Monday, February 8, 2016

Maroons – A Tradition of Freedom in the Caribbean

One of Christopher Columbus’s first action upon making land in the Caribbean was to enslave several of the natives. He reported to Spain that the people already living in the Caribbean would make good slaves. This was the beginning of European slavery in the New World.

The Spanish, mostly concerned with looting their Caribbean and American lands of gold and silver, learned quickly that the natives did not, in fact, make effective slaves. They perished of European diseases, and often died of simple despair. Europeans put to hard labor in the area did not fare well either. They caught and died of tropical disease, or were unable to survive the hot climate.

By 152, the Spanish were importing African slaves. These people came from a similar climate, and fared well in tropical conditions, and also proved resistant to Caribbean diseases. But almost as soon as they arrived, the Africans began to run away from their Spanish masters.

The Africans could not go home, and because of their obvious racial differences, they could not blend into any European settlement. Instead, they formed small communities in unsettled areas. Often they intermarried with the beleaguered Natives. The people of these mixed communities were called Maroons, from the Spanish word cimarrón, meaning escaped, feral, or wild.

Life was difficult for the refugees. The Spanish had taken the best locations for farming and fishing, and the people of Maroon communities often stated out with little besides their own hands and minds. They needed to obtain tools and seeds for farming, home building and hunting. They often did this by raiding Spanish settlements, and soon the Spanish began to fear them.

On the smaller island, the Spanish were able to defeat the Maroons, but on larger islands, such as Jamaica, the former slaves were able to form permanent communities in the mountains. From these outposts, they raided plantations, carrying on guerilla warfare.

Many of the early leaders of the Maroons are recorded in island history. François Mackandal, a houngan, or voodoo priest, who led a six-year rebellion against the white plantation owners in Haiti that preceded the Haitian Revolution.

In Cuba, maroon communities also survived in the mountains, where African refugees who escaped slavery and joined refugee members of the Taínos tribe. Before roads were built into the mountains of Puerto Rico, tough plant growth kept many escaped maroons hidden in the southwestern hills. Escaped Blacks also sought refuge away from the coastal plantations near the city of Ponce. Remnants of these communities remain to this day.

Maroon communities emerged in many places in the Caribbean - St. Vincent and Dominica, for example. But nowhere were they more successful than on the island of Jamaica. The island was originally Spanish, but the British captured it in 1655.

Originally the Maroon leader Juan de Bolas supported the Spanish, but in 1659 he allied himself with the British and guided their troops on a raid which finally expelled the Spanish in 1660. In return, in 1663, Governor Lyttleton signed the first Maroon treaty granting de Bolas and his people land on the same terms as British settlers.

Other groups of Maroons remained independent, living in Jamaica’s mountains and supporting themselves by farming and occasional raids on plantations.

Between 1673 and 1690 there were several major slave uprisings, mainly involving newly arrived groups of slaves who had a background of soldiers in Africa. On July 31st 1690, a rebellion of 500 slaves from the Sutton estate in Clarendon Parish led to the formation of Jamaica’s most stable and best organized maroon group.

Although many of these rebels were killed, recaptured or surrendered, more than 200, including women and children, remained free after the rebellion. They established an African style government for their group. This group only accepted new members after a strict probationary period. Their most famous leader was named Cudjoe, but it should be noted that Cudjoe is a very common name in the African culture that gave this group of Maroons their origin. Several other Jamaican Maroon leaders had the same name.

Captain Cudjoe negotiating with the British

Another famous – some would say legendary – Maroon leader is the woman know as Nanny, also called Queen Nanny. She is today a folk hero, the only woman listed as one of Jamaica’s National Heroes. Legends say that she was a citizen of a Ghana, Africa, whose entire village was captured in an intertribal war and sold to the Europeans.

Other stories say that she came to Jamaica as a free woman. However she arrived, by 1720 she was the leader of a group of Maroons settled in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains. She was a folk healer, a priestess, and the founder of a settlement called Nanny Town. This community was so well located that direct attacks on it by the British Army failed. She was a master of guerilla warfare, and is credited with freeing over 1000 slaves and integrating them into Maroon society.


Nanny’s death is recorded in 1733, but in 1739 the British, tired of fighting the maroons, ceded 500 acres to land “to Nanny and her descendants.” This became the location of Nanny Town. Her death is also recorded at various times during the 1760’s.

Maroon settlements usually speak Creole languages a mix of European tongues and the original African languages of their members. At other times, the Maroons would adopt variations of local European language as a common tongue, because members of the community spoke a variety of mother tongues.

They kept African religions, traditions and holidays. They also kept alive African drumming traditions.

Modern day Maroons

Some of the Maroon communities have survived for centuries. Eleven Maroon settlements remain on land given to them in the original treaty with the British. These Maroons still maintain their traditional celebrations and practices.

