The First Ayitian Revolution

By Crystal Eddins

One of the questions that has plagued scholars of the Haitian Revolution was: what role did maroons play in the rebellion’s unfolding? Haitian scholars have long argued marronnage was the core tradition of resistance that anticipated and shaped the 1791 Revolution, and indeed that continues to impact Haitian collective consciousness and action. Historian Jean Fouchard stated, “Marooning is the dominant feature of all Haitian history … it is undoubtedly the phenomenon which gave its orientation to the history of our nation.”[1] Spanish archives provide better clarity on the etymology of the word cimarron, tracing it beyond its Spanish usage of “wild beast or animal” to the Taíno word simara for “arrow” that signifies the ongoing action or flight of an arrow let loose. Gabriel Rocha analogizes the Taíno meaning of simara to “the intentionality of … enslaved or colonized people extricating themselves from conditions of oppression.”[2] The black ladinos and African bozales who labored alongside the Taíno in Spanish mines and on sugar plantations and collaborated with them in marronnage and rebellions, likely would have adopted this understanding of the term cimarron, engendering a tradition of resistance. Anthropologist Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique has argued – supported by oral histories and archaeological findings – that Haiti’s legacy of resistance, language, and religion must be understood within the context of sixteenth and seventeenth century patterns of interactions between Africans, Taínos, and freebooters.[3] Indeed, the Haitian revolutionaries in 1804 readopted the island’s original Taíno name Ayiti, further symbolically exemplifying the legacy of overlapping African and Taíno liberation struggles.

These insights inform my interest in outlining Haiti’s revolutionary trajectory within the context of maroon resistance beginning with the first Africans brought to the island Ayiti, specifically highlighting the importance of marronnage in dismantling colonial projects: the Spanish in the seventeenth and the French in the following century. By studying marronnage in Haiti in its longue-durée, it becomes apparent the Haitian Revolution of 1791 was perhaps an outcome of the failure of both European imperial powers to fully subdue black resistance. Though we cannot explicitly connect armed maroon bands to the revolutionary forces of 1791, the tactic of marronnage informed the organizational structures of the revolution.[4] And given that the island was essentially a black space from the mid-1500s forward, we can think of this historical trajectory not in terms of the maroons fighting back against empires, but as empires attempting to repress – and in some cases to co-opt – those who had already liberated themselves.

Statue of Enriquillo standing and holding a pole at the Museo De Hombre Dominicano.
Statue of Enriquillo at the Museo De Hombre Dominicano, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Taken by Darryl Ricketts, 19-6-2007.

The first rebellion against enslavement in the Americas – and the first collective action of both Africans and Taínos – took place on Christmas Day of 1521, just outside of the Spanish colonial seat Santo Domingo when twenty Wolofs destroyed Diego Colón’s sugar plantation and eventually joined forces with Taínos led by the cacique Enriquillo.[5] In the following decades, black and indigenous maroons based in the Baoruco Mountains like Sebastien Lemba, Diego Guzman, Diego Ocampo, Miguel Biafra, Juan Criollo, and Juan Canario ventured across the island on horseback raiding and destroying Spanish sugar plantations. In the 1540s, planters complained they could not go outside of city limits without arms as maroons had begun staking claim to the countryside as well as the Baoruco Mountains. Maroons had migrated north to what later became part of the French territory: to Mole Saint Nicolas, Tortuga, the northern plain outside Cap Français and the Artibonite valley, and westward to the Grande Anse peninsula beyond the reach of Spanish colonial settlements. In the sixteenth century they had established their own trading circuits with other maroons, enslaved ranchers, and Spanish settlers, raised livestock, and organized subsistence farming.[6] By 1548, approximately two-thirds of the island’s over 30 sugar plantations had been destroyed by African maroons, who possibly numbered as many as 7,000 throughout the island in locales not under the direct control of the Spanish.[7] A century later, the Spanish eventually ceded the western parts of the island to the French – however it was the African assaults on plantations that dealt a serious blow to the emerging Spanish sugar industry that would soon be nearly abandoned. Compounded by a dwindling Taíno labor force and Spanish depopulation, local economic crises, and the pursuit of gold and sugar mining on the South American mainland, the first attempts by Spanish colonizers to create a sugar-based economy in the colony of Santo Domingo experienced a final death-knell by maroons who by the early seventeenth century had spread out to each corner of the island’s landscape. Outside of the self-liberated population and black people who were living in the island’s interior and western regions, in 1606, there were 10,000 free and enslaved black people, nearly 6,000 Spaniards, and even fewer Taíno counted at the city of Santo Domingo.[8]

In this first Aytian Revolution, black resistance contributed to Spanish decisions to abandon western Ayiti as a colonial site, leaving that portion of the island to be ruled by maroons and free people of color, European buccaneers, and a small number of remaining Spanish enslavers and enslaved laborers who increasingly worked to improve their quality of life through interpersonal relationships with their owners.[9] These actors composed what Julius Scott dubbed the “masterless class” until the French embarked on the second sugar revolution in the 1680s. [10]

