Geographies of maroonage in the Americas

Article’s featured image

The history of the Americas was forever shaped by the massive introduction of Africans as slaves, who were smuggled across the Atlantic trade routes. However, these ships brought more than “just black bodies" reduced to commodities. These bodies carried with them a rich ancestral heritage and diverse epistemologies that, when reinterpreted in the context of the diaspora, allowed Black people to establish communities and institutions based on their own territorial principles and specific ways of relating to nature.

The history of the Americas was forever shaped by the massive introduction of Africans as slaves, who were smuggled across the Atlantic trade routes. However, these ships brought more than “just black bodies” reduced to commodities. These bodies carried with them a rich ancestral heritage and diverse epistemologies that, when reinterpreted in the context of the diaspora, allowed Black people to establish communities and institutions based on their own territorial principles and specific ways of relating to nature.

Over nearly four centuries, it is estimated that approximately 12 million Africans were transported to the so-called "new world" as slaves. They exercised various forms of resistance to the prevailing economic and social system that relegated them to a reified existence: suicide, disobedience, infanticide, rebellions and escapes that resulted in the formation of Quilombos, Palenques and more than 20 similar institutions scattered throughout the Americas under different names.

The formation of communities as a form of Black resistance definitively transformed the territorial dynamics in the Americas. Black people used the escape from the plantations as one of the main forms of insubordination to the slave system and as a tool for the development of their own institutions based on coexistence in settlements with autonomous political, social and economic systems.

These settlements proliferated wherever Black people confronted slavery. This phenomenon led to the emergence of subversive territorial categories that challenged the traditional territorialities of the State in every corner of the Americas: Haiti (1791), Santo Domingo (1791), Jamaica (1790), Mexico (1609), Panama (1570), Colombia (1693), Martinique (1665), Suriname (1760) and Brazil (1590). By tracing this process of " Black escape" it is possible to visualize a geography of Maroonage in the Americas.

Imagen

Slaves aboard a slave ship. Engraving circa 1835. Author: Unknown

Imagen

Slaves aboard a slave ship. Engraving circa 1835. Author: Unknown

Black institutions of resistance

The spaces of Black freedom (Quilombos, Palenques, Marrons) ended up becoming true institutions of Afro-descendants in the Diaspora, capable of influencing the dismantling of the American slave structures. The Quilombaje as a Black institution became a fundamental factor for the survival of Black people, allowing the possibility of reimagining their communities. In addition, they help to understand power relations, cultural dynamics, identities and struggles for territory in the Americas.

Black institutions of resistance against slavery played a key role in disrupting the economic system rooted in the large plantations of the Americas. Although the colonial powers attempted to suppress these institutions and stigmatize Blacks, marginalization was key to dismantling the slave system. However, these institutions could not put an end to slavery's most perverse legacy: racism. Even after the end of slavery, both Black people and their institutions remained marginalized without any form of rights being proposed that would benefit them. The only exception occurred in Jamaica, where they managed to negotiate autonomy with the British government.

To justify the process of social hierarchy that considered Blacks as subhuman, these Latin American nation-state projects relied on scientific racism and eugenics.

To justify the process of social hierarchy that considered Blacks as subhuman, these Latin American nation-state projects relied on scientific racism and eugenics.

The nation-state projects that emerged in the Americas at the end of the colonial period were forged through anti-Black racism. No nation-state project built in the Americas was radical enough to allow for equality between Black people and White people. To justify the process of social hierarchy that considered Blacks as subhuman, these Latin American nation-state projects relied on scientific racism and eugenics.

The first time Black communities in Latin America and the Caribbean had any rights recognized was under the rules of the new Latin American constitutionalism during the last quarter of the twentieth century. However, both colonial and post-colonial societies were structured based on such entrenched anti-Black racism that no action taken by Blacks could completely overcome the racial structures created in Latin America.

Imagen

Group of Quilombola Women, Collectors and Processors of Babassu Coconuts in the Quilombo of Bairro Novo (Maranhão). Photo: Geovania Machado Aires

Imagen

Group of Quilombola Women, Collectors and Processors of Babassu Coconuts in the Quilombo of Bairro Novo (Maranhão). Photo: Geovania Machado Aires

Black identity and struggles in the diaspora

The construction of diasporic identities was only possible because of Black resistance to the domination and oppression associated with slavery. However, the diaspora also constituted a place where Black people could reimagine their community, as well as a fundamental place for reorganizing their lives and identity. Moreover, diasporic identities allowed Black people to imagine an ancestral link to their new territory.

These new spaces of Black freedom have also become important places marked by the presence of Black diasporic epistemologies, that is, the ways in which they understand and express their social and symbolic world. Regarding the overlaps and connections between the material world and the domain of the sacred (or metaphysical). These epistemologies constitute an ancestral bond that allows Black people to mobilize politically and remain united in a spirit of community.

In this way, Black struggles were shaped over time. As such, these epistemologies are an essential element in understanding Black autonomy in the Americas: they shaped the diasporic Black institutions that reflect and support Black autonomy. In other words, autonomy is a major factor influencing how Black people have shaped themselves as political subjects in the Americas. Autonomy also allowed Black diasporic communities to develop collective knowledge to fight oppression and domination.

Imagen

Members of the Kalunga (Goias). Photo: Weverson Paulino

Imagen

Members of the Kalunga (Goias). Photo: Weverson Paulino

Memory and territorialities

Quilombos, Palenques and Marrons are examples of spaces of Black freedom that are fundamental to a “radical Black tradition” in the Americas. From these territorialities, Black Maroons organized their lives around a collective existence, the common use of territories and natural resources. The reproduction of Black epistemological traditions occurred both on the African continent and in the diaspora, through the transmission of collective memory, in the form of oral narratives. These processes were fundamental for Black Maroons to reestablish their sense of community in the Americas.

In many ways, the diasporic experience was a process of self-construction for Black people, involving the reconstruction of a sense of Africanness, ancestry and negritude. As memory appears in the form of fragments, these can be assembled by storytellers. Political processes can promote the gathering of memory fragments as part of resistance struggles, leading to the development of a collective memory.

The new diasporic spaces where Black people built their communities were imagined and there the collective memory was elaborated and reworked according to the experiences of life in the Americas. Thus, the construction of Black territories in the diasporic context can be understood as a process of otherness experienced in relation to the dominant notions of territory. The formation and reproduction of these territorialities help us to understand the construction of social boundaries that are deployed to distinguish between Black peoples, Indigenous peoples and the nation-state in the Americas.

Imagen

Meeting of Quilombo communities in the state of Piauí. Photo: Thêmis Ramos

Imagen

Meeting of Quilombo communities in the state of Piauí. Photo: Thêmis Ramos

Breaking the colonial approach

The Indigenous and Afro-descendant movement to claim collective land rights broke with the colonial rationale of territorial definition. The old approach was based on ignoring or even eliminating groups that did not have property rights over a formal territory, delimited and sanctioned by the State. In addition to claiming territorial rights, this break with colonial thinking allowed Black people to forge diasporic identities. Understanding this history allows us to understand the current struggle of Black communities for recognition of identity and territorial rights in Latin America.

Indigenous and Black territories have been under pressure from neoliberal development projects financed by transnational groups seeking to convert the natural resources of developing or underdeveloped countries into commodities. These transnational economic groups have pressured Latin American governments to grant exemptions or relax regulations governing territorial rights, which has had a negative effect on the territorial rights of both Indigenous peoples and Black communities.