Island tourists are allowed to attend many of these events, while others are held in secret and shrouded in mystery. Singing, dancing, drum-playing and preparation of traditional foods form a central part of most gatherings. In their largest town, Accompong, Maroons still possess a vibrant community of about 600. Tours of the village are offered and a large festival is put on every 6 January to commemorate the signing of the peace treaty with the British.

2012 Mama G, a Maroon spiritual leader, dances with a young man

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Pirate Treasure of Sugar

As this blog has discussed many times before, pirates stole not only gold and silver, but shipments of merchant goods as well. Of course, they chose the most valuable goods on a captured ship, and one of the most valuable trade goods was sugar.

Image result for what does sugar cane look like

Sugar was not native to the New World. It had been domesticated, probably in New Guinea about ten thousand years ago. Trade in sugar quickly moved to Southeast Asia and China, and then to India, where people first discovered how to make the kind of granulated sugar that we buy in the store today. (Before this, people had just chewed on the stalks of sugar cane, enjoying the sweet juice.)

Image result for what does sugar cane look like

Trade with the Arabs brought the sweet stuff to Europe, but sugar did not grow well in the European climate. Demand for sugar was high, however, so Christopher Columbus carried cuttings of sugar cane with him on his second voyage. The plants flourished in the tropical climate of Hispaniola, and sugar became part of the Caribbean landscape.

Sugar cane is a tall, grass-like plant that looks similar to bamboo. It has shallow roots, and long, flat green leaves with a serrated edge. During our time period, sugar cane was cultivated and harvested by hand, the harvesting done with machetes. The cane stalks were then stripped of their leaves and rough chopped, and the cane stalks were put into a mill.

The mill used a stone wheel, driven either by harnessed animals or by slave labor, which crushed the stalks. This released the sweet sugar sap, which was drained, collected, refined and boiled until the water evaporated and it became crystallized sugar.

Sugar refining has progressed over the years, and the product produced during the Golden Age of Piracy was a slightly sticky product, pale, but not as white as today’s sugar. Nevertheless, it was called “white gold” and quickly became the source of enormous profit.

White Sugar Cone WS-953

Today, the average American eats an average of 100 pounds of sugar a year. In 1700, the average was closer to 4 pounds per year. But this was very much stratified by income. A single pound of sugar cost as much a laborer made in two days. Archeologists can determine the income level of bodies from the early 1700’s by looking at the teeth. Sugar consumption meant that the bodies of the rich had badly decomposed teeth. Poor people (like pirates) had healthy, white teeth in comparison.

The problem was that no sane person wanted to cultivate sugar cane. Because only the juice was used from the plant, vast fields were needed to produce a profit. Because heavy equipment was needed to extract the juice and refine it, it was a rich person’s game. And the work of growing and harvesting the cane was brutal.

The tall cane stalks provided little shade for workers, while blocking any available breeze. Cane leaves were sharp on the edges, and cut the skin. The labor of cutting the stalks, stripping the leaves and carrying stalks to the grinder was exhausting. And the boiling kettles, often in the open under a tropical sun, produced killing temperatures.

Small family farms simply could not do this. So, large plantations, powered by slaves, became the norm. Barbados was the most valuable colony in the English empire because of its sugar production, and as sugar spread, the slave society grew with it.

In the very early days, slaves were often Irish rebels, or poor British citizens, transported to the Caribbean because of minor crimes. But these people simply could not stand the heat and the sun. (Remember, sunblock would not be invented until 1936.) Plantation owners quickly switched to kidnapped Africans, who worked 18 hours a day in the cane fields. It is estimated that the average life expectancy of a slave in the cane field was two years.

The plantation owners, surrounded and outnumbered by slaves, were constantly nervous. They feared slave uprisings, and demanded armed support from the government. This in turn supported the militarization of the English colonies.

The slaves, meanwhile, worked to death, created horror stories in which dead slaves were raised to work on after they had been laid to rest. These “zombies” still permeate modern mythology.

Undead worker from a movie  "The White Zombie" 1932

Sugar, as a luxury item, was also heavily taxed. England valued its sugar-producing colonies more than its mainland colonies because of the income they produced. It’s even been argued that England didn’t put its full effort behind fighting the American Revolution because they were busy defending Barbados from smugglers and pirates.

Pirates probably ate the sugar that they captured, but recipes containing sugar were still somewhat rare. Cany usually consisted of seeds or small fruits dipped in sugar and dried. Sugar was consumed in tea and coffee. Jams and jellies – fruit preserved by sugar – was just becoming popular, but pirates probably didn’t have the means to create these, and would have just consumed any such products they captured. 

Rum and sugar production go hand in hand, since rum is made of the waste products of the sugar manufacturing industry. Molasses – unrefined sugar cane juice – is fermented into rum.  In approximately our period (about 1700) Barbados alone was producing approximately 467,000 gallons of rum a year.

So that’s the basic situation. Pirates drank rum produced by sugar producers, captured ships laden with sugar and sold the sugar at a discount to merchants who had a ready market for it. Slaves – either escaped from sugar plantations or liberated by pirates from captured ships swelled the ranks of the pirates, and pirates dined in fine style on sugar products. In some instances, pirates even supported slave uprisings on sugar plantations.

