The late Dr. Neville A.T. Hall, a great Caribbean historian and native Jamaican, was given credit for coining the term Grand Marronage or Maritime Maroons. Some historians believed that Maroon Ridge was a transitional habitation zone. This simply means a refuge for runaway slaves, or a camp for a short period of time, which could mean a few months, years, or decades. Nevertheless, Hall believed that the removal of forest cover for plantation expansion, along with the draining of marshes and mangrove forests, reduced Maroon refuge in the late 18th century in the Danish West Indies.
Hall defended his thesis by saying natural barriers such as swamplands, jungle forests, and impenetrable, steep, high mountain forests enabled Maroon communities to develop in isolation and defend themselves successfully against attack. These runaway enslaved Africans developed their own government, culture, trade, and military defense against the colonial powers of the day. For example, the Maroons fought the Spanish until 1533, when they signed a treaty that gave them a large preserve in Hispaniola.
In Jamaica during the 17th and 18th centuries, there were several Maroon wars where the British were defeated and Maroon communities became established on the island. However, slaves in the Danish West Indies had none of these advantages except in the northwest, with its sizable Maroon community from 1734 until about 1770. Although a large section of St. Croix’s northwest forest was finally destroyed by the Danish government by the expansion of plantation agriculture in mountainous and hilly areas of the island, Maroon Ridge continued to provide a sanctuary for runaway slaves until slavery ended in 1848.
In this fifth article in this series, I will educate the public and show the connection between the northwest and other temporary areas of refuge on St. Croix to argue that Maritime Marronage was the only escape route by sea for Crucian enslaved Africans to gain freedom to Puerto Rico or possibly other islands in the Caribbean archipelago of the West Indies.
“The experience of the Danish West Indies therefore provides empirical foundation for a theorem: that in small islands where geographical factors were hostile to the formation of permanent maroon communities, grand marronage tended to mean maritime marronage,” wrote Hall. In other words, Maroons in the Virgin Islands escaped by sea for freedom. This is also true for other smaller islands in the Caribbean as well as large islands.
From the beginning of the Danish colonization of the Danish West Indies islands, there were all kinds of laws to stop the flight of slaves to other Caribbean islands. Laws such as boats must be registered and stamped with the royal arms. This was to prevent Maroons from getting boats to flee to other islands. In fact, between 1723 and 1730, there was a series of regulations prohibiting the presence of boats on plantations and provided that in towns boats had to be chained and at least half of the crew of any vessel must be white.
There were also laws to cut down trees on the islands, especially large trees, to prevent Maroons from making canoes to escape to Puerto Rico. On Feb. 16, 1698, Governor General Johan Lorentz made it legal for private hunting of Maroons in an attempt to reduce the number of runaway slaves. The Royal Danish American Gazette newspaper was filled with advertisements describing runaway slaves to be captured along with the rewards for such capture. However, the most brutal laws in the Danish West Indies and in the entire West Indies was the Slave Code, issued on Sept. 5, 1733, by Governor General Philip Gardelin.
There were 19 Danish Slave Codes. The first five codes of the document spoke about runaway slaves. They are as follows: (1) The leader of runaway slaves shall be pinched three times with red-hot iron and hung. (2) Each other runaway shall lose one leg, or if the owner pardons him, shall lose an ear, and receive 150 lashes. (3) Any slave being aware of the intention of others to run away, and not giving information shall be burned on the forehead and receive 100 lashes. (4) Those who inform of plots of runaway shall receive $10 (rixdalers) for each slave engaged therein. (5) A Maroon of 8 days shall be punished with 150 lashes; a Maroon of 12 weeks shall lose a leg and Maroons of 6 months shall forfeit their life unless their masters will pardon them with the loss of a leg.
Despite all the Danish laws prohibiting slaves from running away, hundreds of slaves, known as maritime Maroons, escaped by traveling on sea whatever way they could get to freedom. According to historical documents Puerto Rico, with its geographical proximity of some 65 miles southeast of St. Croix and 40 miles south of St. Thomas, was the major shore of freedom for maritime Maroons of the Danish West Indies.
But from a geological perspective, St. Croix was once connected to Puerto Rico. At the time of maximum glaciation in the Pleistocene epoch, which is about 11,000 years ago, the ice sheets stored enough water to lower the sea level about 200 feet. As a result, a deep channel of 15,000 feet isolated St. Croix from the other Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, which apparently were connected during ancient times. Thus, the two islands have a long history dating back to the Amerindian time, which transcended political differences.
In fact, the Treaty of 1767 between Denmark and Spain to return Danish slaves from Puerto Rico back to the Danish West Indies amounted to nothing. “The Spanish argument for refusing the return of fugitive slaves was rather ingenious,” said Waldemar Westergaard, an American historian. “They held that slaves came over to be baptized,” he noted. Crucian slaves believed that once they accepted the Catholic Church faith, they would eventually get their freedom.
The northwest of St. Croix was a sanctuary for maritime Maroons although certain sections of the watersheds were developed into plantations. Believe me, it was the cliffs and steep slopes that made a difference for freedom to flee to Puerto Rico. Some Maroons even jumped over cliffs to freedom, according to oral history, which makes Maroon Country sacred ground in Virgin Islands history. It is for this reason, without a doubt, that a Maroon Territorial Park is not an option but a must.
– Olasee Davis is an Extension Professor/Extension Specialist in Natural Resources at the University of the Virgin Islands who writes about the culture, history, ecology and environment of the Virgin Islands when he is not leading hiking tours of the wild places and spaces of St. Croix and beyond.
Editor’s Note: Previous columns in this series include “Join the Call for a Maroon Territorial Park,” on June 17; “St. Croix’s Northwest Quarter Worthy of World Heritage Status,” on July 6; “Our Maroon Ancestors Deserve A Sanctuary on St. Croix,” on July 18; and “St. Croix’s Maroons Set the Stage For Freedom in the Danish West Indies” on July 27.