feature: know your black history – maroon leader juan st. malo

June 17, 2014
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“Malheur au blanc qui passera ces bornes.” (“Woe to the white who would pass this boundary”). This was the sign posted by the maroon leader Juan St. Malo at Ville Gaillarde, the entrance of the land he claimed and controlled in Louisiana. Known as Rigolets the swamps and marshes he claimed stretched from Lake Borgne and the Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain to the Gulf of Mexico. St. Malo and his group were said to have controlled this area from 1773 -1784, forbidding any and all white entry.

By Nick Douglas, AFROPUNK Contributor *

With the importation of the first African slaves to the New World by the Spanish in 1500s, maroons began to appear. The term is believed to have originated from the Spanish word “cimarron,” which means fugitive. Maroons were slaves that were marooned, that is, stranded ashore by slavers for various reasons. In the late 1500s, Sir Walter Raleigh was known to maroon cargos of slaves along the American coastline so he could pirate Spanish galleons. Other maroons were slaves that overpowered, killed or rebelled against slave ship crews, or forced slave ships to the coastline, where the slaves escaped into the wilderness, taking supplies and weapons with them. Maroons were also runaway slaves who settled together in inaccessible areas. New Orleans and the surrounding area was a perfect locale for maroon communities. The swamps and bayous had abundant game and fish. They were not easily accessible for people who did not know the land. With the vast open regions of the Americas, maroon communities were more common and more widespread than most people might expect. During St. Malo’s life Louisiana had a substantial number of maroons.

Maroons such as Juan St. Malo were famous in New Orleans for evading white authorities for years. It was not uncommon for slaves to remain runaways around New Orleans for up to several years with the support of maroon networks and communities.

Groups of maroons set up permanent settlements with buildings and lived independently of white interference. Some maroons carried out guerilla tactics against white settlements to obtain food and supplies. They also traded food, game, labor, and firearms with nearby slaves and free black people. Though maroons were not dedicated to abolishing slavery, they were committed to protecting their own freedom, by force if necessary.

Because they were willing to use force St. Malo and his group became the focus of the Spanish governor of Louisiana, Esteban Miró. In 1782 St. Malo and his group killed two Americans who had entered his territory and had attempted to kidnap maroons for sale back into slavery. Soon afterwards four English trespassers were also killed.

Numerous attempts by the military, white plantation owners and black spies failed to locate or capture St. Malo and his group. Finally in 1784 information was received about St. Malo’s location. A militia attacked and captured some in St. Malo’s camp. St. Malo counterattacked freeing all but one of the prisoners.

Later that year, another attack captured St. Malo and the remaining members of his group.

This is a Creole dirge to St. Malo which was translated in the 1940’s

Alas, young men, come make lament,
For poor St. Malo in distress!
They chased, they hunted him with dogs,
They fired a rifle at him.
They dragged him from the cypress swamp.
His arms they tied behind his back.
They tied his hands in front of him.
They tied him to a horse’s tail.
They dragged him up into the town.
Before those grand Cabildo men.
They charged that he had made a plot
To cut the throats of all the whites.
They asked him who his comrades were.
Poor St. Malo said not a word!
The judge his sentence read to him,
And then they raised the gallows tree.
They drew the horse — the cart moved off
And left St. Malo hanging there.
The sun was up an hour high
When on the levee he was hung.
They left his body swinging there
For carrion crows to feed upon.

St. Malo was tried and hung in Jackson Square ironically on June 19, 1784. (Coincidently June 19 became Juneteenth the official end of slavery in the U.S.) Most of his groups were returned to their masters. Those involved with the killings were hanged. Others were tortured or branded on their cheek with an “M” for maroon for having been associated with St. Malo.

Maroons presented just another complication to slavery in New Orleans and throughout the Americas. Maroons served as a powerful example to slaves that there were alternatives they could choose, rather than accepting slavery as a given. Maroons also showed white and black slaveholders that blacks would not tacitly go along with slavery just because it was the status quo.

No images of Juan St. Malo were allowed to remain. The story of St. Malo was too powerful a reminder of the history of effective resistance to slavery. Southern authorities had to suppress this history in order to uphold slavery and continued white domination during Jim Crow and segregation. But St. Malo’s story lived on in song and through Marie Laveau he became the patron saint of runaway slaves. Juan St. Malo remains a central figure in the voodoo community of New Orleans even today. In Louisiana, the town Saint Malo was named after him.

Pictured: “Le Negre Marron” (The Black Maroon), Port-au-Prince, Haiti

* Nick Douglas first discovered the history of Juan St. Malo and maroons when researching his own ancestry. Portions of this article also appear in his book, Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery in Louisiana. Blog: http://www.findingoctave.tumblr.com/