Resistance to Slavery : Warfare and Maroonage

Throughout the long history of American slavery there has been much academic work on slave resistance. Africans/African Americans, or to generalize blacks, would use many different tactics to subvert the slave system. Two of the more overlooked aspects of resistance is maroonage and warfare. Defining maroonage, in terms, that it stands different from simply “running away” will be key in analyzing this form of resistance. In terms of warfare, the War of 1812 will be discussed, and how blacks fought for the British. Much attention will also be given to the Spanish/British Florida region, the Seminoles, and the relationship between the Florida government and blacks. This is not to say that academics and scholars in these respective fields agree on the importance of these types of resistance. Where scholars disagree is another aspect of dissecting these forms of resistance.

Maroons, overall rejected the entire system of slavery, along with it, the American political/social system. Maroons were not looking to simply leave and start a new life in a  free part of the country or Canada, but went to the wilderness and stayed.[1]  Unlike, runaways who looked to be part of the overall American social system, even if as second class citizens, maroons rejected this as well. The goal for a maroon or a maroon colony, was complete autonomy.[2]

The maroons saw themselves as independent from American society, but this does not explain how white America saw them. As Herbert Aptheker says, “[they] were seriously annoying for they were a source of insubordination.”[3] Sylviane Diouf in her book Slaverys Exiles dedicates an entire chapter to “maroon bandits”, which was a source of many headaches for the slavocracy. Maroons, from the second they left the plantation, were considered thieves because they were themselves legally property. In other words, the maroons stole themselves from their masters thus, depriving the master of their property.[4]

Theft was the least of white societies worries when it came to maroons. Maroons were also the source of blame for many slave uprisings and conspiracies. The 1765 South Carolina Slave Conspiracy was one of these incidents. Lieutenant Governor, William Bull was informed that two black men were planning a massacre to kill white people on Christmas Eve.[5] In 1802, in North Carolina copies of letters said to be written by conspirators, were sent to the governor. These conspirators were have said to live in a group in the swaps and even had poor whites joining them.[7] The slavocracy was shook to the core, not only were blacks and whites working together, but blacks were literate. May 15th 1823, the New York Evening Post ran a story called “A Serious Subject”. The article outlined the plans of maroons who looked to find guns and ammunition for either protection of revenge.

Sylviane Diouf describes the different types of maroons that were in the United States in great detail. Borderland maroons did not wonder off too far from where they escaped from. They made their maroon colonies close to the farms and plantations thus, their presence was known. [8] There were many reasons for staying close and risk being captured and returned to slavery, one being family connections. Escaping enslavement, but still wanting to see family members who were enslaved was crucial. Another instance would be for a slave to hover in the area of a different plantation where a spouse was sold. [9] In this case the a subcategory of maroonage called petit maroonage where slaves would runaway to see a loved ones, but eventually return.[10] As the name suggests this was a French term which was used to describe black slaves in the French colonies. Explained by Gabriel Debien in Maroonage in the French Caribbean, they usually fled alone and pillaging was not their main goal. [11]

Violence was another reason slaves would escape to the borderlands. The violence that slaves were subjected to does not need explanation, but what is important is to note that many did not accept the violence from slaveowners. Many decided to flee in the face of violence instead of submitting to the humiliation and torture of a beating.[12] The opposite was also true, many would find themselves on the borderland because they had inflected violence on a white person. Borderland maroons would also be the source of much stealing of food and tools to to ensure their survival.

One of the most vital aspects of staying close to the plantation was that it was used as a source of information. Slaves on the planation would work as spies and give information to the maroon in many cases. John Adams would comment on the communication skills of blacks by saying, “(information) will run several hundred miles in a week or fortnight”.[13] Coachmen, domestics, and draymen could have encores with over a hundred people from thirty planation which can hold eight hundred people. [14]

Another form of maroonage was hinterland maroonage, where the person or colony would  enter deep into the woods where they could have a stronger sense of security and freedom. The hinterlands maroons unlike the borderland maroons were harder to track thus, providing mystery to the slavocracy. Usually found in communities for optimal survival, they were able to accomplish a lifestyle some would say was better than plantation life. In the fall of 1827 a maroon colony in New Orleans was discovered where the cultivation of corn, sweet potatoes, hogs, and chicken were being raised.[15] Diouf makes it a point to establish that maroon colonies would trade, especially in South Carolina where maroons dominated the fishing business.[16] Although this was illegal because the maroons themselves were bandits, it was less illegal than, stealing goods and trading them which was also done.[17]

