First Maroon War

Two groups of rebellious and escaped slaves, as well as their descendants, fought British soldiers to a draw during nearly a decade of fighting in Jamaica, securing for themselves some freedoms but only at the expense of those slaves still in bondage.

Summary of Event

Resistance to slavery took on many forms in the American colonies. In Jamaica, West Indies;British Brazil, and Suriname, large numbers of enslaved Africans escaped and set up their own independent communities and kingdoms. By the eighteenth century, they were called “Maroons,” derived from the Spanish word cimarrón, meaning wild and uncontrollable. In Jamaica, by the 1730’s, there were two main groups of Maroons resisting British rule: the Windward, or eastern, society, which was led by Nanny from about 1725 to 1740, and the Leeward, or western, society, which was led by Kojo (the anglicized spelling of Cudjoe) during the First Maroon War of the 1730’s. [kw]First Maroon War (1730-1739)
[kw]War, First Maroon (1730-1739)
[kw]Maroon War, First (1730-1739)
Slave revolts;Jamaica
Maroon War, First (1730-1739)
[g]Caribbean;1730-1739: First Maroon War[0760]
[g]Jamaica;1730-1739: First Maroon War[0760]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1730-1739: First Maroon War[0760]
[c]Social issues and reform;1730-1739: First Maroon War[0760]
Hunter, Robert
Stoddart, Captain

Both groups bedeviled overly confident colonial commanders for more than a decade. Their struggle began, however, at least eighty years before the legendary contests of the 1730’s. The Windward culture, in particular, prided itself on a long history of resistance to plantation slavery that stemmed from the English takeover of Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655. When Spanish settlers fled to Cuba in the wake of the British invasion, most of their enslaved Africans and a handful of their free African subjects retreated to the remote and rugged interior of eastern Jamaica, away from the coastal towns and the new slaveholders in charge. These suddenly empowered Africans became the nucleus of the Windward Maroons. At first, they tried to use Spain against Britain, hoping that division among Europeans would guarantee their liberty. In the late 1650’s, Africans sided with a few Spanish holdouts, led by Don Cristóbal Arnaldo de Ysassi. Every Spanish counterattack on British settlers featured armed Africans, yet the British knew early how to play “divide and conquer” as well, offering land and the official title of magistrate to one key Maroon leader, Juan Lubolo (or Juan de Bolas). Receiving thirty acres and the legal status of a free-born Englishman for his own palenque (community), Lubolo defected and betrayed other Maroons by giving the British valuable intelligence about their elusive whereabouts. Even though the Spanish holdouts would give up and leave when the new “colonel of the black militia” (Lubolo) collaborated, most of the other Maroons stepped up their hit-and-run attacks, eventually ambushing Lubolo and hacking his body to pieces.

Juan de Serras, the leader of the insurgents and the avenger of Lubolo, along with his successors, limited and delayed the expansion of sugar and slavery into the interior of eastern Jamaica. Soon, however, the plantocracy was fighting a two-front war, as slave revolts on newly cleared English plantations just south of Montego Bay and Falmouth escalated into a mass escape around 1690 to the inland Cockpit Country, the genesis of the Leeward Maroons. By the 1730’s, Kojo emerged as their ruler, presiding over a western African polity transplanted to the Caribbean and built on Akan, Asanti, and Fanti traditions.

This frontier kingdom drew its strength from its ethnic homogeneity and identity as a Kromanti (or Coromantine or Koromantyne) state. This identity stemmed from the original mass escape in which all of the leaders either came through or had relatives pass through the English slave factory at the Fanti town of Kromantine on the African Gold Coast. Kojo’s father was one of these leaders, and thus he bestowed a historical legitimacy upon his son, who then carried on the martial and militant reputation of Kromanti and, more specifically, Akan men. A constant flow of reinforcements came as the greed of Jamaican sugar planters made them prefer physically strong bondsmen from the Gold Coast, who joined the Leeward culture even more combat-ready if they had survived the horrors of the Middle Passage and the seasoning and if they had escaped scot-free into the mountains. By the 1730’s, these fighters and their families had overcome interethnic rivalries (such as the Asanti versus the Fanti) left over from the Old World to unify as Kromanti against the British colonists. A new sense of a shared ethnicity and awful experiences heartened and strengthened the cohesion of Maroon communities in the west.

In contrast, the Windward Maroons were more ethnically diverse and decentralized than their western counterparts, but they were energized and unified after 1725 by an extraordinary woman, the famous Nanny. In addition to the original Spanish Maroons, the Windwards included a shipwrecked group from Madagascar and their progeny and the Kromanti survivors of a widespread slave rebellion on the Grey estate in Guanaboa Vale. Unlike Kojo’s kingdom, this loosely tied confederation was more unfriendly toward new migrants, seeing them as potential spies and interlopers in their lands. Accordingly, even though they controlled more acres, they had fewer people. Yet it was the Akan and Asanti (Kromanti) belief in the power of strong women as potential political and religious leaders that paved the way for the legendary and unifying leadership of Nanny, which still inspires extant Maroon communities on the island today.

Sugar plantations in the West Indies, such as the one illustrated here, thrived with the labor of African slaves, who revolted against plantation owners in a decade-long conflict known as the First Maroon War.