The situation in which a few lucky individuals owned most of the resources, and the vast majority of people owned little or nothing fueled the fires of piracy and stirred men into desperate rebellion. Sugar shaped the Caribbean, and the Caribbean shaped the pirates. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

Season 3 of Black Sails

Well, it’s January again, and for the third time, we’re welcoming the opening shots of Starz’ bloody, violent, sexy pirate series, Black Sails!

Image result for black sails season 3 poster

Last season’s overriding theme was that the world the pirates left behind – the world of “law and order” – is not such a nice place. 18th century society was based on position drawn from birth, cash on hand, and complete intolerance of anything the least bit out of the ordinary. (The crowning injustice being the incarceration of one of the characters for the crime of being gay, and the ruination of the character’s family and associates. Actual historical practice would have hanged all participants in the gay sex, so the series’ Death-by-Incarceration-in-a-Brutal-Mental-Institution was actually quite merciful.)

At the end of Season 2, the pirates also realized, to quote the famous pirate associate Benjamin Franklin, “We must all hang together or we will hang separately.” No matter how much the Nassau pirates dislike each other, they must overcome their differences if they are to survive.

Season 3 opens with the problem of repairing Fort Nassau, the repository of the massive haul of gold won from the Spanish ship Urca.  With plenty of cash and plenty of booze and women, the working-class pirates just aren’t interested in the hard drudgery of repairing their fortifications.

So, while the mad pirate Flint (the fictional Flint, from Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island) sails up and down the east coast of what will someday be the US, murdering any magistrate who dares to hang a pirate, Jack Rackham and Charles Vane (based on real-life pirates of the same names from the Golden Age) try to scare up some labor to repair the fort.

The easy answer is to employ slaves. But they run into a problem or morals. These pirates are fighting for freedom. Is it moral for them to use slaves (captured as cargo on the high seas) to further their own ends? This is when the series is at its best, when the real life personalities and the problems of real pirates come to the fore.

From a historical perspective, there’s a lot wrong with the show. The costumes are far more fantasy than reality (thought the actors look good in them) and the blatant inclusion of fictional characters in an otherwise real world leaves us with some problematic plot twists.

F***ing sunglasses

Still, it was possibly a great idea to pitch the show as “All the pirates from Treasure Island are real, and they meet the pirates from history.” The thing is that the real pirates make far more believable characters.

My favorite out of the whole bunch is Charles Vane. I’m not real fond of the historic Vane – he had far too much fun torturing his captives. But the Vane of Black Sails is a different animal – brutal, and sold initially as a cigar smoking, leather pants wearing bad boy, Vane has been revealed as a deep and nuanced character, hopelessly in love with the wrong woman and haunted by his past.

Image result for black sails season 3

A wide swath of the real pirating world is here – Ben Hornigold, Edward Lowe, Jack Rackham, and Anne Bonny. This year we’ve also been promised Blackbeard. So far, the part, played by Ray Stevenson with quiet, cultivated control, understated menace and offstage megaviolence. I’m looking for great things from this character, and not in the least because the writers already have a couple of thing right, including that the real Blackbeard was buddies with the real Vane.

Also appearing this season is Woods Rogers, the man who ultimately broke the power of the pirates in Nassau. This incarnation of Rogers (played by Luke Roberts) shows us a golden boy, not quite the same man who historically fumbled his way through life, one step ahead of a series of disasters that might have never started for a luckier or more careful man.

The historic Rogers passed out bibles and religious pamphlets to the pirates of Nassau, who signed the papers to accept the Royal pardons mostly because pirate leader Ben Hornigold told them it was a good idea, and everyone who might have disagreed with Hornigold was too drunk to argue. (Pirates + rum = poor decision making.)

This is the year when we find out if Black Sails will make a serious break from history. With the addition of Stevenson’s fictional characters, anything COULD happen, and I’m hoping that in this version of history, the Nassau bunch maintain their pirate stronghold.

If you can’t get Starz on your TV subscription, the Starz website lets you stream all the episodes for free, starting right back in Season 1, and continuing through the latest release. I will warn you, it’s an intense show, with a lot of gratuitous nudity, blood, and violence – especially against women. But if you’re up for it, the men are handsome (and sometimes naked) the women are beautiful (and often naked) and the production values are first rate.

Try it out and see if you like it.

Or, if you want slightly less megaviolent stories, still based on the real-life pirates of Nassau, try my pirate series The Pirate Empire. It stars a hard-drinking female pirate captain who fights, robs and loves her way through the Caribbean, meeting many of the historic pirates along the way. The Pirate Empire’s three books – Gentlemen and Fortune, Bloody Seas and Storm Season – are available in paperback or as a Kindle download for your instant reading pleasure. Take home a pirate today! 

Gentlemen and Fortune: Book One of The Pirate Empire      

And join me in watching Black Sails Saturday nights on Starz.