sailor Crispus Attucks leading “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes, mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tars” (in the words of John Adams) to become one of the five casualties of the Boston Massacre, a key moment in the buildup towards the American Revolution. In England, “William Davidson, son of Jamaica’s attorney general, hanged for his role in the Cato Street conspiracy to blow up the British Cabinet in 1819 [...]. He is known to have acted as the custodian of [his radical group’s] black flag, which significantly bore a skull and crossbones with the legend “Let us die like men and not be sold as slaves [...]” [25].

Maroon Slaves and Black Flags

It is quite remarkable that Davidson and Attucks would both have been sailors. Davidson first joined the merchant marine, and was then pressed twice into service in the Royal Navy, as many other men of African origin. As indicated by Gilroy, it seems likely that such men were exposed to the ideology of pirates, which was known by all sailors:

Every Man has a Vote in Affairs of Moment; has equal Title to the fresh Provisions, or strong Liquors, at any Time seized, and may use them at Pleasure, unless a Scarcity make it necessary, for the Good of all, to vote a Retrenchment [26].

Such agreement contrasted with the living conditions on board merchant marine or Royal Navy ships, described here by Peter Lamborn Wilson:

[...] maritime workers constituted a kind of proto-proletariat. Labor conditions in the merchant marines of Europe presented an abysmal picture of emerging capitalism at its worst-and conditions in European navies were even more horrendous. [27].

On pirate ships, booty was divided according to a system much fairer than the navy wage system: each man would get an equal part, while their captain would receive one to one and a half. Pirates also had a form of disability benefit: part of the booty went into a collective fund which served to compensate pirates in proportion to their injury. Furthermore, pirate captains were elected, and “ [as] the majority elected, so it could depose. Captains were snatched from their position for cowardice, cruelty [...]” [28]. Any crew member could be promoted for his merits, and one day become a captain, no matter his class or ethnic background [29]. It is also interesting to note the position of women in pirate societies: some were able to escape the social constraints of European life, although some of the codes ruling life on pirate ships forbid the presence of women (and boys). The case of Irish-born Anne Bonny, companion of “Calico Jack” Rackham nevertheless seems to prove that pirates could deal with and respect women.

PNG - 13.4 kb
Mourons en hommes libres plutôt que d’être vendus en esclaves !
(source:Wiki Commons)

While some pirates took part in the slave trade, many others made theirs the ideals of freedom and equality of black and white workers in London or Boston. According to Kenneth Kinkor, pirates judged men on their knowledge, not on their race. He estimates that between 25 and 30% of pirate crews were black men: “Among corsair and pirate crews, one can find many Negroes. Runaway slaves, they are daring seamen with nothing to lose; pirates often keep in their service the slaves they find on their prizes” [30]

One can easily understand the attraction that the pirate world could exert on sailors in general and black sailors in particular, with its promise of freedom, equality, fraternity such as no nation state would then consider. Examples of sailors defecting to pirate ships on being captured are many, but in some cases proximity was all the prompting sailors needed to join pirate ships.

The social organization of pirate ships was the application of the radical ideals at play in revolutionary England. Many of the English revolutionaries had to flee England for the Caribbean. For example, we find in Barbados “Perrot, the bearded Ranter who refused to doff his hat to the Almighty [and] many others such as the Ranter intellectual Joseph Salmon,” or Robert Richthe disciple of the Quaker heretic James Nayler [31]
Nayler preached equality among men and attacked the rich expropriating the commons, “getting great estates in the world, laying house to house and land to land, till there be no place for the poor.” For such words, “he was thrown in prison and shared the straw on the ground with pirates” (in Linebaugh and Rediker, Many Headed Hydra, 95).

The relationship between pirates and Africans did not stop with acceptance of the latter on pirate ships. On the West African coast, “independent African mariners primarily from the Sierra Leone region” [32] joined pirate crews for wages. On the other side of the Black Atlantic, those cosmopolitan crews would come in contact with maroon communities, where “men would find food and rest in the palenques.” Pirates also found information necessary to their reappropriation of wealth: “ maroons offered information on the transportation of precious metals, a task they had themselves performed as slaves” [33].
When they were not sailing, pirates often adopted the customs of the maroons they met on the shore, the same way maroons had adopted the customs of Native Americans. “This sort of ‘marooning life’ was very clearly identified with piracy” [34]. In some cases, pirates did settle down and mix with the population, for example in Madagascar. Those exchanges between black and white, pirates and maroons would create cultural syncretisms, mixing language, songs, political ideology, each influencing the other and spreading on the fringes of the Black Atlantic. “Contacts and cultural exchange between pirates, seamen and Africans led to the clear similarities between sea shanties and African songs. In 1743 some seamen were court-martialled for singing a ‘negro song’” [35].