(Library of Congress)

Queen Nanny, as she also was known, was born in what is now Ghana, probably in the 1680’s, and emerged as a respected obeah, or spiritual director, by the 1720’s. Imploring the help of ancestors, gods, and goddesses from all three camps of the Windwards, she became the Windwards’ chief military strategist in the 1730’s and reportedly trained her armies in the use of abeng, or cow horns, which signaled movements and feints over the valleys and hills of the east. Her armies lost once only. In 1734, British captain Stoddart used new portable artillery to destroy Nanny Town, Nanny Town, Jamaica a fortified village at the top of a steep mountain accessible only by one person at a time along a very constricted, winding trail that exposed climbers to snipers. The Windward Maroons regrouped a few miles away and then established New Nanny Town, or what became known as Moore Town, which still exists.

Land pressures forced the British to make a more concerted effort against their hard-to-pin-down foes, yet the Maroons’ deployment of the abeng, coupled with their use of camouflage and botanical knowledge (to disguise their scent from tracking dogs), frustrated one of the greatest empires in the world. (This same difficulty with guerrilla tactics outside the standard European “rules” for warfare in the eighteenth century would doom British general Edward Braddock and his redcoats on the Pennsylvania frontier in 1755.) Tropical fevers such as malaria and yellow fever, Yellow fever as well as poor intelligence and impossible logistics, gave both the Leeward and Windward cultures great advantages over the British, as many soldiers fresh from Europe died before ever meeting their enemy. Ambushes made things worse for the British: Their first attempt to destroy Nanny Town in 1732 under Governor Robert Hunter failed because of repeated surprise attacks.

Eventually, though, both sides were ready for peace by 1738. Scorched-earth tactics against the insurgents wore down their ability to keep up the fight in the long term. Outside help forced the Maroons to the bargaining table. Throughout 1738 and 1739, the British hired Miskito Indian mercenaries from coastal Central America, fierce fighters who were less prone to the malaria and yellow fever that so plagued European soldiers not used to the tropics. They also uncovered the remote and hidden villages of the Maroons by using their time-honored tracking techniques. About the same time, the British invited Spanish chasseurs (bounty hunters) from Cuba and their crack bloodhounds trained in finding runaway slaves. The British also armed slaves and troops of free blacks to fight the Maroons in both the east and west.


The British strategy of arming slaves and free blacks poisoned any possible united African front against slavery. Maroons in both the west and the east now felt no obligation to help the enslaved, closing their communities to any new fugitives. By the 1750’s, to stave off land-hungry planters, both the Leeward and Windward Maroons eagerly became paid slave catchers, providing the isolated kingdoms with much needed revenues. This role preserved British rule at key junctures, including Tacky’s Rebellion Tacky’s Rebellion (1760)[Tackys] of 1760, Jamaica’s largest slave rebellion on the eve of emancipation in 1832, and the largest uprising of peasants after emancipation in 1865. Maroon help was the only thing that saved the day for the outnumbered British on Jamaica.

The cornerstones of this new strange alliance were the treaties of 1739 and 1740, which gave both the Windward and Leeward Maroons limited autonomy in return for helping against future rebellions or with future runaways. Most significant, all Maroons received legal acknowledgment of their landownership and their political and judicial institutions. To the British, however, the treaties were never meant to be followed or to be permanent. For sugar estates to be profitable, they needed more acres and more people. Because Jamaica was an island, with limited acreage, Maroon lands were often chipped away and utilized by colonial planters expanding their operations. In the 1790’s, in response to renewed fighting between settlers and Maroons in the west, the British deported the Windward Maroons who lived between Trelawney Town and the Cockpit Country, first to Nova Scotia Nova Scotia;Maroon refugees and then to Sierra Leone. In 1842, eight years after slavery was abolished in Jamaica as well as the entire British Empire, the British formally annulled both treaties of 1739. The Maroons would remain semi-independent, however, as sugar monoculture declined in profit and significance. The land pressures diminished as Jamaica became an imperial backwater.

Further Reading

  • Craton, Michael. Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982. This work places the Maroons of Jamaica into a comparative context with those fighting or escaping slavery on other British-controlled islands, such as Barbados and Antigua.
  • Gottlieb, Karla Lewis. The Mother of Us All: A History of Queen Nanny, Leader of the Windward Jamaican Maroons. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2000. This popular history uncovers little-known clues about the legendary leader of the Windward Maroons.
  • Kopytoff, Barbara Klamon. “The Development of Jamaican Maroon Ethnicity.” Caribbean Quarterly, nos. 2/3 (1976): 33-50. This pioneering article focuses on the ethnic identities from western Africa that were behind the resistance of the Maroons.
  • Robinson, Carey. The Fighting Maroons of Jamaica. Kingston, Jamaica: William Collins & Sangster, 1969. This work remains the most accessible chronological account of the events of the 1730’s, including the treaties of 1739. Should be read with updated and specialized research.
  • Zips, Werner. Black Rebels: African Caribbean Freedom Fighters in Jamaica. Translated by Shelley L. Frisch. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 1999. Showing both current and past Maroons as complex human beings and not just passive victims, this work synthesizes both archival and oral sources. Excellent maps, pictures, photographs, and bibliography.

Expansion of the Atlantic Slave Trade

New York City Slave Revolt

Maya Rebellion in Chiapas

Slaves Capture St. John’s Island

Stono Rebellion

Caribbean Slave Rebellions

Rebellion of Tupac Amaru II

Haitian Independence

Second Maroon War

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Slave revolts;Jamaica
Maroon War, First (1730-1739)