Maroons in Guyane: Past, Present, Future , by Richard Price & Sally Price

In: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids
Peter Redfield University of Southern California Department of Anthropology Los Angeles CA U.S.A.

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Richard Price & Sally Price, Maroons in Guyane: Past, Present, Future. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2022. xi + 185 pp. (Paper US$ 24.95)

Two decades ago, Richard and Sally Price presented a cogent overview of Maroon societies in Guyane (French Guiana). Published in French and made available to the local reading public, Les Marrons (2003) played a valuable social role alongside its scholarly one, offering a resource about a growing segment of the population. Now, in this updated English version (also published in French in Guyane), they combine the essence of that text with new material, charting the remarkable florescence of Maroons—proud descendants of slavery’s rebels—in this French corner of South America.

The core ambition behind the work remains the same as in the 2003 publication: to distill a lifetime of scholarship into a slim, readable volume, elegantly produced and generously illustrated. Happily, the authors and the press have succeeded on all counts. Both a person with passing interest in the topic and a serious student of the region can gain a great deal from the result, which manages to recount the essential trajectory of Maroon experience between Suriname and Guyane without ever feeling compressed or hurried. Along with a basic accounting of who, what, where, and when, it includes a smattering of intriguing facts about historical connections—for example, in the 1920s and 1930s the supply of rosewood oil, a key ingredient in Chanel No. 5 perfume, depended significantly on Saamaka Maroon loggers. Most arresting of all, however, is the rapid growth of the Maroon presence in this overseas department over the past half century, from some 7500 individuals in 1970 to an estimated 100,000 today. No longer a marginal minority living and working in the interior forest, members of Maroon groups now account for over a third of the total population, with most residing in coastal towns and working in everything from construction to tourism. The Prices themselves appear as struck by this evolution as any reader might be, noting that a large part of the growth has occurred since the publication of their initial French volume and shows no sign of abating. As a consequence, whatever path the Maroon future might take in Guyane, it promises to be an expansive one.

The book includes six chapters, generally organized in chronological order, along with a photo art gallery to display the ongoing creativity of Maroon art. The first four chapters introduce the historical challenge of escaping enslavement (marronage), and recount the successful establishment of independent Maroon societies in the region now known as Suriname in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, along with the eventual migration of branches of these groups to neighboring French territory. With the aid of maps and ample illustrations, the Prices outline the similarities and differences of the six Maroon societies, paying particular attention to the four resident in Guyane: the Alukus (Boni), Saamakas (Saramakas), Okanisis (Ndyukas), and Pamakas. The first three feature most prominently in the text, with the Alukus making up for their small numbers by the fact of enjoying recognition as French and European citizens, while the Saamakas, who struggle (often unsuccessfully) for residence status, and the Okanisi account for most of the current Maroon population. Although speaking distinct languages and at times exhibiting fierce rivalries, these groups have forged parallel paths and face common challenges of marginalization and ongoing discrimination at the hands of French and coastal Creole elites.

As long-time scholars of Samaaka life and culture, the Prices flirt occasionally with the temptation to favor their experience over those of the other three groups, but work assiduously to offer a scholarly perspective to the wider collective history. In recent decades, the story of all four groups has been one of dramatic generational change, with younger people having far more experiential ties to formal schooling and global media than their parents did in the villages of the interior. Many live in complex, multi-ethnic households, where subsistence depends on a variety of market activities and state subventions rather than gardening or hunting skills. At the same time, they continue to rework a rich material heritage, with many individuals producing vibrant artwork (men in woodcarving and painting, women in textile arts), amply documented in the last section of the book. Although the Prices are less sanguine about the likelihood of an emergent pan-Maroon identity than they were in 2003, they also note that all groups experience continued prejudice, and in that sense face a common struggle for recognition and respect. By translating and updating this approachable book, they have made a clear contribution to this cause, providing an English-speaking audience with a ready entrée to the remarkable story of Maroons in contemporary Guyane. One hopes that the result of their labors will travel far and wide.

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