Maroons would also look to move outside of American territory and found themselves in foreign lands within the Americas. Spanish Florida has a very different history with maroons which must be narrated to understand the overall slave resistance narrative. On May 31st, 1738, Governor Manuel de Montiano of Florida, granted hundreds of blacks their freedom.[18] In fact, Florida would grant all slaves their freedom, making Florida a political safe haven for maroons. By 1739, Florida had established the first free black community in the America’s called “Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose”, which also acted as an armed garrison. [19]

The summer months of 1745 saw Americans attack St. Augustine, who were routed by black militia sent by Florida governor, Juan Quesada. This militia consisted of free blacks, who were then sent to gather outliers and confiscate their property. [20]  The Spanish Florida fighting was boosted when black troops from Saint Domingue who fought alongside Toussaint L’Ouverture on Hispaniola, against the French colonialists in 1793.  The mixture of blacks who never left the Eastern part of what is now the United States mingled with blacks who were battle tested and certainly had the same animosity towards slavery and white society.

Black troops in Florida were armed and received the same pay and rations as their  Spanish counterparts. During the Spanish-British war in the Americas, black troops played an important role. When Spain launched a counterattack in Georgia in 1742, Black officers wore the same clothes, had the same ranks, and freedom. [21] When Spain ceded Florida to Britain in the Treaty of Paris, Spain transferred the inhabitants of Fort Mose to Cuba.[22] During the Revolutionary War, black Seminoles would attack American plantations and align with Native Americans. These blacks cannot be thought of as to be fully maroons or fully runaways for a few reasons.

Blacks in Florida were legally free and willing to live within a white society that granted them certain rights, this is not the life of a maroon. In terms of being runaways, the legal freedom they obtained was the basis of them running away thus, in those terms, they succeeded. What this does show is a subversion of the American slave system and a willingness to  actively resist the system. In terms of semantics, escaped slaves in Florida were not maroons within a Florida context. They enjoyed full rights and freedom which America did not give them. But it terms of the Anglo-American mind, they were runaway slaves who were causing trouble thus, maroons within American context. This becomes clear during the War of 1812 which pitted the United States against Britain.    It is a safe assumption that America knew of the privileges Blacks had in Florida. The fear that white America had of maroons can only be assumed to be expanded when they saw a Black soldier on horseback, decorated in military uniform, with the legal right to kill them.

When looking at the War of 1812, the two main sources will be The Slaves Gamble Choosing Sides in the War of 1812 by Gene Allen Smith and Negro Comrades of the Crown by Gerald Horne. The reasons for blacks fleeing to the British lines is very simple; the promise of freedom. The British welcomed black soldiers into their ranks so much so that Britain had black led brigs.[23] The presence of black troops fighting for the British was very present in the Great Lake region. [24] Welcoming blacks into their ranks put America into a position to fight a two front war, just as the British were fighting. America had to contest slave uprisings, defecting slaves, and  British troops

With this being said, many blacks welcomed the invasion on American soil. At the onset of the War of 1812, Washington DC had a population of 15,000 with 3,400 of these people being enslaved blacks, 1,000 free blacks. [25] This would be a horrible mistake as Horne says, “(the founders of America) they had created a ruling center with a dangerous flaw”.[26] Blacks had little to no reason to not support an invasion and also knew the landscape of  America. The Burning of Washington is one of the incidents when racial and political tension worked to the favor of the British. During the Burning of Washington the U.S. Capitol, Navy Yard, and President’s House were set ablaze.

Black and white British troops would also set fire to the Post Office and Patent Office in D.C.[27] It is important to note that although black British troops set fire to D.C. they did so under the protection of the British government. Slaves were, in fact, marching in front of the black and white British troops going from house to house warning white civilians of the coming trouble.[28] Many whites admitted that slaves did not pose any issue but, it was white civilians that destroyed private property in Washington.[29] Although the British succeeded in burning Washington; the slave rebellion they hoped for failed.

