Black conquistadors and the politics of resistanceJanuary 23rd, 2012
Pirates of the Caribbean notwithstanding, the concept of being marooned is not an exclusively shiver-me-timbers phenomenon. Dr. Charles Beatty Medina in the Department of History has been studying entire marooned societies in Latin America, made up of escaped African slaves. One such group fled from a stranded slave ship in the 16th century and created independent communities along the Pacific coast of South America in present-day Esmeraldas, Ecuador.
“Escaped slaves in that country come as a surprise to most Americans, who equate the practice of slavery with America and the Caribbean,” notes Beatty Medina, who has long studied Afro-Latin slavery and resistance movements. “Before the term maroon was used to describe people left stranded, it referred to people who escaped from Spanish settlements. They were called cimarrones.”
These marooned Africans in Ecuador may have resisted colonial Spanish rule by their acts of escape, but they ended up establishing their own space within the colonial structure. In their official reports, in fact, the Spanish described the Africans as a new type of conquistador.
The parallel isn’t entirely accurate, Beatty Medina feels: “What would in fact happen in this particular area was that the Africans subjugated some Native communities, intermarried with them and over time became indigenized. So conquest and all that comes with it don’t really apply here.”
In a fascinating development, the Spanish legitimized the maroons, signing peace treaties with them. “This was very early in the process,” says Beatty Medina. “Spanish administrators realized that these African had become effective masters over this region, something the Europeans themselves, with their guns and steel and horses, had not been able to do despite numerous attempts.”
Taking a pragmatic view, the Spanish were willing to work with the Africans as long as they were amenable to becoming legitimized under Spanish rule. That was part of a pattern, Beatty Medina notes: “What the Spanish couldn’t attain by violence, they would achieve by diplomacy.”
Beatty Medina is examining numerous marooned communities in the same historical period, in Mexico, Santo Domingo, Panama and Colombia. “Some groups, like those in Panama, allied themselves with Europeans competing with Spain, like Sir Francis Drake who came in the 1570s to capture Peruvian silver as it was carried across the Panama straits,” he says.
Given their relatively small numbers and wide dispersion, maroons have been studied largely as a history apart, not within the larger run of events, he says. “My primary aim now is trying to understand how escaped African slaves whose trajectory seems to have nothing to do with the overall colonization of the Americas came to have integrated roles in that process, largely by choice.”