March 3, 2018

Slavery in the Caribbean

It took me a long time to write this as it was hard to read some of the stuff. While I provide many references at the bottom, please take breaks from reading them, which is what I did.  Please feel free to comment below as I would love to hear feedback from all.

Researching slavery in the Caribbean can face some challenges for many, especially for the smaller islands or even places like Guyana, French Guiana and Suriname. Although these countries are considered to be part of the Caribbean,they do not border the Caribbean Sea and lack of resources is prevalent to genealogists. I am far from an expert in knowing the history in the Caribbean so this post is based on what I have read.

We also face limitations of online resources due to the behavior many of us are seeing in many of the Facebook groups that discuss ancestry and DNA.  The mere mention of African DNA can get you banned from some groups. Discussing African DNA can also lead to a discussion shutdown. I have personally posted many times in the ISOGG's Facebook group without issue when it came to European or anything not referencing African posts.

Things changed when I decided to post about an African enslaved infant in church records being baptized and given away. I was not only booted from the group without a reason given to me, but also blocked and no responses from the admins. It is bad enough that we face the challenge of researching African ancestors and now it includes everyone being shutdown from discussing our African ancestors and slavery as if we asked for our ancestors to be enslaved. It is their shame and not ours. It has led to groups being developed to allow continued discussion. I recommend the following Facebook groups:

To add to research complexities, places like Suriname, the smallest country in South America, is hard to locate records online and requires a visit to their archives. Most importantly, Suriname records are all in Dutch while French Guiana are written in French, making it a bigger challenge for English speakers. It becomes even more difficult as we trace our lines back to someone who partook in marronage and the acts of violence our African ancestors faced.

Enslaved African Man, Fighting Slavery in the Caribbean

While the history is ugly, it is important that we all understand what they faced in order to be able to trace back where to find them and giving them a voice. Part of the reason for writing this is because it is important to understand real history to help us understand what ancestors faced and potentially where to find records about them or where they lived.  Not knowing details is like finding a needle in a haystack when searching for them.

The barbarous cruelty inflicted on a Negro at Suriname, National Library of Jamaica Digital Collection

One term that many do not recognize is the word marronage. Marronage was the act of people escaping slavery. Many of our enslaved ancestors ran away into mountains or forests, then hid from their captures, while others had to flee the island to another.  Most escaped permanently, while some took breaks from enslavement. The act of temporary escape was known as "petite marronage" which means they returned as there was potentially no other way of getting off the island or means of maintaining freedom due to lack of resources.

The word marronage potentially derives from the word cimarron, which is what enslaved Tainos and Africans were called on the island of Hispaniola; today Haiti and Dominican Republic. Those on English speaking islands that escaped slavery were called maroons.

On some islands, like Jamaica, maroons built successful communities like Cockpit Country.  Many escaped into the jungles of Guyana (British), Brazil, and Suriname which many of these settlements still exist today.  In addition, places like the mountain regions of Dominica and today's Haiti and Dominican Republic were places where Cimmarons or Maroons would live.

The atrocities and even the consistency of not treating Africans and their descendants as humans and more like cattle or property was apparent throughout the Caribbean.  Documentation of this act exists in many archives as the below image depicts a woman being branded in Rio Pongo. The deafening screams of these ancestors as the hot iron burned their flesh still echo throughout time. The idea that someone can look on or perform this act, just shows the evil and savagery that existed in these Europeans.

Branding a negress at the Rio Pongo
 Branding a negress at the Rio Pongo, National Library of Jamaica Digital Collection

Another form of control was placement of a mask over the head as a way of controlling those that were enslaved which kept the person from swallowing their saliva. The atrocities that our African ancestors faced were so dehumanizing that in is hard to phantom or understanding. It is easy today when some make statements that they would have fought back, having the idea that our ancestors didn't, when that is exactly what our ancestors did.They found hard and at times killing their oppressors.

An African's head with mouth-piece and necklace, National Library of Jamaica Digital Collection
My research on slavery in the Caribbean led me to find information for many different islands. Some books I purchased while others I located at the local library. Summary for each of the islands I researched tells the story of how common cruelty was no matter the European country involved.

It seems that it is instilled in their DNA to treat not just Africans in this manner but even their own. European history seems to be loaded with atrocities towards other humans. With over 440 years of African slavery that the Portuguese started in 1441, the ugliness is documented in many archives throughout the globe.

 Le Golfe de Mexique et les isles voisine, University of Florida
Those of us with African roots have resorted to taking DNA testing, hoping to identify who our ancestors were, and pinpointing origin. However, due to the complexity of how slavery was carried out, the reality is that we all descend from a multitude of African ethnic groups.  Many are shocked to discover how mixed their African roots are just by the DNA results. As technology continues to advance, hiding the truth in American history books is becoming more difficult.

What is noteworthy is that resistance to slavery was equally done by men and women.  Hard labor was equally distributed to both sexes by their oppressors. There was no distinction of treating women as being fragile. Keep this in mind when searching in the records.