Putting in perspective the relationships between these different human groups in the time of proto-capitalist slavery allows us to reconsider similar relationships nowadays. One can see in the parallel toughening of segregationist laws in slave states and of laws condemning piracy as state-sponsored violence. States and the young capitalist system could feel threatened by an awareness, on the part of oppressed communities, of a commonality of interests. Lately, examples of solidarity and exchanges among different groups suffering from the ravages of global economy and finance have sprouted across the world; union activists pushing for direct action have sided with student movements with no political or traditional union affiliation; in France, ghetto youths have expressed their rage in the riots of November 2005, and immigrant collectives have been at the forefront of the struggle against the abuses of faceless nation state policies. The discourse on alleged insecurity and the repressive tools used by our leaders can be seen as so many attempts to cut the many heads of this present day Hydra. It is up to us then, to understand what the ruling classes already know-such solidarities are a threat to their power-to work to strengthen movements against assault on our dignity, and make ours the motto once inscribed on William Davidson’s black flag:

Let us die like Men and not be sold as Slaves.


[1A symbolic location if there is one: those two cities located on the African mainland are the only vestiges of Spain’s colonial empire.

[2See Linebaugh, Peter and Marcus Rediker. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic(Beacon Press, 2001). Also an article with a similar title: “The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, and the Atlantic Working Class in the Eighteenth Century,” Journal of Historical Sociology 3:3 (September 1990): 225-253. Available here.

[3In Eve Demazière, Les Cultures noires d’Amérique Centrale (Karthala, 1994). The term palenque describes maroon villages in Spanish-speaking South America. Maroon villages in Brazil were known as quilombos or mocambos. Further translations of this book are mine.

[4Richard Price, Maroon Societies: Rebel slave communities in the Americas (Johns Hopkins Press, 1996), p.13.

[5Herbert Aptheker, qtd in Price, p.149.

[6Hakim Bey is the pseudonym chosen by Peter Lamborn Wilson to write T.A.Z. I shall refer to this author further in the section on pirates.

[7Temporary Autonomous Zones, among which one can count maroon communities.

[8Roger Bastide, Les Religions Africaines au Brésil(P.U.F., 1960), qtd in Price, p.194. For a deeper look into Afro-Indian encounters in North America, see the documentary by André Gladu, Maroon: On the Trail of Creoles in North America and an interesting indirect review of it by Jerry Ward at the bottom of this page.

[9Price, 9.

[10Price, 7.

[11Price, 13.

[12Debien, “Le marronage aux Antilles Françaises au XVIIIe siècle,” (Caribbean Studies 6, 1966), qtd in Price, 112.

[13Stuart B. Schwartz, qtd in Price, 212.

[14Price, 14.

[15Linebaugh & Rediker, “Many Headed Hydra,” pdf 6

[16Gilroy, Paul, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Harvard UP, 1993), p.13.

[17See C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, Random House, 1963. According to James, plantation slaves can be consideredas the first to experience the working conditions that would become the norm after the industrial revolutions of the 19th and 20th century: assembly line type work, extreme division of labor, shifts marked by hourly whistles, work positions entirely devoted to the surveillance of other workers, etc. Similar causes having similar effects, plantantion slaves were among the first to use strikes as a means of social protest.

[18Debien qtd in Price, 128

[19See Hill, Christopher, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (Penguin, 1984).

[20Linebaugh and Rediker, Many Headed Hydra, 123

[21Linebaugh and Rediker, “Many Headed Hydra,” pdf 11.

[22Gilroy, 13.

[23Linebaugh, Rediker, op.cit., 8.

[24Linebaugh and Rediker, “The Many Headed Hydra,” 1.

[25Gilroy, 12-13.

[26“Pirate Utopias,” Do or Die 8, 1999, 63-78. Available online here.

[27Wilson, Peter Lamborn. Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs and European Renegadoes (AK Press, 2003), 21.

[28Rediker, Marcus, “ ‘Under the Banner of King Death’: The Social World of Anglo-American Pirates, 1716 to 1726,” The William and Mary Quarterly(April 1981, 38:2, 203-227).

[29See Wilson on the organization of the Corsair Republic of Sale.

[30Personal translation from Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin, qtd in Demaziere, 98.


[32“Pirate Utopias.”

[33Demaziere, 98.


[35Pirate Utopias.