By the time the French formally secured their claim to the western parts of the island, calling it Saint Domingue, with the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697, the island was already predominately black space with several loosely organized maroon communities in the areas that would become part of French Saint Domingue. In 1662, there were six hundred maroon families encamped in four large palenques – another word for runaway settlements – in the Baoruco Mountains, which was contested territory between the French and Spanish until the late eighteenth century.[11] In the 1710s, French priest Jean-Baptiste Labat estimated there were six to seven hundred heavily armed women and men living at the Montagne Noir southeast of Port-au-Prince.[12] In the southwestern peninsula, Nippes had been a stronghold for marronnage since a group of runaways fled there in 1681; among these rebels at Nippes was Plymouth, who along with 30 other maroons under his leadership were captured in a 1730 raid. After the arrests of 14 maroons at Mirebalais in 1740, it was revealed that all of them, along with seven who were killed and 23 others who escaped, had been “born in the forest.”[13] The presence of these self-liberated communities, composed of women, men, and children – many of whom had never been enslaved, points to an intergenerational resistance struggle that spanned the Spanish and French colonial periods.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the island’s politically and economically autonomous black people who remained or were descendants of maroons from the Spanish colonial period had already waged, with some success, a long-term struggle against sugar slavery. The historical memory of that struggle and the early collaborations with the indigenous Taínos continued to be part of the cultural landscape that welcomed newly arrived Africans under French rule at the turn of the eighteenth century, and later informed the mass rebellion that finally overturned European slavery and colonialism.

Crystal Eddins (@CrystalNEddins on Twitter) is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and studies the role of African Diaspora consciousness, cultures, and identities during collective mobilizations – especially enslaved people’s rebellions, marronnage, and the Haitian Revolution.

Title image: Map of the island of St. Domingue, 1760. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

Further Readings:

Beauvoir-Dominique, Rachel. “The Social Value of Voodoo throughout History: Slavery, Migrations and Solidarity,” Museum International 62 no. 4 (2010): 99-105.

Fouchard, Jean. The Haitian Maroons: Liberty or Death. New York: E. W. Blyden Press, 1972.

Rocha, Gabriel de Avilez. “Maroons in the Montes: Toward a Political Ecology of Marronage in the Sixteenth-Century Caribbean,” in Early Modern Black Diaspora Studies: A Critical Anthology, edited by Cassander L. Smith, Nicholas R. Jones, Miles P. Grier, p. 15-35. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Schwaller, Robert C. “Contested Conquests: African Maroons and the Incomplete Conquest of Hispaniola, 1519-1620,” The Americas 75 no. 4 (2018): 609-638.


[1] Taleb-Khyar, Mohamed B. “Jean Fouchard.” Callaloo vol. 15, no. 2 (1992): 321-26.

[2] Rocha, Gabriel de Avilez. “Maroons in the Montes: Toward a Political Ecology of Marronage in the Sixteenth-Century Caribbean,” in Early Modern Black Diaspora Studies: A Critical Anthology, edited by Cassander L. Smith, Nicholas R. Jones, Miles P. Grier, p. 15-35, see esp. p 19. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

[3] Beauvoir-Dominique, Rachel. “The Social Value of Voodoo throughout History: Slavery, Migrations and Solidarity,” Museum International 62 no. 4 (2010): 99-105.

[4] Eddins, Crystal Nicole. “Runaways, Repertoires, and Repression: Antecedents to the Haitian Revolution 1766-1791.” Journal of Haitian Studies 25 no. 1 (2019): 4-38.

[5] Stone, Erin Woodruff. “America’s First Slave Revolt: Indians and African Slaves in Española, 1500-1534.” Ethnohistory 60 no. 2 (2013): 195-217.

[6] Rocha, Gabriel de Avilez. “Maroons in the Montes.”

[7] Guitar, Lynne. “Boiling it Down: Slavery on the First Commercial Sugarcane Ingenios in the Americas (Hispaniola, 1530-45).” In Slaves, Subjects, and Subversives: Blacks in Colonial Latin America, edited by Jane G. Landers and Barry M. Robinson, 39-82 see esp. pp. 41, 62-63. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006. Schwaller, Robert C. “Contested Conquests: African Maroons and the Incomplete Conquest of Hispaniola, 1519-1620,” The Americas 75 no. 4 (2018): 609-638, see esp. p. 620.

[8] Ponce-Vázquez, Juan José. “Unequal Partners in Crime: Masters, Slaves, and Free People of Color in Santo Domingo, c. 1600-1650,” Slavery & Abolition 37 no. 4 (2016): 704-723, see esp. p. 716. Ricourt, Milagros. The Dominican Racial Imaginary: Surveying the Landscape of Race and Nation in Hispaniola. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

[9] Ponce-Vázquez, “Unequal Partners in Crime.”

[10] Scott, Julius S. [1986] 2018. The Common Wind: Currents of Afro-American Communication in the Era of the Haitian Revolution. London: Verso.

[11] Landers, Jane. “Maroon Women in Colonial Spanish America: Case Studies in the Circum-Caribbean from the Sixteenth through the Eighteenth Centuries” In Beyond Bondage: Free Women of Color in the Americas, edited by David Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clark Hine, 3-18 see esp. p. 5. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

[12] Labat, Jean Baptiste. [1722] 1724. Nouveau Voyage aux Isles de l’Amérique. Paris, see esp. vol. 2 p. 266.

[13] Saint-Méry, M. L. E. Moreau. “The Border Maroons of Saint Domingue: Le Maniel” in Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas, edited by Richard Price, 135-142 see esp. pp. 135-136. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Fouchard, Jean. The Haitian Maroons: Liberty or Death. New York: E. W. Blyden Press, 1972, see pp. 312-313. Laguerre, Michel. 1989. Voodoo and Politics in Haiti. London: Macmillan, see esp. p. 43; Munford, Clarence J. 1991. The Black Ordeal of Slavery and Slave Trading in the French West Indies, 1625-1715, Vol. 1-3. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, see esp. vol. 3 p. 944.

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