Tainos were known to escape into the mountain areas of the island to escape. Once Africans were brought over as slaves to replace them for labor, many Africans and their descendants were known to escape into the mountains and join the Tainos. One such area was the Viñales Valley, which sits to the west of the island. An extensive study has been done on the cimarrones or maroons in Cuba.  A book published in 1988 called Los Palenques del Oriente de Cuba, is a book that provides detailed research on the maroons throughout eastern Cuba. Another good article is Runaway Slave Settlements in Cuba: Resistance and Repression by Gabino de la Rosa Corzo.

An Indian cacique of the island of Cuba addressing Columbus concerning a future state, National Library of Jamaica Digital Collection


Many Africans and their descendants escaped and became maroons as they hid in the mountains of Dominica. The mountains were an ideal place to hide as it was difficult to follow many that escaped into jungle regions.

Maroons on the island of Dominica were organized and were trying to follow the footsteps of the successful Jamaican maroons who managed to gain their freedom.  In addition, the Kalinagos, which are the indigenous people of the island, had also fought for their freedom from Europeans.

The maroons were well organized on the island which included social order, agricultural abilities, and military organization and skills. The maroons were able to maintain an economical stability for their communities.  Slave holders saw this success as unsettling and that could lead to unrest on plantations. Plantation owners would sell their plantation as they would lose all of their enslaved Africans as they became maroons.

The First Maroon War lasted from 1785 to 1790 and during this war, the maroons were outnumbered by the British. The British were so vicious with their treatment towards maroons that they gibbeted maroon chiefs.  One such chief was known as Balla. Many were cut to pieces while alive and eventually beheaded.  This is keeping in mind the revolution occurring in France and the uprising and eventual independence of Haiti.

Maroons would eventually be pushed into the mountains and eventually lead to starvation as two  hurricanes hit the island and eliminated the maroons' food supply.  The British killed 577 maroons and killed 3 of their leaders.  Trials against the maroons occurred throughout 1813 and 1814 which are documented in archives.  A good reference is the book, "Your Time is Done Now" by Polly Pattullo. 

French Antilles

It is important that when researching in finding women or men that were enslaved, you may not think of it, but many were incarcerated due to minor infractions. Just a suspicion or accusation would potentially lead to imprisonment. Many women were  subjected to being raped and wound up pregnant in prison.  Such as the case of Justine from Guadeloupe (see Moitt) while imprisoned.

Supposed laws were put in place to keep slave owners from raping women, however, based on DNA and how much of European ancestry exists, the golden rule of "laws were made to be broken" seems to ring extremely true.  As previously pointed out, those enslave did not quietly sit back.

In 1712, the governor of Martinique was worried that slaves would revolt and poisonings was a constant issue.  Poisoning was a form of medicine used for healing or killing.  By 1724, ordinances were put into place in the French colonies that made it a crime punishable by death if caught making, distributing, or administering poisons. Stricter laws were put in place by 1743 that stated that Europeans were not to teach slaves how to perform any medical procedures or mixing of medicine. Breaking this law carried a death penalty sentence. These laws help push many into revolts and marronage.

Francois Mackandal, who was a maroon leader in Saint-Domingue, was one that created poisons and distributed poisons to many on to poison their oppressors on plantations.

Based on records, the act of marronage had more males participating versus females. However, it doesn't mean that women were more willing to withstand the abuses. Women were less likely to participate as women were chained to their children in the field and were less likely to leave their children behind or have less mobility.

Many enslaved women who didn't have children, whether chained or not, were known to escape as there were many ads on these escaped women. Researching in the island's Gazette will likely lead to finding records on ancestors. There are countless records documenting women that had chains around even their necks and would still escape.


While women who were enslaved were subjected to sexual abuses, they were never viewed as the victims but those who were the cause of sinful activities. Such is the case of Lory de la Bernardiere's mother, who documented her son, "He is given to amusement and a life of debauchery. He has fostered a harem of black women who control him and run the plantation" (Moitt).

We also have slave drivers who sexually exploited women. In 1792, Jean Baptiste, a slave driver of 59 years of age, working on the Foache sugar plantation, sexually assaulted enslaved women, even if these women were in relationships with enslaved men; including those that were married. It was noted that Jean Baptiste had fathered more than 60 children on this plantation. Note that Jean Baptiste was also enslaved but eventually earned his freedom.

In addition, killing of slaves, at most, got the slaveowner fined. In 1699, a slave was shot and the slaveowner was fined 100 livres while another was fined 600 livres for spurring an 11 year old girl to death. If slaves were caught after marronage, torture would be dished out even though torture was supposedly outlawed.  Female slaveowners were just as cruel at dishing out punishment like in the case of an 11 year old girl in 1736 enslaved by Audache of Leogane. The girl had been tortured for 5 days, including being burned with fire until another slave reported it to authorities. There is no documentation of the penalty against the slaveowner.

