How the unbreakable red-brown spirit still inspires African Nova Scotians

The story of how about 600 Maroons from Jamaica spent four hard years in Nova Scotia in the late 18th century before traveling to Sierra Leone teaches lessons to be remembered, according to historians.

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

Rumors rising from their homeland give the story of the Maroons’ journey a sense of what bravery, freedom and autonomy look like, according to Ruma Chopra, professor of history at San Jose State University and author of Almost at home: Maroons between slavery and freedom in Jamaica, Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone.

“This story really teaches us so much about empire, slavery, human motives,” she said.

“The book is called Almost at home, because it really made me think about what it 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 fled and formed communities across America, according to historian Isaac Saney, director of Dalhousie University’s Transition Year Program.

The Trelawney Town Maroons in Jamaica was one such colony.

Second maroon war

The British tried to defeat the red-brown communities of Jamaica and bring them under colonial rule, but often failed and had to content themselves with signing treaties with them.

In 1795, the Trelawney Town Maroons started a revolt that was referred to by the British at the time as the Second Maroon War.

The Maroons were eventually “tricked” into signing a ceasefire with the authorities in 1796, Saney said, rounding up.

Because they posed a threat, and as the Haitian revolution unfolded right outside the door, the Jamaican authorities decided to “get rid of them from 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 and landed in Halifax in July 1796.

“They happened to stop in Halifax to relocate and [to] “The Duke of Kent and the Government of Nova Scotia … Maroons are basically seen as a very important source of labor for Nova Scotia because there is a shortage of labor in Nova Scotia,” he said.

The shortage, Saney said, was caused by the departure of a large number of black loyalists to 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 given money to pay whoever would support them.

Hovedgade NS9:09NS artist’s new show explores objects and instruments from Jamaican maroons

Tyshan Wright, an artist who moved to Canada from Jamaica a few years ago, talks about his new show at the Craig Gallery in Dartmouth. “Myal” is a collection of ceremonial objects and instruments used spiritually among the Jamaican maroons. 9:09

This enabled Nova Scotia to “double dip,” he said, by using Maroons as a source of cheap labor and receiving compensation for their accommodation and maintenance.

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

They were involved in brickwork, 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-Novascot youth. (Melissa Fells-Adams)

Maroons were also put to work reconstruction of 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 meager wages, the Maroons began to demand improvements.

Cold winters

They refused to become Christians, Saney said, and were very unhappy with the cold winters. Saney said at the time that even anti-slavery abolitionists promoted the racist feeling that colored people could not survive in such climates.

The Maroons may well have taken advantage of this feeling to help encourage and channel attention to their situation across the empire when they asked the British government to send them to a hot spot, according to Chopra.

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

“Abolitionists and other people from Parliament are very worried that they will 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 decided that they would be allowed to go to Sierra Leone, and in August 1800, almost all the maroons sailed from Halifax port, just four years after arrival.

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 a revolt against the British colonial authority.

“The British were able to deploy the Maroons, who have just arrived to put down that revolt,” he said. “So you know, it’s not a flawless story.”

Just as their time in Nova Scotia was short and their history at times controversial, the Maroons leave a complicated legacy that is the subject of many interpretations.

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

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

He said he believes the reason people claim this legacy, in many cases, is because of the Maroons’ “glorious history” and their reputation for never bowing to the British.

Chopra said the Maroons had an “oversized influence” in Jamaica, Nova Scotia and Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Cultural heritage

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

Citadel Hill, which dominates Halifax, remains the largest physical legacy of the work that the Maroons performed during their time in Nova Scotia.

Historian Isaac Saney says the story of the Maroons may be a mirror into the black experience (Robert Short / CBC)

Saney said he would like to see a plaque explaining the Maroons’ contribution, which would serve as a “mirror” into the black experience and the fact that black people have historically been deprived of justice, marginalized and treated as cheap labor.

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

For more stories about black Canadians’ experiences – from anti-black racism to success stories in black society – check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project that black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.



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