Gene Smith does not go into much detail about British involvement in slave rebellions, for this Gerald Horne is the leading academic. Horne explains how fair treatment of blacks was a threat to American national security as any hint of freedom could upset the balance of power in America. Blacks were willing to build fortifications and defend the city of Philadelphia as the British approached. The city officials would not allow this; blacks were to only serve in non-combat roles and in segregated units.[30]

In terms of the historiography and methodology used by these various academics and scholars there is much to unpack and compare. Starting with Diouf, she uses many primary sources such as slave bills, newspapers and government documents from the time frame she covers. Her bibliography spans from a collection of Virginia law from 1823 to sources which highlight how African Americans about to their physical  environment. More interestingly, Diouf cites Richard Price, the author of Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas. Price in Rebel Slave Communities looked to cover the African maroon diaspora as he compiled different works which highlighted maroons in French Americas and Spanish Americas. Diouf centered her research solely on the present day United States. Also, Diouf goes into detail on maroon daily life as where Price is more concerned with maroons impact on the political and social structure of society. Diouf focuses herself with everything from maroon family life, diet, and economy.

Diouf, on page two hundred and elven highlights exactly where she has issue with scholars who cite Herbert Aptheker author of Maroons within the Present Limits of the United States. Diouf critiques Aptheker’s lack of evidence for his numbers on maroons living in the Great Dismal Swamp. Apetheker would switch from saying two thousand blacks lived in the swamp to admitting four years later that number was exaggerated.[31] The issue that Diouf seems to have is that academics still use these numbers despite the lack of credibility. The only conclusion she says can be drawn is simply, hundreds of maroons lived in the Great Dismal Swamp at any given time. [32]

The Slaves Gamble and Negro Comrades of the Crown deal with warfare and deal heavily with military and history documents. Smith, uses sources such as The Journal of the Society for Army Research and The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. As the title suggests, Smith takes the position that slaves had a choice to make in which side to fight for during the War of 1812. A glance at the table of contents shows that he is trying to be as objective as possible. He highlights  both American and British narratives toward black soldiers and slaves. In the end, his thesis is simply blacks chose the side that promised them the best chance of freedom.

Gerald Horne in Negro Comrades of the Crown agrees with Smith in terms that blacks were in fact, playing a game of Russian Roulette when it comes to their freedom in taking sides. Smith goes the  extra step saying the British was the overall better choice for blacks, but he focus on the British. Unlike Smith, who gives the narrative to black slaves, Horne focus on how the British used blacks their own advantage. Horne describes this very frankly in his introduction when he describes black soldiers as a way to assault America domestically. [33] This places Horne’s research heavily in the British archives, in which he uses letters between royal generals and journals published by British universities.[34]

There is a common theme in Diouf, Horne, Smith, and Price; which is they all refer to Spanish Florida. This is where Kevin Mulroy shines with his research on the Seminoles in Florida. His research is compromised from letters sent from a community of black seminoles to President Cleveland to an investigation report in Texas covering the death of a seminole named Wild Cat.[35] Mulroy echoes many of the sentiments felt by Diouf, Smith, and Horne, in that, Spanish Florida was a lighting rod of blacks who wanted  freedom.  And the fact the American government was not too fond of this idea. Horne covers both Seminole Wars and goes into detail of the American response to Spanish Florida and their “free negro policy” in chapter 6.

Smith subtitles his chapter on the Florida Patriot Wars as “for freedom we want and will have” and dedicates chapter three to the Florida Patriot War of 1812. Throughout the chapter Smith reminds the reader that Spanish Florida offered blacks what America did not, equality. Diouf gives attention to maroons but, reminds  the reader that they are legally free thus her narrative is limited, therefor she does not consider them maroons.[36]

Sylviane Diouf has the most intriguing  research in terms of overall composition and narrative. She covers the black slave narrative and gives the narrative justice by providing primary sources such as oral accounts from slaves and slave bills. What makes her work so convincing is that her research is easily accessible and very straightforward. In the introduction of Slaverys Exiles, Diouf details her methodology and sources. Her work is completely in conversation with fellow academics but, is an easy read for non-academics as well. She deters away from the usual academic style of in conversation writing and introduces histoirgrapy to the reader. Diouf stands out by steering away from writing in a political history narrative and gives stories to the people she is writing about.

These various approaches to history concerning slave resistance should be understood in context. Each historian tackled a different genre of resistance and did justice to their topic. What this does show is that history is not a liner like equation that needs to be solved but, a Venn diagram that should be studied and added to when information is uncovered. History does not occur in neat lines which can between understood as such but, as these various slave resistance shows, history is an overlapping narrative. Maroonage impacted wars and wars impacted maroonage, any attempt to understand the two separately is possible but, will seriously hinder the true history  of slave resistance.  The search for freedom sent blacks into the wilderness as maroons, to battlefronts as solider, and new nations as Seminoles. Overall, blacks resistance towards slavery is not monolithic but, an overlapping set of ideals and events.


