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Jamaica's island of isolation

Descendants of slaves have for centuries lived away from modern life. But development is about to intrude, unless they can fend it off.

February 03, 2007|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

Accompong Town, Jamaica — HIGH above the serpentine valleys and vine-tangled trails of this mountainous refuge, runaway slaves could spot approaching bounty hunters and soldiers well in time to ambush all comers.

Along secret paths flanked by steep limestone cliffs, the fiercely independent fugitives guided thousands of fresh escapees from the island's sugar plantations to safety with horn calls and drum beats familiar to the native Africans.

A natural fortress, this territory was sufficiently remote and forbidding to protect those who fled enslavement and to allow them over the last three centuries to preserve the traditions and tongues of their forebears.

But nearly 500 years after the first slaves were brought to Jamaica, the descendants of the Maroons -- from the Spanish cimarron, or "wild one" -- are discovering chinks in their geographical armor. Outsiders now covet the Maroons' bountiful minerals, flora and fauna, threatening the long-ignored territory with industrial intrusion and the descendants of slaves with curbs on their independence.

The rugged land called Cockpit Country was ceded to the Maroons after they repelled a decade-long assault by British forces intent on wiping out the runaway slave insurgents. Admitting defeat in 1739, the British signed a treaty granting the Maroons autonomy and control of a little-explored and nearly inaccessible area of limestone towers sheathed in brick-red earth and dense tropical foliage.

For centuries, the Maroons wove vines into clothing, fashioned bowls and other vessels from giant pods that drooped from the green canopy shielding their thatched-twig homes and tilled the rich soil to feed themselves without commerce with British-ruled Jamaicans.

Even since Jamaica won independence from Britain in 1962, the Kingston government has generally honored the reclusive Maroons' right to self-rule, only recently coming under pressure from foreign mining interests and traders of exotic species to open the territory to the modern world. Some fear the dwindling Maroon population is too weak and scattered to fend off intruders.

About 800 Maroons live in simple wood-and-cinderblock houses dotting the Accompong Town hillsides, down from 1,200 a decade ago and a fraction of the thousands who waged guerrilla war against the British. There is no secondary school, which fuels the exodus, and healthcare is limited to a weekly visit by a nurse from the parish capital of Mandeville, a two-hour drive in the best of conditions.

EXCEPT for the small cultivated plots and modest dwellings, Cockpit Country remains much as it was centuries ago. The forests still provide a bounty of roots, gourds, pods and herbs used in the Maroons' housewares and natural medicines. Farming and wood carving remain the few subsistence industries in a village served by a single power line that follows the road-cum-trail into the town. There is no postal service, sewers, running water or telephones, although some residents lately have acquired cellphones.

The isolation has protected the pristine environment from the ravages of development elsewhere on the island.

"There's never been much forestry here because the roads are bad and the trees are so dense you can't get to them to harvest," said Mark Wright, 41, a Maroon activist. "The slopes are so steep and everything is so packed together, even hurricanes just blow over us without causing much damage."

Sydney Peddie -- called "Colonel" by his people though there is no army -- was elected by this town's Maroons to be their leader. He vows to defend their territory and rekindle the crafts and mores of their ancestors.

"The Maroons are totally against this," Peddie, 72, said of recent government talk about permitting the mining of bauxite, used to make aluminum.

To ease the economic pressures on a population largely without work, he has urged Maroons to rescue and nurture their language, music and secret drum and horn signals to showcase to tourists exploring the Caribbean's black history.

"Everybody in Jamaica is a Maroon, but not many realize what the difference is between being a Maroon and being a Jamaican," said Owen George Francis, a Rastafarian who hopes to reacquaint Maroons with their history. He has embarked on a cultural revival project with his Cockpit Country Heritage Foundation, including educational programs to inform or remind Jamaicans that their background is African, not British.

FRANCIS accuses the Jamaican government of being indifferent to the ecological and historical value of the Maroon region and believes the bauxite prospecting licenses issued by Kingston in 2004 and renewed late last year are the first step toward breaching the British treaty that granted Maroons control of the area.

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