Follow the Sugar Trail
“The executioner always kills twice”, Elie Wiesel once wrote, “the second time through silence”. Historically, a huge global issue like slavery generally suffers from an absence of awareness. To break the silence around the Transatlantic Slave Trade, UNESCO launched a global initiative – the Slave Route Project – to share the legacy of this tragedy. Ironically, this bitter partof history is related to something sweet that we’re all familiar with: sugar.
The history of every nation in the Caribbean and parts of the Indian Ocean were forever shaped by sugar cane plantations that started as cash crops by European colonisers. ‘White Gold’, as colonists called it, was the engine of the slave trade that displaced millions of Africans from as early as the 16th century.
Sugar cane is native to SoutheastAsia, and first made its way to the New World with Christopher Columbus in his 1492 voyage to the Dominican Republic. From here, the plant – and the slave trade – spread its way across the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, shipped by the colonial powers that shaped the world at the time: the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British.
In the 18th century came Britain’s highly profitable ‘triangular trade’, which consists of 3 parts: slave ships sailed from British ports with good like firearms and alcohol (rum) to be traded in the Gulf of Guinea for slaves captured from the African interior. From here, the slaves made the perilous journey across the Atlantic – where one in six died – where they are traded for molasses(made from sugar cane), which in turn was used to make rum back in the UK.
Slavery was rife from the 16th to 19th century, when colonial powers – the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English – all used African slaves as a major labour force, particularly in agriculture. In sugar cane plantations especially, slaves often suffered the most due to the intense labour needed to process the sugar.
Inevitably, the only way for slaves to be free from their colonial owners was to escape. Referred to as ‘maroons’, these runaways often formed their own communities deep in the jungle to escape capture. The penalties were severe for runaways who get caught, ranging from torture (ie. cutting off various parts of the body) to death.
However, some marooners managed to created formidable clans powerful enough that they were able to negotiate peace treaties with the colonists. Others managed to remain as (free) maroons
until the abolition of slavery in the 19th century.
Many of the descendents today still practise much of the culture hat was hand-d down over the centuries, which is most visible in their tribal dances.
While the dances have different names throughout the world – Sega in the Mascarenes, Awassa in Surinam, etc – they all have their roots in Africa, and were (often) celebrated in secrecy during the slavery period.
The centre of the Atlantic slave trade was the Portuguese colony ofBrazil – more Africans ended up here than elsewhere on the continent. The marooners here – called quilombolas – created thousands of hidden societies, called quilombos, tucked in the country’s remote pockets. One of the most renowned is Quilombo dos Palmares, which at one point in the mid-17th century stretched over 26,000sq.km in the north coastal mountains.
According to legend, Palmares was established in the 1600s by Aqualtune, an Angolan princess and general. She and her soldiers fled to the Serra da Barriga, a series of basalt extrusions that dominate the coastal plain, and built Palmares on a high plateau.
Palmares reached notoriety under the rule of Zumbi, when it grew to become the most important quilombo in Brazil, with 30,000 maroons. It is thought that capoeira was created by these maroon slaves, merging martial arts with the cultural customs of West Africa.
The escape of slaves created a problem for the sugar cane plantations, so the Portuguese mounted several attacks on Palmares, until they finally succeeded in 1694. They beheaded Zumbi on 20 November the next year – a date now celebrated throughout Brazil as Black Awareness Day.
Located in the state of Alagoas in Brazil’s northeast coast, Palmares is now a memorial park, protected within the Serra da Barriga National Park. A symbol of resistance in Brazil, Alagoas is home to 60 remaining quilombos which still preserve the influence of African culture, as can be seen in their cuisine, crafts and dances.
The Colombian town of Cartagena was once a major slave entrepot, making slave trading a highly profitable business in the 16th century for the Spanish Crown. More slaves entered the continent from this port than any other, because traders here had a virtual monopoly to supply Africans to the Span- ish Americas. Centuries later, Colombia now has the third largest population of African descendents outside of Africa.
Most visitors today come to Cartagena for its colonial architecture, dotted with plazas, theatres, and cathedrals. At the heart of the city is Plaza de los Coches, the site of the former slave market, lined with old balconied houses and an arcaded walkway.
The first wave of African slaves arrived in the 1520s, and it didn’t take long for the first bloody uprising when slaves burned down the town of Santa Marta in 1530 (and again in 1550). Today, Santa Marta is a holiday town, and gateway to Tayrona National Park.
From the 16th to 17th century, slaves in the Colombian Pacific were able to buy their freedom thanks to the gold they extracted from mines; the others in the Caribbean and Atlantic could only run away into the remote interior and form walled villages, or palenques. The first few palenques were established in the 16th century close to Cartagena; by the late 17th century, there were at least 20.
One of these is San Basilio de Palenque, nestled in the foothills of Montes de María about 1.5 hours from Cartagena, founded in the late 1600s by slave leader Benkos Biohó. He was responsible for organising the escape of other slaves, and raided Spanish properties; unable to defeat his army of maroons, the King of Spain made San Basilio de Palenque the first free village in the Americas in 1713.
San Basilio de Palenque is the only palenque that still stands today, and its residents still hold onto their African heritage and culture, particularly their language – ‘lengua Palenquera’ or ‘lengua’. Local guides are the best way to access this close-knit village of about 4,000 inhabitants.
One of the boldest stories of slave revolts lies in what today is called the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park, a forested mountainous region in Jamaica’s southeast Thanks to its ruggedness, it provided a refuge for the maroons who established a network of trails, hiding places, and settlements which now form the ‘Nanny Town Heritage Route’.
