Maroon Communities and Language

 

Maroon communities began to spawn in 1700’s. Beginning in the 1660s the Caribbean Islands were being populated by European plantations to produce sugar cane for the growing Atlantic trade. These plantations had on average two hundred slaves, some of whom were rebellious and managed to escape. Once freed they frequently created new slave communities called maroons, where they continued to live in the African style. Eventually, there was a strict hierarchical society which held a blood line of nobility.

 

     Creole was the predominate language in these maroon communities, but the dialects of this language varied between villages due to amount of influence from English, Spanish, Portuguese and African languages. The Creole languages was not simply an assortment of different words, instead it formed an entirely new language using fragments from others. The grammar and sentence structures were completely original to each individual maroon community. This language was developed through generations of integration where children, born into and growing up in these communities, took a little from each language, so that what was created was a new language complete with grammar and sentence structure. Each community had its own unique dialect of Creole.

This picture is an example of a written Danish Indian Creole language, written in 1887. It is nearly impossible to read without knowing the dialect and without being a native speaker.

 

       Maroon communities were established where there were substantial slave communities. This included Jamaica along with other colonized, plantation based islands. Jamaica had many maroon communities, mostly because the island was populated on the outer coastal border and not in the inner, mountainous, portions of the island. Many of these maroon communities in Jamaica are still in existence today, some dating as far back as 1655, while most firm communities were established in the early 1700s.

 

 

            The people who spoke different Creole languages were not only based in maroon communities. In places, such as Sierra Leone, English established a free community for recaptured slaves. These communities too became a mixing pot of language, culture, and western religion. However in these communities the Creole Language was much more influenced by western languages, mostly English in places like Sierra Leone. The natives from maroon communities spoke a much deeper form of Creole, and in some places, like Jamaica, these communities are still in exist and continue to use the Creole language for religious ceremonies and to communicate with ancient spirits

 

This painting is of a maroon village in Jamaica, notice the mountain range which protected their communities from Europeans, and the people in the foreground to give an idea of its’ scale.

 

          There were many communities, however not maroon, who lived in the mainland of North America, not just in the populated islands of Jamaica and Cuba. The dialect known as Gullah began in what is now known as South Carolina. The dialect found there, was a mixture of Pidgin from slave traders with a large West African influence mixed with regionalized broken English. This language eventually evolved into Black English exemplified in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Gold Bug” where the character of Jupiter spoke this Gullah/ Black English. Black English is now most commonly known as Ebonics, from ebony meaning black and phonic meaning the spoken dialect. Gullah, along with Creole, took generations to develop, and those slaves who entered the slave trade after the large plantation system had been established were unable to converse. Their children, however quickly learned to speak this new language and some English. By the 1930’s Black English had developed in to a more rustic southern accent, as shown in a quote from Charley Barber, a slave in Virginia.

 

“[My parents] both come from Africa where they was born. They was ‘ticed on a ship, fetch ‘cross de ocean to Virginny, fetch to Winnsboro by a slave drover, and sold to my master’s father. Dat what they tell me… They never did talk lak de other slaves, could just say a few words, use deir hands, and make signs. They want deir collards, turnips, and deirtators, raw. They lak sweet milk so much they steal it.”

Text Box: We Papa een heaben,
leh ebrybody hona you nyame
cause you da holy.
We pray dat soon you gwine
rule oba all ob we.
Wasoneba ting you da want,
leh um be een dis wol,
same like e be dey een heaben.
Gee we de food wa we need dis day yah an ebry day.
Fagibe we fa de bad ting we da do.
Cause we da fagibe dem people wa do bad ta we.
Leh we don't habe haad test wen Satan try we.
Keep we from e ebil. 
 


 

 

This is a spiritual written in Gullah. As you can see there are many words that you can understand, or at least figure out phonetically. They obviously adopted a lot of English into their vocabulary; however some of the original dialects are still prevalent in the text. Letters are replaced phonetically, b’s replace v’s and d’s replace the “th” sound, ex. da is the. To hear recordings of Gullah gospel music go to Gospel go and search their language list for English: Gulla.

 

 

 

 

 

Slowly words from African dialects began to appear in the English language , as well as Portuguese and Spanish. For instance, the words banana, and yams were both taken directly from West African vocabulary. Africans too, learned one or two additional languages, usually depending on their masters. As early as the 1740’s there have been accounts of an African slave speaking English, French, Spanish and German, along with his own native dialect. In fact, it was easier for mainland slaves to learn languages in the earlier part of the eighteenth century as compared to island based slaves because of the relatively small slave-master ratios during the pre-plantation era of North America.

          After the import of new slaves began to slow down, around the 1740’s, Gullah became children’s primary language, then slowly developed a more complex and complete structure and vocabulary. As the American Civil War cam to a close, and the next century approached Gullah began to decline. The vocabulary lost its original meaning, and the remaining fragments were incorporated into Black English.  

 

The Religion of the Maroon Communities

 

          The religions of the Maroon communities varied according to their location and the different mixtures of cultures in the community. The religions in these communities were predominantly polytheistic, although there were the several who were Christian (mostly the European-based cities like Sierra Leone). These communities took their religion from nature, a god of the sky, the earth, the water, and the forests. In the maroon communities of Suriname and the French Guiana the maroons believed that their earth gods were generally reptiles, mostly snakes, while sky gods were birds, such as vultures. Water gods were most commonly seen as spirits trapped in large boulders in, or close to, the rivers or lakes. Beasts of pray such as the jaguar, usually took the form of forest gods and were known as the gods of war and peace. Their religion was not only polytheistic, but also animalistic.

                                                

Jaguar                       Serpent                       Vulture

 

For more information about each god’s specific duties visit Folklife

 

          The spirits of ancestors also played a major role in religious faith and practices. The maroons in the French Guiana believe in Yooka which was the spirit of a past ancestor. They believed strongly in life after death, and that the dead move into a different world called gadu kondee, spirits the believed could move back into our world from the invisible world, and be reincarnated. Everyone had been reincarnated at least once before, this can happen through a signal of a sickened child, then the ancestor will be reincarnated after the child had died or while the child is still alive, become merged with it or another person, usually an elder (those who are senile). They believed that reincarnation could only happen on the verge of life or death, including an elderly person awaiting death, or a sickly child.

 

 

This is a picture of the Ndjuka Maroon life

cycle, the native maroons who lived in, and

still inhabit, Suriname by the Marowijne River.

 

They believed that the most important spirit is the Akaa which is the simplification of a guardian angel, it was a spirit that followed you everywhere, but once you fell terminally ill the spirit might leave you this was exemplified by the inability for the person to sleep which they took as a sign that the end was near.

 

The maroon’s had a strictly formulated idea of the life, and afterlife cycles. The innermost circle (green) represents the spirit, or aaka which guards over your body while you are alive. The middle circle (light green) is the spirit of the ancestors who are in the process of reincarnation. Finally the outermost circle (blue) are the people who are in the life cycle. The line across the middle of the circle divides the invisible world (on the bottom) from the living world. They believed in destiny, and they shared the belief that all things in nature, including plants, have spirits.

 

 

 

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