Yankunku Style: What it Means to be a Maroon

Written & Photos by Group 87 Volunteer Jules Ashe

The culture of the Maroons and their history epitomizes Black History Month and all that it stands for, highlighting the lost archives of powerful, meaningful, Black history stories that were omitted and diluted through decades of “white-washing.” To the Maroons, Black History Month is just another passing page on the calendar, because when you live in a Maroon community, every month is Black History Month; everyday, Blackness, its history, and all that it stands for, is celebrated.

When the Spanish arrived in Jamaica during the 15th century to colonize the island, they did not arrive alone. With them came many stolen slaves from West Africa, who were known to be extremely rebellious to the unjust colonial system they were up against. Those who fought upon arrival and rebelled received the title “cimarrón,” a Spanish word which translates to “wild,” “untamed,” and “fugitive.” Later, becoming more commonly known as “Maroon.” While the original title was used in a derogatory manner, today, anyone with Maroon ancestry will proudly claim the title.

The rebellious slaves that managed to escape fled high up in the mountains to some of the most remote and physically isolated areas of Jamaica.  Maroon communities turned the severity of their environments to their advantage, making the communities nearly inaccessible to outsiders and intruders. Pathways were easily disguised by thick, bushy, flora, and false trails were created to lead intruders astray into naturally camouflaged traps.

They had to be somewhat nomadic to avoid raids by the Spanish, and later the British, and they often relied on hunting and foraging wild plants as a means of sustenance. Today these foods, such as jerked wild hog, cacoon, bussu, and cray fish are still eaten and prepared as traditional Maroon cuisine. The history of Jamaican Jerk is known to have started in Maroon communities long ago when salty jerk seasonings were used to preserve the wild hog.

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Ackee, callaloo, shredded vegetable, and rice and peas served in a traditional calabash bowl in Asafu Yard, Charles Town.
The Maroons in these newly formed, remote, rebel communities were also able to hold on to their West African roots and returned to their cultural and spiritual practices, making African, specifically Kromanti, retention another key aspect of their culture. Kromanti drum and dance is still performed today as a way to invoke ancestral spirits and honor them.

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A traditional Kromanti drum in Charles Town Maroon Village, etched with a symbolic Sankofa bird.
A bit of chaos ensued when the British arrived in 1655 to fight the Spanish for control over the island. The Maroons took advantage of the disorder and helped even more runaway slaves seek refuge amongst their mountainous communities, ultimately strengthening them. Leaders emerged, and amongst them was Jamaican National Heroine, Queen Nanny – who later became known as the head Cheiftainess of the Maroons.

A mural of Queen Nanny. “Akwaaba” translates to “Welcome” in the Kromanti language
Nanny was feared by the British. She was seen to posses mystical and healing powers, more commonly referred to as Obeah in Jamaican tradition, an image she created herself as a strategy to scare off colonial forces. She taught the Maroon army how to camouflage themselves by wrapping up fully in cacoon vine leaves to achieve successful ambush. Different rhythmic patterns and pitches were blown in the Abeng, an African horn, to notify the Maroon communities of intruders or different calls of action, and verbal communication was done through the Kromanti language so that colonial forces could not understand them. The Maroon army captured more and more runaway slaves to join them, growing in numbers and power, and successfully raided plantations, burned crops, stole livestock, and implemented strategic guerrilla warfare tactics, all in the fight for freedom.

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Official Abeng blower and drummer of the Granny Nanny Cultural Group, Deshawn Robinson, blows the Abeng as a call to his ancestors. (For booking and more group information visit GrannyNannyMaroons.com)
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The group of Windward (eastern) Maroons led by Queen Nanny, whose ancestors now occupy the Maroon sites of Moore Town, Charles Town, and Scotts Hall on the eastern side of the island, became the biggest threat to the British out of all the Maroon communities. This ultimately led to the signing of a Peace Treaty between Queen Nanny and the Brittish Army, granting the Maroons their own independent communities, the right to govern themselves, and the full rights over designated land territories, all of which still remains.

The Kromanti customs and traditions are still very much alive today, and to be a Maroon means to carry them with you, ensuring their vitality. Maroon communities today continue to be self-governed and relatively peaceful, with an elected Maroon Council and head Colonel who oversee all community development and disputes. In keeping with the Maroon spirit, in order to receive this information from the Maroon community members of where I reside, a material exchange had to take place, because traditionally a Maroon would never just give away valuable information without receiving something to their benefit in return. A brief exchange of rum and gratitude occurred before the interview, just for the record.

“There is a lot of privilege that comes with living in a Maroon community like Moore Town,” said official Abeng played of the Granny Nanny Cultural Group Deshawn Robinson. “Because of the lengths my ancestors went to fight for that freedom, and for the privilege we have received today because of it, I must celebrate it daily, and make sure the youth continue to carry the tradition on.”

Robinson explained that living in Moore Town is a relatively crime-free place, and he attributes this to its Maroon ancestry and the way the town is self-governed. The mountainous location scouted out by Maroon communities also located them within close proximity to fresh water, and the community is never short on that supply. Most areas of Jamaica have been facing extreme drought conditions in the past few years, an issue that has yet to and is unlikely to affect Moore Town. Additionally natural spring water is free to all residents and pumped to their homes. Robinson continued to explain the opportunities he has been given because of his Maroon ancestry.

“The culture has given us so much opportunity to explore. It was because of my culture that I was able to go to the States to perform the Kromanti drum and dance. With these opportunities, I can spread the Maroon message and empower other young people, other people in general, to live right and live lovingly. I try to tell them not to hate one another, the way the British hated the Maroons. We are all one people, and we need to come together in the world in unity and in love to make it a better place. I have been given the privilege to spread this message through my cultural expression, and that is what it means to me to be a Maroon. I am so proud to be a Maroon.”

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