Nanny Town (now known as Moore Town), a stronghold of the Jamaican maroons, was named after an escaped slave known as Granny Nanny (aka Queen Nanny) who was very adept at liberating slaves – she was credited with freeing over 800 slaves over the span of 50 years. The town held out against repeated British colonial attacks, thanks to Nanny’s guerrilla warfare tactics that are still used today by many military1 around the world.
One of the most popular routes that pass through the park is the 8km-long Cunha Cunha Pass, a mountain trail used by the maroons to travel between the parishes and provide an escape route during battles with the British. The trail traverses the main ridge of the Blue Mountains, where hikers are exposed to the history of the Maroons as well as the fauna and flora of the Blue Mountains.
The park is also a biodiversity hotspot, with a high proportion of endemic plant species, especially lichens and mosses, and is the last 2 known habitats of the giant swallowtail butterfly, the largest butterfly in the Western Hemisphere.
Another maroon village is Accompong, named after Nanny’s brother, which is the largest surviving maroon town in Jamaica with a community of about 600. There are village tours, and a large festival on January 6 to commemorate the signing of the peace treaty with the British in 1739.
The Dutch colony of Surinam became the most prosperous colony in the Guianas in the 18th century due to the massive importation of slaves for the sugar and other plantations; as a result, many plantations went bankrupt afterthe abolition of slave trade.
Slaves often ran away into the dense jungles in the interior from the coastal plantations, forming settlements around the numerous rivers. The maroons often mounted disastrous raids on plantations, prompting the Dutch to launch counter attacks; all invariably lost. The marooners – nicknamed ‘bakabusi nengre’ (bush negroes) by the Dutch – were grouped into tribes; the biggest was the Saramacca (or Saamaka), which was so feared by the Dutch that they built defensive fortifications to protect their plantations from raids.
After half a century of warfare, the Dutch finally signed treaties with the maroons in the 1760s, offering them independence.
To this day, the tribal populations living in these isolated jungle pockets still retain their strong African culture, although some tribes – like the Djuka – have expanded into Paramaribo, the capital.
There are a number of maroon villages that you can visit (with a guide only), including Santigron which is home to 6 different tribes, each with their own chief, culture and language.
Maroon villages are dotted mainly in the Surinamese Rainforest which is home to numerous parks like the Central Suriname Nature Reserve, where many of the porters and guides are maroon descendents. The park’s attractions include a jungle hike to the Voltzberg granite dome, from where there are amazing 360 views from the top. In addition, you can spot endemic species like anteaters and jaguars; the park is also a birdwatcher’s paradise, as it’s home to the bright orange Guianan cock-of-the-rock.
The slave trade didn’t just happen across the Atlantic; slaves were also sent to islands in the Indian Ocean. Reunion, Mauritius, and Seychelles were colonised by multiple powers – predominantly the French and then the British – who shipped in slaves for agriculture and slave trade.
Seychelles was first colonised in 1770 when French settlers came with their slaves to Ste Anne island. Soon, they were scattered on several islands including Mahé and Silhouette. Similar to the New World, slaves were brought to the Seychelles to work on sugar and coffee plantations.
While slave numbers in the Seychelles pale in comparison to those in Mauritius, cases of marooning weren’t unheard of, and one of the most famous maroons is a slave called Castor. He managed to escape capture for several years until he inexplicably turned himself in, and ironically became employed by the French to capture other maroons.
Today, there is a place named after him: Roche Castor, in Mahé’s upper Anse Aux Pins.
By 1811, the British took over Seychelles (although it only became an official British colony in 1903), and by 1835, slavery was abolished with the Emancipation Act. During this period, many British ‘slave buster’ ships liberated slaves from Arab dhows apprehended south of the Equator, and brought them to Mahé to be ‘apprentices’ in the plantations. By the late 19th century, most of the inhabitants in the Seychelles consisted of freed slaves.
The children of these liberated slaves were given a sanctuary at a mission school in Venn’s Town (also known as Capucin), which operated between 1876 and 1889. Located in the Sans Souci pass deep within the Morne Seychellois National Park (Mahé’s rugged backbone), you can see the moss-laden ruins of the 5 original buildings of the Mission Lodge. It is perhaps Seychelles’ most famous vantage point, offering spectacular sea and mountain views from the shaded gazebo where Queen Elizabeth II once sat for tea.
The French took over Mauritius in 1715 from the Dutch, bringing with them more slaves who worked in the sugarcane fields. Under the Code Noir, slaves were often ill-treated. Those who escaped found refuge in the rugged Le Morne mountain, which acted as an impenetrable natural fortress.
The British took over Mauritius in 1810, and slavery was officially abolished by 1835; however, when British soldiers went to deliver the good news, the slaves mistook their intentions and jumped off the mountain instead. Today, the Slave Route Monument is located at the foot of Le Morne mountain, commemorating the impact of slavery on Mauritian history.
A real industrial revolution kicked off in 1815 with the beginnings of sugar cane cultivation, and today it remains the agricultural pillar of Reunion’s economy. At the end of the 17th century, the population could be divided into white French landowners and African slaves.
In the late 18th century, there were a number of slave revolts and those who managed to escape made their way to the rugged cirques of Salazie, Mafate and Cilaos – these are believed to be named after slaves, who were joined by poorer colonists who arrived too late to take advantage of the booming sugar trade. To this day, the cirques are still relatively undeveloped; the best way to experience the cirques is on foot, as plenty of hiking trails line the rugged mountain landscape.
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