[1] Sylviane Diouf, Slaverys  Exiles: The Story of American Maroons,(New York, New York University Press, 2014),1,

[2] Diouf, Slaverys Exiles, 2.

[3] Herbert Aptheker, “Maroons within the Present Limits of the United States”, ed. Richard Price, Maroon Societies:Rebel Slave Communities in the United States, (New York, Anchor Press, 1973), 151.*

[4] Diouf, Slaverys Exiles, 230.

[5] Diouf Slaverys Exiles, 257.

[6] Aptheker, “Maroons within the Present Limits of the United States, 158-159.

[7] Diouf, Slaverys Exiles, 259-260.

[8] Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles, 72.

[9] Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles, 73-74.

[10] Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles, 74.

[11] Price, Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Societies in the Americas, 107.

[12] Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles, 85.

[13] Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles, 117.

[14] Diouf, Slavery;s Exiles, 117.

[15] Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles, 145.

[16] Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles, 150.

[17] Diouf, Slavery;s Exiles, 151.

[18] Kevin Mulroy, Freedom on the Border: The Seminole Maroons in Florida, the Indian Territory, Coahulia, and Texas,(Lubbock, Texas Tech University Press, 1993). 8.

[19] Mulroy, Freedom on the Border,9.

[20] Gene Smith, The SlavesGamble:Choosing Sides in the War of 1812,(Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2013), 62.

[21] Mulroy, Freedom on the Border,9.

[22] Mulroy, Freedom on the Border,11.

[23] Gerald Horne , Negro Comrades of the Crown: African Americans and the British Empire fight the U.S. Before Emancipation,( New York University Press, New York, 2012), 39.

[24] Horne, Negro Comrades of the Crown, 46.

[25] Horne, Negro Comrades of the Crown, 56.

[26] Horne, Negro Comrades of the Crown, 56.

[27] Smith, The Slaves’ Gamble, 124.

[28] Smith, The Slaves’ Gamble, 123.

[29] Smith, The Slaves. Gamble, 125.

[30] Horne. Negro Comrades of the Crown,40.

[31] Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles, 211

[32] Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles, 211.

[33] Horne, Negro Comrades of the Crown, 1.

[34] Horne, Negro Comrades of the Crown, 332-333

[35] Mulroy, Freedom on the Border, 200-201

[36] Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles, 2.


6 thoughts on “Resistance to Slavery : Warfare and Maroonage

  1. What a very fascinating post ,and uncommon look into how African American slaves did to resist their cruel fate. I have heard of slaves pretending to be much more less intelligent, slow, and clumsy to sabotage their slavers and heard of the underground railroad, but I have never heard of these groups of maroons who boycotted American society and heroically showed their defiance and resistance to the culture that had so many flaws it isn’t even funny, I really liked this article, and also the picture displayed is quite beautiful and breathtaking, I enjoyed that as well , thanks !

    1. Thank you! I truly appreciate it! I’ve made it a life misson to uncover history especially African American history in America. I’m reading through your works now lol

      1. I really liked your writing style too, and I cover a variety of things on my blog, the only slavery post I have is about Harriet Tubman and what she did to help the civil war, You can find it under my Notable Women’s section or civil war section, I don’t remember which haha

  2. Very interesting….
    In Suriname, there’s still a large Maroon population. We celebrate the “Day of the Maroons”, a national holiday, on October the 10th. This day was chosen because on the 10th of October 1760, the Dutch government signed a peace treaty with some of the Maroon ethnic groups ( we have several groups) and basically recognized their territory as a “state within a state”.

      1. Ohw, Suriname is a very interesting country when it comes to African traditions and Maroons.
        These blogs are in English and give some more insight

        There’s also this short segment of a documentary (it’s also posted on my blog), that shows how much “African” elements (in this case Akan) are still present within black Surinamese, but especially Surinamese Maroon culture (can be seen at the 6 minute mark)

        We recognize several Maroon ethnic groups, which each their own language and cultural practices. They still like it’s the 17th or 18th century in West and Central Africa. That’s of course because of their own resilience and pride. But also because the government has neglected to bring significant development to their communities (the native Americans face the same problems). It’s a;; very unique though..:-)

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