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Escape from bondage

Published: 
Sunday, July 29, 2012
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Bed stocks being used to confine slaves as punishment. This was drawn from life in Trinidad by Richard Bridgens circa 1830.

When one thinks of Maroons (runaway slaves) the mind immediately rushes to the Cockpit Country of Jamaica, where escaped slaves resisted attempts to recapture them and whose descendants exist today as a proud and fierce people. While not as prolific as the Jamaican maroons, Trinidad also saw its share of runaways who were faced with more difficulties than their Jamaican counterparts since the island was smaller and better-known, so that hiding places were fewer.

 

Oddly enough, these incidents of absconding occurred right up to the eve of Emancipation in 1834, hinting that the desire for freedom is not easily stifled by circumstance. Even at the midnight hour, before August 1, 1834, slaveowners were making attempts to recapture their property since the British Parliament had offered compensation which could be as high as 170 pounds sterling for a healthy male.

 

The highest occurrence of escapees was in the 1820s, when punishment was inflicted on over 1,200 slaves for absence without leave or attempting to run away. Some runaways were bolder and sought work on estates with lenient masters or else became jobbing tradesmen in Port-of-Spain, trusting to the whirl and rush of commerce and humanity to conceal them from detection.

 

Many sought passage for the Venezuelan coast where they disappeared into the awesome vastness of the mainland. Those who took to the high woods chose to abandon society completely in an often vain attempt to find peace and tranquillity amidst nature’s bounty.

 

 

This, however, was not to be thanks to the Trinidad Militia, which was a body of civilian volunteer officers formed by Governor Picton, mainly with the intent of protecting the island from slave uprisings such as what occurred in Haiti. The members were assigned rank and these had to be paid for in addition to one’s uniform and firelock.  

 

At Cameron in Diego Martin, there was a small maroon camp before 1810, where the inhabitants successfully eluded capture in the heavily forested mountain ridges. In 1819 the Militia made two sallies in search of maroons in the forests of the east coast, burning camps at Tamana and Brigand Hill. In these conflicts, three runaways were shot dead, and over 50 were recaptured to face floggings, branding and being shackled in heavy irons.

 

Six years later, another Militia expedition found a village near Guayaguayare in the heart of a marsh called Terre Bouillant where a large number of people  were detained. This appears to have ended the maroon camps in Trinidad although absconding continued.

 

The Port-of-Spain Gazette published advertisements for the recapture of runaways, providing physical descriptions and offers of a reward. A last vestige of the maroons seems to have existed in the shadow of Mt Tamana into the 1930s. One source reveals that his grandmother who was born in the 1890s referred to a small society of forest peasants in the area as “le neg marron,” which is French patois for Black Maroon, perhaps hinting that some may have escaped the Militia slave hunts.

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