The Maroons: How Afrikan People Applied Universal Tenets of Protracted People’s War in the Americas
Nobody wants to be a slave. The first duty of a slave and, presumably, the thing that preoccupies the mind of an enslaved person is the act of winning their freedom through either secret flight or armed struggle. There is a rich history of Afrikan people who were brought to the Americas and the Caribbean to toil in the most dreadful conditions of slavery of what historians call marronage, or the act of taking to the hills, mountains, and woods and forming communities called palenques, quilombos, or simply maroon colonies. Everywhere there were slaves, there were maroons, or slaves who had freed themselves and formed thriving (though not always long-lived) communities with other self-freed slaves. These maroons used creative military and political tactics to win and protect their freedom.
We can interpret these tactics and strategies as being proto-PPWs/mini-revolutions in the sense that they wrested land from the colonizers, set up New Powers, and developed temporary or permanent united fronts between Afrikans, Indigenous people, and even rival European powers who had contradictions with the power that held the colony. These maroons set up their own governments, developed economic and trade networks, oftentimes broke treaties mandating return of runaway slaves, and generally were a thorn in the side of the enslaving power. We can view quilombos/palenques as base areas in that the Europeans did not enter them unless they were armed and rolling deep and seeking to destroy them. These areas were conquered and defended by force. Every resident of the maroons’ base was armed with various weapons that had been made, bought or stolen, and was expected to turn out to defend against European incursion. The tenet of protracted people’s war as laid out by Mao Zedong, “when the enemy camps, we harass, when the enemy advances, we retreat, the enemy tires, we attack” was applied masterfully by the maroons in lightning raids on plantations, traveling caravans carrying food, clothes, weapons, and other supplies, and even on cities. Accounts of maroon uprisings from Spanish America and the Caribbean include vivid descriptions of towns being burned, hostages being taken, and cities being sacked by columns of freed or future freed slaves.
Maroons united with indigenous people who knew the land and this enabled them to make creative use of the terrain to not only hide themselves and their settlements from the enemy, but also to lay ambushes and traps for Europeans who went on frequent raids to recapture freed Afrikans, attack indigenous people who still lived free, and plunder settlements and villages. One of the key tenets of PPW is to use and live off the land. Accounts of maroon settlements depict near-invisible and well booby trapped settlements very similar to camps and bases of the National Liberation Front in Vietnam during the Indochina War — hapless American GIs often staggered into the jungle and fell into a hole or tripped a tripwire and were promptly blown to pieces. What we know as the “punji trap” (a pit covered with brush and leaves and filled with sharpened stakes) was already in use in Cuba in the 1600s to defend maroon settlements. Maroons chose mountains and heavily forested jungle/forest regions because they knew that the Europeans and their horses depended on the series of roads that they had cut. Without these roads, they were useless. The Inca, who built roads that went up and down instead of straight used this fact to ambush many a wary Spaniard during their conquest and attempts to pacify the region. Once again, we seen universal tenets of PPW manifesting themselves long before the birth of Mao.
The enemy is your quartermaster. This is another fundamental tenet of PPW. The guerilla or outlaw revolutionary lives off what he can make, grow, find, plunder, or steal. Maroons habitually ambushed Spanish, French and British supply trains and raided plantations. When crops such as tobacco or sugar were taken these were sold to white merchants who were more concerned about making their next chest of gold than the fact that they were trading with those outlawed by the Crown for the dreadful crime of not wanting to be slaves. This would be approved of by Mao, whose army relied on striking soft Kuomintang supply trains for arms, ammunition, food and uniforms.
Exploit contradictions within the enemy camp. Much like Mao skillfully played the various cliques and factions within the Kuomintang off each other and made the Americans and Soviets dance over Taiwan, the maroons successfully exploited contradictions within the enemy camp to secure what they wanted, namely, the right to be left alone. One wonders at what would have happened if there had been a general and well coordinated uprising that actually sought the expulsion of the colonizers and enslavers and the capture of State power. Instead, there were a fragmented network of individual settlements that were usually ruled by individual leaders called “King”, “Queen” or “Chief”. These settlements engaged in diplomacy, for example the founder of San Lorenzo de los Negros in Mexico (now called Yanga) swore to defend Mexico in the event of a foreign invasion. Toussaint Louverture skillfully played the French, British and Spanish off each other on Santo Domingo to his advantage. Of course, he trusted neither (but still ended up in French chains to die in an Alpine fortress as Napoleon’s hostage) but realized that the contradictions within the colonizer camp could bear benefits whether they be breathing room or material concessions in the form of weapons to be used on one set of colonizers and turned on the others later.
American maroons also knew this tactic. Enslaved Afrikans from Georgia routinely fled to the Florida swamps, establishing a base called Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mosé (Fort Mose) near Saint Augustine under Spanish protection from the British. Later, in this same region, Seminole indigenous people and Afrikan maroons fought Andrew “Sharp Knife” Jackson and later bands of armed settlers and US soldiers to the death in the swamps all the way up until the Civil War.
In all of these scenarios, the fighting was brutal and guerilla style. There were no pitched battles between thousands of soldiers or long drawn out engagements. Part of the reason why the maroons were so successful was that Europeans were unused to guerilla warfare, while indigenous people and Afrikans were well used to it because that was the warfare that their climate lent itself to. Small bands, quick battles where small forces were destroyed by large, concentrated ones, and the building of mini-states through armed force. To build the future, look to our ancestors, learn from them, and apply their lessons. Their work of liberation is yet undone.