The First Independence
My mom shares this with me when talking about our history. She is proud, and I am too, of where and who we come from, but the history of our people isn’t recorded in the same way that everyone else’s is. We are an island within an island; retaining as much as we can of our past, while ensuring that our traditions don’t get lost in the future. We honour our ancestors through a pilgrimage, of sorts, reminding us of the sacrifice they made so that we are able to sport our heritage with dignity.
Every sixth day of January, deep into the mountains of St. Elizabeth, Maroon Independence Day, also known as the birthday of a great Maroon warrior, Cudjoe, is celebrated. Many Jamaicans question why Maroons would want a separate Independence Day when they are still, technically, Jamaican; Maroon Independence Day is a rich and essential part of Jamaican history that is unknown and often overlooked.
The year was 1738. The British had defeated Spain in their occupancy of Jamaica and were now the new colonial rulers. Groups of enslaved Africans fled joining one of many small communities in either the hills of St. Elizabeth, what is now known as Trelawny Town in Trelawny, Moore Town in Portland, and Nanny Town in Portland. The revolution began due to building frustrations of being oppressed and was lead by the most important rebel slaves in the Maroon Movement. These rebels were a family of five Ashanti warriors named Cuffy, Johnny, Accompong, Cudjoe and Nanny. From the time they had arrived in Jamaica, they knew they were not destined for enslavement. They wasted no time planning how to overthrow their oppressors. The five siblings plotted and led the revolt against the British in each of the parishes they resided in. Cudjoe went to Clarendon where he was joined by over 100 rebel Maroons, while Nanny and Quo went to Portland and Accompong went to a small village in St. Elizabeth.
The British stood no chance against the five and their armies. Maroons fought brutally and slaughtered a great portion of the British army. Using the environment as an ally, they camouflaged themselves within the thick, mountain forests. Ancestral knowledge, spirituality and their great strength forced the British to surrender and meet the demands of the rebel fighters. Their victory was recognized and made legitimate through a treaty signing in 1739 that guaranteed freedom to the Maroons, and for their people, land and sovereignty. The Maroons became the first slaves to gain independence against their colonizers, 65 years before Haiti and centuries before Jamaica saw its own. The treaty was signed under the Kindah Tree in my late great grandmother's backyard, which is home to the same small village I grew up and spent my entire childhood in: Accompong, St. Elizabeth, Cockpit County. To this day, the government of Jamaica still honours the treaty, giving Accompong and all other Maroon villages total independence and allowing the community to remain self-governed.
I celebrated many Maroon Independences in the past with a vague understanding of its history. All I knew was after New Years, my aunties, uncles, cousins and grandparents would wake up as early as 5 a.m. with unsalted pork, chicken, plantain and yams in hand—which I later learned were offerings to the ancestors—to go to the Kindah Tree and another undisclosed sacred ritual space called the Peace Cave. Once this ritual was over, the space opened up to tourists to view the grounds where many wooden signs were erected to give brief histories of the land and the significance of our celebration. Though our community was cautious, the space opened up to outsiders as a way for us to control what we are comfortable to share. It also became a means for merchants and artisans to sell their goods.
We would sing songs in a language I would later learn to be called Kromanti (an English-based creole with strong Akan components). Aunties dressed from head to toe in our traditional quadrille dresses whilst one of the designated village elders would blow the Abeng (a ceremonial horn) to signify that sacred day we gained our independence. Covered in leaves as a nod to our ancestors, the entire community would begin to march from the Kindah Tree to central Accompong, also known as Parade. Once our march is concluded within Parade’s festival grounds, our culture becomes an exhibit for many foreigners. Tourists, historians and occasionally diplomats from around the world come and see our historical village intrigued by the idea of an independent country within an independent country.
With the concern of visitors and onlookers taking unsolicited pictures and videos, this is when the community becomes very leery of everyone that is not kin, which birthed a rule that denies anyone who is not of Maroon descent any photos or videos. Once our appointed chief has spoken and welcomed everyone to our beloved celebration, performances commence which includes more singing and formalities from Jamaica’s Prime Minister and other ambassadors from around the world. As the afternoon comes to an end, our special guests and visiting tourists begin to leave, but this is when the real celebration starts. The sound systems get set up and dancehall spaces start being built. As soon as midnight hits you can hear the blasting of music from every corner of our town. The streets, crowded with family and friends, transforms into a place where we dance, eat good food and celebrate our Independence.
Accompong itself is not only a historical landmark. It’s a real utopia where, for over 250 years, there have been no murders, violence or police corruption. We pride ourselves with honouring our ancestors by keeping our land sacred and safe from any outside influences. Unless it is Jan. 6, it is nearly impossible for an outsider to visit and if you do, enter at your own risk. Maroons are extremely territorial to their land and due to our people’s sovereignty, we operate outside of Jamaica’s law and within our own. This means any necessary action can, and legally, be taken if we feel our land or people are being threatened in any capacity. Our protectiveness is due to the early years of attempted gentrification by foreigners and even Jamaican-based businesses who have tried to profit off of our history. Even now, there are historians attempting to monetize their tours of Accompong. The community works hard to ensure that our ancestors wishes are upheld, which is why most of our history cannot be found online, and have been preserved orally.
Although Accompong and other Maroon towns across Jamaica are so important to the country’s history, Maroons are regarded as “uncivilized” and are rejected all together by many Jamaicans. Jamaica is widely known for how many churches per square mile exist in the country, orienting the common beliefs and ways of living—especially that of the citizens in the upper echelons of society—to be relatively conservative. As such, my ancestors and their practices have been viewed as savage, demonic and ungodly. There have been times when during my mother’s youth, she was made to hide her Maroon background and there still exists speculations about Maroons being the reason for the extreme violence occuring on the island.
Maroons continue to uphold a very important authenticity to Jamaican culture that gets overshadowed by the continuous industrialization of the island, greatly influenced by the western media and the tourism industry. Without a doubt it is essential to understand the importance of the Maroons. Our country’s motto, “Out Of Many, One People” acknowledges the different experiences and different people that make up this little island and although Maroons of Jamaica are often considered outside of Jamaica itself, their contributions to the revolution helped shape, and are very much part of, the resilient and strong Jamaica of today.
Cover illustration by Natalie Blake.