Cimarrons, as known on the island, were known to escape into the mountain range that today it the border for Haiti and Dominican Republic.  Many of those enslaved that were from Saint-Domingue and Santo Domingo, were known to hide in the mountain range or the thick forests that existed throughout the island.  The slaveowners were also known to advertise when their slaves escaped in the weekly paper, Les Affiches Américaines. The ads contained descriptions which included whip lashes, scars, burn marks, and broken limbs . (Duke Press University)

Le Marron Inconnu, which is a statue in honor of cimarrones, sits in the capital of Haiti, Port-Au-Prince.  I've posted the image before on the website when posting on Haiti. Statues like this, honoring those that were before, exists throughout the Caribbean. The cimarrones were the key players into the liberation of the people of Saint-Domingue and Santo Domingo.

Le Marron Inconnu, Port-Au-Prince, Haiti

Turks & Caicos Islands

There were no records of maroons on the islands. However, an illegal port existed on Grand Turk where slaves could be sold.  This leads to the potential of impacting those researching their ancestors that are from these islands with no records maintaining where those enslaved came from.

In a legal transaction, description of slaves that were sold between a husband and his wife stated that Africans were defined as being originally from African or first-generation. Creole was those that were born into slavery and Mulatto were those who had parents where one was black and the other was white.

In addition, free blacks or mulattos were not permitted to live on the islands unless they could prove they were born free. From 1822 to 1834, Britain required that slaveowners register every single slave by name and age that they owned. This registration also included those that ran away, sold, transferred, dead, or manumitted.

Slaveowners on the island were only permitted to own a small amount of slaves to keep down revolts from happening. From 1822 to 1825, there were 128 slaves that had escaped from Turks and Caicos. Many may have escaped to the Haiti, the first Black Republic and where freedom could be found. Looking in Jean-Rabel, Poix-de-Paix, and Cap-Haitien, Haiti along with Monte Cristi in Dominican Republic, are good places to start.


Hopefully these snippets from some of these islands/countries will hopefully lead to connecting the dots to our genetic African American cousins that descend from those that were enslaved in the southern States. When it comes to Jamaica, there are a lot of books that provides details into the slavery and marronage on the island.

Most importantly, there are many more islands and countries that were not covered in this post, many books, and many records beyond those listed in the reference section. Attempting to cover the maroons in Suriname, Guyana, Brazil, and countless other places would have truly turn this post into something that never ends as there are countless stories not told yet. I hope this post is helpful to many in their research.


Atkins, B., Gale, M., Gall, A., Paige, R., & Sause, K. (n.d.). Maroon Uprisings in Surinam. Retrieved January 16, 2018, from Maroon Uprisings in Surinam:

Bellin, J. N. (1758) Carte de l'isle de Saint Domingue, pour servir à l'Histoire générale des voyages. [Paris] [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Duke Wordpress University. (n.d.). Slavery and Marronnage in Saint Domingue. Retrieved January 16, 2018, from Haitian Marronnage: Voyages and Resistance:

Knibb, W. (2016). Facts and Documents Connected with the Late Insurrection in Jamaica. Charleston: Createspace Independent Pub.

Martinez-Fernandez, L. (1998). Fighting Slavery in the Caribbean: The Life and Times of a British Family in Nineteenth Century Havana. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe.

Mills, C. PhD (2008). A History of the Turks & Caicos Islands. Oxford: Macmillian Publishers Limited.

Moitt, B. (2001). Women and Slavery in the French Antilles, 1635 - 1848. Bloomington and Indianapolis : Indiana University Press.

Monteith, K. E., & Richards, G. (2002). Jamaica in Slavery and Freedom. Kingston: The University of the West Indies Press.

Mortier, P. (1700) “Le Golfe de Mexique et les isles voisine ; Archipelague du Mexique, ou sont les isles de Cuba, Espagnola, Jamaica, & dressée sur les relations les plus nouvelles” Retrieved from University of Florida

Pattullo, P. (2015). Your Time is Done Now. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Pestana, C. G. (2017). The English Conquest of Jamaica. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Sherlock, P., & Bennett, H. (1998). The Story of the Jamaican People. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers.

Wikipedia (n.d.) Francois Mackandal. Retrieved from Wikipedia

Williams, J. (2014). A Narrative of Events: Since the First of August, 1834. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc.

“An African's head with mouth-piece and necklace,” National Library of Jamaica Digital Collection , accessed February 1, 2018,

“An Indian cacique of the island of Cuba addressing Columbus concerning a future state,” National Library of Jamaica Digital Collection , accessed January 9, 2018,

“Branding a negress at the Rio Pongo,” National Library of Jamaica Digital Collection , accessed January 16, 2018,

“The barbarous cruelty inflicted on a Negro at Suriname,” National Library of Jamaica Digital Collection , accessed February 18, 2018,

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for speaking to the myriad difficulties & reward of doing this research -- your work is appreciated! Learning about our ancestors and their struggles while breaching the gap between diaspora, histories and genealogy is important for everyone & despite resistance or denial, we carry on. Mil gracias!


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