As part of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum, we interview scholars about a recent article they’ve written for either an academic journal or popular publication. We ask these scholars to discuss their article, as well as some of the books that have most influenced them.
This week’s featured scholar is Kathryn Benjamin Golden. Golden is Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at University of Delaware. Her article is “‘Armed in the Great Swamp’: Fear, Maroon Insurrection, and the Insurgent Ecology of the Great Dismal Swamp.”
Roberto Sirvent: What does it mean to view the swamp as an “insurgent ecology”?
Kathryn Benjamin Golden: In the context of plantation slavery, understanding the Dismal Swamp – as well as other marshlands and wetlands commonly inhabited by fugitives and maroons across the slaveholding south – as living, moving, and energized spaces of insurgent potential means centering the political actions, interests, and knowledges of Black people. It also provides a language for the fact that Black people’s free and unbothered relationships with the natural world holds the promise of rebellion against the destructive forces of white supremacy. Black people who chose to create alternative lives in the ecological refuge of swamplands were actually refusing a world that meant to ensure their forced labor, their captivity, or their social and corporeal death. In fostering emancipatory relationships with abundant, wild, loud, unpredictable, and untamable swamp, women and men who were determined to create safety for themselves, who were determined to build and enjoy free community and sociality, people who were prepared to defend themselves from within the marshy recesses of the swamp also revolutionized it and gave it meaning as a place where autonomy and freer Black life was possible, and actually attainable.
Of course, this protection and advancement of Black life, when Black life is not supposed to be protected or advanced, makes these relationships with and arrangements of the swamp, insurgent. The swamp’s promotion of generally independent, self-freeing and self-sustaining versions of Black life that defied and rejected slavery and racial capitalism was inherently insurgent, because it was antithetical and oppositional to white domination of both land and non-white human beings.
We don’t often read about communal self-defense or armed struggle being so important to maroon communities in the Great Dismal Swamp. What explains this significant gap in the scholarly literature?
This is a really important question, and it bears saying that generally speaking, all maroons were fortified, they armed themselves, and they were prepared to use defensive violence, or “protective violence,” as Kellie Carter Jackson has recently described this strategy and embrace of force. Throughout the Americas, maroons disguised paths leading to their villages in wilderness spaces, they devised false trails, they created concealed traps to capture or deter authorities, and they used camouflage for the benefit of surprise attack and keeping watch. Everywhere, maroons mastered the art of ambush and guerilla warfare. In Surinam, the Aluku maroons ambushed and attacked with such agility and finesse that the Dutch soldier John Gabriel Stedman wrote in his narrative how he “admired” them for these skills. We know that larger maroon communities defeated entire colonial armies through armed defense, forcing Europeans to accommodate maroon freedom and offer treaties to maroons in places like Jamaica, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and Surinam. Smaller groups of maroons, from Virginia and the Carolinas to Louisiana, Haiti, and beyond, also wreaked havoc on the plantation world – pillaging, committing arson, killing when confronted, and inciting and encouraging and even organizing enslaved uprising. Armed struggle was a feature of all maroons, everywhere they existed – so why would the Virginia maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp have been the exception?
Most of the historians of the swamp have chosen to focus on other aspects of maroon life in Tidewater Virginia and North Carolina. This is not because defense strategies, armed struggle, and guerilla warfare were not important aspects of the lifeways and endurance of thousands of maroons who lived in the swamp between 1700 and 1865. It is probably a result of a combination of factors, principally, that as the history of the Dismal Swamp maroons is relatively new, the first book and chapter length studies having been published just 8 years ago, scholars have since tried to tell broader stories and write more comprehensive histories of the elusive maroons. Scholarly attention has, however, more recently approached this history from a narrower lens, drawing on records that have provided a readily accessible wealth of evidence on illicit maroon and enslaved economies. Another issue is that where some of the maroons were most active in terms of their overt noncompliance and use of force, scholars have altogether failed to associate these activities with the Dismal Swamp, which was not actually the concentrated area of swampland it appears to be today, but in fact, a massive space of two thousand square miles that once sprawled into, bordered, and surrounded many small towns and even a few cities.
