Artist: Pippin Frisbie-Calder
Storyteller: Gwendolyn Midlo Hall
The San Malo Maroons have the most remarkable and extensively documented history of runaway slave communities in the Western Hemisphere. These men and women lived in the swamps surrounding New Orleans. They established permanent settlements in Chef Menteur and in Gaillardeland, their main settlement in St. Bernard Parish. The runaway slaves often left in families so there were considerable numbers of women among them. Their names can be found on a list of recaptured runaways with more information about individuals in testimony of recaptured maroons, including their leader, a man named Juan San Malo. They were largely self-sufficient because they cut, squared and delivered cypress logs to mill owners in exchange for substantial cash payments. They cultivated beans, corn and herbs and they fished, hunted and created craft goods much of which they sold in street markets in New Orleans. They were armed with muskets and bought shot and powder in New Orleans as well and were well able to defend themselves. Testimony from the government’s interrogations of recaptured runaways demonstrates ongoing collaboration between the maroons and enslaved people who remained on the plantations, including marriages among them. Maroon territory stretched from St. John the Baptist and St. Charles Parish immediately up river from New Orleans surrounding the city to downriver from the English Turn through Lake Borgne where they occupied almost-impenetrable swamps. Their settlements extended down to Lake Barataria. The Spanish authorities were deeply impressed and quite frightened by the military strength of these Maroon settlements. In 1784, following a series of uprisings by enslaved people against their masters, paid spies led a series of costly expeditions to root them out. San Malo and many of his fellow maroons were captured and hung in front of St. Louis Cathedral, while women and children were brutally flogged. His wife avoided being hung because she claimed she was pregnant, not once but twice. Their memory remained vivid among the Creoles, enslaved and free, of colonial Louisiana.