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Clever Symbols of Slavery's Maroons

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"Maroons” were the Enslaved Africans brought to the Americas who managed to escape and establish communities in places almost inaccessible--always inhospitable and, of course, out of the way. In the Southern United States, isolated swamps were a favorite setting; in Jamaica, the “cockpit country” was the deep canyons and scarce water supplies or good soil; and in the Guianas, the impenetrable jungles. Apart from these environments being harsh, Maroons had to fight for survival--typically with few key tools (e.g. axes, hoes, guns)--as well as defend themselves against sadistic bounty hunters. Achieving these successes resulted from "Knowledge by Participation"--an untaught particular way of Black People's silent communications that impart "know-how." One was the African Nsibidi writing system consisting of an ideographic (Symbolic) script that is written, drawn, painted, shaped, or carved on various materials, such as bark, metal, and masks. Of considerable antiquity in its connection to the origin of the African philosophic system along the Nile Valley, Nsibidi once flourished among various peoples of east central Nigeria, such as the Edo, Efik, Ejagham, Ibibio, and Igbo peoples. Some usage for expressing their ideas and philosophies were related to basic facts of life, public notices, revered Deities and Ancestors, as well as their own history and folklore.

A second was Àrokò, an ecologically friendly system utilizing tangible objects, such as feathers, cowrie shells, beans, alligator pepper seeds, leaves, kola nuts, corn husks, glass beads, thread, and the branches of trees to transmit messages, ideas, and feelings. Leaves often served as envelopes for the messages contained inside. For composing messages, because virtually the same materials (e.g. Palm trees' leaves and branches) were as readily found by the Florida Maroons as they had been in Yorubaland, presumably they would send àrokò connoting their former Yoruba meanings. Just as fresh palm leaves (imo\ o\pe\) were used to indicate the direction to someone’s home inYorubaland, among the Maroons new palm leaves were probably used to convey the same messages. Furthermore, the directions and maps leading to the trails and areas where the African and Muscogulge (Seminole) women, children, ammunition, and food stores were hidden might have been àrokò messages lodged in plain view. Elsewhere, despite the Maroons having to "Make Do" with what was readily available, the same principles were applied. For example, wampum shells and, subsequently, wampum beads replaced cowrie shells as an àrokò object. Nevertheless, during battles, the Maroons used àrokò to give directions, mark access to hidden paths and hideouts, delineate areas where ambushes of their enemies’ soldiers would take place, and alert one another of the arrival of the enemies’ military. An àrokò fresh palm leaf message planted at the fork in the road, which usually means “go in the opposite direction” or some variation, might have been used. Or, an àrokò of a palm leaf cut in the middle and tied on the top of both cut ends indicated “beware” or “do not enter." Àrokò was also a means of communication between the soldiers and their gods and Ancestors, who functioned as guides, warriors, and healers during battles. The Maroons were quite adept at mimicking the sounds of the animals of the forest and making other strange noises to communicate with one another--calls that “shook the wilderness with a tremendous yell that was thoroughly effective.” Women lent support by giving encouragement in the form of incantations, cooking provisions, making bullets, and suppling other ammunitions to the men fighting.

The Maroons' best townships, located on the most fertile lands, were watered by numerable lakes and streams. In the extensive fields surrounding their homes, they planted maize, cassava, cotton, squash, Gullah peas, watermelon, sweet potatoes, and so forth. They were also exceptional horse ranchers and cattle herders--both being of superior quality compared to Whites and their agricultural products were also more resplendent. However, it was the elaborate pan-African system of trade and bartering they brought from Africa that led them to develop business with Enslaved, freed, and other self-emancipated Africans living in places like Florida’s cities, Cuba, the Bahamas, and the American South--an interdependence causing thriving settlements. [Ref: Ogunleye, Àrokò, Mmomomme Twe, Nsibidi, Ogede, and Tusona: J. Black Studies p396, 2006].

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