Why the Jamaica Maroons returned runaway slaves

One of the leaders of the Accompong Maroon community has sought to rebuff criticism that his ancestors returned runaway slaves to the British colonial rulers, saying that in those days his ancestors were dealing with a matter of trust, given that they were at war with the British.

Chief Semako

“One has to appreciate that we were in a dynamic of absolute zero trust, especially in the early days when there was intense warfare with the British. In times of war, you don’t open your doors too wide,” said Chief Semako (the first), who is the finance minister in Accompong.

The question of why the Maroons returned runaway slaves to the British, after having reclaimed their own freedom from slavery, has weighed on the hearts of some Jamaicans ever since they learned that bit of our history.

Venerated in history books as fierce warriors who managed to thwart and suppress British hold on the island, the Maroons are considered heroes who established themselves as a free and independent people, long before Britain handed independence to the rest of Jamaica in 1962.

However, the controversial peace treaty that the Maroons signed in 1739 to maintain cordiality with the British has sparked recent public discourse about the document’s relevance in modern Jamaica, and the nagging question of their supposed betrayal.

The treaty, a copy of which still resides in the Special Collections Department of the National Library of Jamaica, has 15 articles. The ones in question state that: “If any negroes shall hereafter run away from their master or owners, and fall into Captain Cudjoe’s hands, they shall immediately be sent back to the chief magistrate of the next parish where they are taken; and those that bring them are to be satisfied for their trouble, as legislature shall appoint.”

“All negroes taken since the raising of this party by Captain Cudjoe shall immediately be returned.”

But Semako I, who was named Timothy McPherson at birth, sought to explain circumstances under which the Maroons would have chosen to send their kin back into slavery.

“No one can truly speak to the circumstance on the ground during that time, but we the Maroons have our oral traditions. The other dynamic is that there were clauses in the treaty which were more for the British to feel secure about their position on the island. Keep in mind that the Maroons had won the war and the British surrendered,” he said.

“What invariably happened is that you had an African leadership at that time which may or may not have been able to either fully understand the nuances, the English language clauses that were presented to them, and if it was given in translation via a translator, it could be that the translator was not completely cordial in the dictates that were there given within that treaty,” Chief Semako said.

He explained that at the time, there was ongoing warfare with the British, who would recruit slaves from other islands to fight the Maroons. As such, blacks coming from the plantations claiming to be runaways were not so easily trusted.

“Obviously there was a war going on. The Maroons didn’t know who their enemies were, and who would be their allies. The British, for example, had brought over a group of slaves from Dominica to fight against the Maroons. So there were African slaves who were brought from other islands to fight against us. The only way that they could infiltrate us was by pretending to be amongst our numbers and then running out again and giving information to the British about where the Maroon camps were,” Semako said.

He explained further that there would have been some runaways who, after proving their loyalty to the Maroons, would have been accepted to be a part of their community.

“Obviously there were some plantations where the slaves were too afraid to leave and there were other plantations where the slaves were prepared to leave. Given the fact that the Maroons had invaded plantations and had indeed burnt down plantations, one could only suppose that the slaves who supported us in those activities would have been the ones who would be taken into the community. But slaves who just showed up claiming to be a runaway were not readily trusted,” said Semako.