Nova Scotia

How the unbreakable Maroon spirit still inspires African Nova Scotians

The convoluted history of how just under 600 Jamaican Maroons ended up in Nova Scotia teaches lessons about empire, colonialism and human rights abuses.

'This story really teaches us so much about the empire, slavery, human motivations,' historian says

Halifax was founded in 1749 at the foot of a hill. The Citadel Hill fort began as a wooden garrison, but by 1761 it was in shambles. The Maroons were part of the crew that rebuilt it. (Vernon Ramesar/CBC)

The story of how around 600 Maroons from Jamaica spent four hard years in Nova Scotia in the late 1700s before leaving for Sierra Leone teaches lessons that need to be remembered, according to historians. 

Like many chapters in the history of African Nova Scotians, theirs is a story of betrayal, exploitation and the fight for justice. 

Uprooted from their homeland, the story of the Maroons' journey gives a sense of what bravery, freedom and autonomy look like, according to Ruma Chopra, a professor of history at San Jose State University and author of Almost Home: Maroons between Slavery and Freedom in Jamaica, Nova Scotia, and Sierra Leone.

"This story really teaches us so much about the empire, slavery, human motivations," she said.

"The book is called Almost Home, because it really got me thinking about what this means for how we think about places where people belong or people identify as safe, where they find their family and what they imagine as a homecoming."

Ruma Chopra has authored a book on the journey of the Trelawney Town Maroons (Yale University Press)

The Maroons were communities of enslaved Africans who escaped and formed communities across the Americas, according to historian Isaac Saney,  director of Dalhousie University's Transition Year Program.

The Trelawney Town Maroons in Jamaica were one such colony. 

Second Maroon War

The British tried to defeat the Maroon communities in Jamaica and bring them under colonial rule, but often failed and had to settle for signing treaties with them.

In 1795, the Trelawney Town Maroons started an uprising referred to by the British at the time as the Second Maroon War. 

The Maroons were eventually "tricked" into signing a truce with the authorities in 1796, Saney said, and rounded up.

Because they constituted a threat, and with the Haitian revolution unfolding on their doorstep, the Jamaican authorities decided to "get rid of them off the island," Saney said. 

This engraving of Leonard Parkinson, a captain of the Maroons, was sketched from life. (Nova Scotia Archives)

Over 500 of the Maroons — Saney says some estimates put the number at 543 — were put on the ships Dover, Mary and Anne and headed north, landing in Halifax in July 1796.

"They happened to stop in Halifax for repositioning and [to] the Duke of Kent and the government of Nova Scotia ... the Maroons are seen basically as a very important source of labour for Nova Scotia because there's a labour shortage in Nova Scotia," he said.

The shortage, Saney said, was caused by the departure of a large number of Black Loyalists for Sierra Leone in 1792.

'Double dipping'

The Jamaican authorities had been so eager to get the Maroons out of Jamaica, Saney said, that they had provided money to pay whoever would support them. 

This allowed Nova Scotia to "double dip," he said, by using the Maroons as a source of cheap labour and receiving compensation for their accommodation and upkeep. 

With Nova Scotia in the middle of a war with France, Chopra said, the Maroons were settled near Halifax, but not in Halifax, and used as cheap labour to serve the needs of the predominantly white population that was nearby. 

They were involved in brick work, agricultural work and project-based work, Chopra said.

This T-shirt was created by Yarmouth twin sisters Vanessa Fells and Melissa Fells-Adams in 2017 as a way to instill pride in African-Nova Scotian youth. (Melissa Fells-Adams)

The Maroons were also put to work reconstructing the Halifax Citadel when they first arrived, which had been built in 1749, but had fallen into ruins. Fearing a French attack, British officials built the so-called "third" Citadel. 

Faced with poor living and working conditions and meagre wages, the Maroons began to demand improvements.

Cold winters

They refused to be Christianised, Saney said, and were very unhappy with the cold winters. Saney said at the time, even anti-slavery abolitionists promoted the racist sentiment that people of colour could not survive in such climates.

The Maroons may well have taken advantage of that sentiment to help galvanize and channel attention to their plight across the empire as they petitioned the British government to send them somewhere warm, according to Chopra.

This Parks Canada image shows Citadel Hill in 1800, after the Maroons had helped rebuild the fort. (Parks Canada Agency/K. E. Gr)

"Abolitionists and other people from the parliament are very concerned that they're going to die in the winter because Black bodies, robust as they are in the heat, may not actually survive the cold," she said.

Eventually the British government determined that they would be allowed to go to Sierra Leone and in August of 1800, almost all of the Maroons set sail from Halifax harbour, a mere four years after arriving.

Saney said their arrival in Freetown, Sierra Leone, is not without controversy.

Maroons versus Black Loyalists

The Maroons arrived just as the Black Loyalists, who had preceded them in 1792, were involved in an uprising against British colonial authority.

"The British were able to deploy the Maroons who have just arrived in putting down that rebellion," he said "So, you know, this is not an unblemished history."

Just as their time in Nova Scotia was short and their history sometimes controversial, the Maroons leave a complicated legacy subject to many interpretations.

The third incarnation of Citadel Hill had fallen into ruins by the 1820s, but fears of an American attack led Halifax to build the fourth and final fort, which today is one of Parks Canada's most popular sites. (Vernon Ramesar/CBC)

Many African Nova Scotians claim Maroon heritage, but Saney said this is unlikely given that most of the Maroons left after four years.

He said he believes the reason people claim this heritage, in many cases, is because of the "glorious history" of the Maroons and their reputation for never having bent to the British.

Chopra said the Maroons had an "outsized influence" in Jamaica, Nova Scotia and Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Cultural legacy

The Maroons, she said, were in some sense freedom fighters who left an incredible cultural legacy. 

CItadel Hill, dominating Halifax, remains the greatest physical legacy of the work that the Maroons did during their time in Nova Scotia. 

Historian Isaac Saney says the story of the Maroons can be a mirror into the Black Experience (Robert Short/CBC)

Saney said he would like to see a plaque that explained the contribution of the Maroons and that would act as a "mirror" into the Black experience and the fact Black people have been historically disenfranchised, marginalized and treated like cheap labour.

"It's all part of its own narrative that colonialism in Canada was colonialism with a human face. A  gentle and kind colonialism," Saney said. "It's part of a Canadian conceit because we're not the United States."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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