Yet and still, there are dozens of records that do detail and make mention of maroons fighting back in moments of capture, or that reveal the ways maroons used violence as part of their day to day lives, that have largely been ignored within serious historical inquiry. These accounts are primarily found in local periodicals, oyer and terminer court orderbooks, and “condemned slaves” records. While I am exhausting these sources, the accounts I am collecting have not yet been explored in any single study that seeks to tell a bigger story about the Dismal Swamp maroons and the ways their fugitivity often included fierce, bold resistance and even reciprocal, defensive violence as insurgent practice. Part of this gap is also because of the kinds of questions scholars have thus far been willing to commit to. But given that there are undeniably many documented accounts of armed maroons and maroon combat, and given that the archaeological record of the deep swamp maroons, gifted to us by Dan Sayers and his team confirms that many maroons were armed with guns, swords, and in possession of ammunition, this question definitely merits sincere reflection. For me, any lack of scholarly focus on these aspects of marronage in the swamp also suggests that the question of armed liberation and violent self-defense in the longer history of Black Americans remains discomfiting, or at least it has a dubious place in the history of southern slavery, outside of undeniable revolt.
There is one exception to this, however. That exception is the work of the late Marxist historian Hugo Prosper Leaming, whose regrettably unpolished, posthumously published dissertation needs editing, but nevertheless evidences about a century and a half of maroon guerilla war in the Dismal Swamp.
What are some examples of maroon communities engaging in guerilla warfare in and around the Great Dismal Swamp? What lessons can these histories offer Black liberation movements today?
You will have to wait for the book! There are many stories that must be told. Some of the accounts I explore in “Armed in the Great Swamp” include the story of three men and two women, who refused to surrender and remained defiant when they were hunted down by a “party” of white men. They were armed, collectively “stood their ground,” and pointed at least three muskets at the white men when they broke into their retreat in the swamp. Another account made in 1848 noted that a “company” of maroons was discovered in the swamp by a group of young white men with dogs. The maroons resisted capture, armed as they were with pistols. Maroons like Mingo and Ned near Princess Anne County were armed with guns and swords, they stole hogs and attacked white citizens, and set fire to a white man’s smokehouse. Near Great Bridge, also on the Virginia side of the swamp, Bob, Maria, Lewis, Jasper, Nelson had guns and “sundry buckshot” before they attacked and killed two white men on different occasions. And probably the most extraordinary accounts concern the enslaved and maroon gathering together of clubs, swords, guns, and powder in the swamp that was to propel the 1802 Easter Rebellion.
Unfortunately, many of the stories that were documented led to the capture or death of maroons. For example, in the first account, only one maroon escaped re-enslavement or being shot to death. In the second account, four maroons were shot, while an untold number of “others” were captured. In the third, all maroons I’ve named were executed or captured, though others associated with this group did manage to evade the authorities. A lesson is there in the fact that in these really unimaginable (though still too familiar) moments of standoff with civic and state authorities, maroons were not only prepared to continue to escape and evade, they were also prepared, with arms obtained in advance, to fight for their free lives and a more just and humane world.
The last thing I’ll add here, is that I have to acknowledge that on the whole, most maroons wanted to be left alone, even if they were battle ready. Most did not want to be found, none wanted to be caught, and most did not want to fight in armed combat, even though most were also prepared to do so! The same can be said of other Black militant groups and organizations that also valued Black autonomy, such as radical Black abolitionists or the Black Panther Party. Though we certainly never requested such a predicament, armed self-defense has been a necessity that has contributed to Black people’s safety, sanity, and survival, across time. There is a lesson there as well for ongoing movement building, particularly as anti-Black violence remains a fixture in our societies.
In your article, you discuss how the geographies and ecologies of the swamp “stand as a crucial source for reading against the limitations of available archives.” Can you share more about the violence of the archives and what it means to read against them?
Yes. Without our intervention, Black people, Black subjectivity, Black personhood, and Black humanity are all wounded by the lingering power of slaveholders preserved in records and archives written to deny, unsee, objectify, and erase us. My work and my calling is really to locate, listen, and respond to enslaved people, fugitives, and maroons, as well as the spaces they gave meaning to, where they are detectable between and across records fraught with bias and omission, and where they are not.
Often, slaveholders and authorities wrote about maroons as “gangs,” “lurking assassins,” “monsters in human shape,” “banditti,” or simply, “runaway slaves.” I am building a counternarrative that strives to understand maroon vigilance, aggression, plunder, and organization not as crimes, but as modes of alternative life that are in fact connected to a larger, diasporic tradition of marronage and refusal and world making. Part of this also means reading the social, economic, and political critiques maroons were making, against white hysteria, fear, or exaggeration of Black insurgency and unrest – all of which is often evident across periodicals and court records. Despite these limitations, there is a version of truth to be recovered concerning maroon resourcefulness and resistance that we can consider and weigh, informed by considering how full and whole human beings would respond to specific dynamics, norms, conditions, spaces, and times.
As I’ve mentioned, usually, maroons are not written about unless they are being complained about or unless they are being hunted or captured. The documentary archive has more to say about maroon criminality, incarceration, and death than it does about how maroons actually lived. But the silences surrounding everyday maroon life in the swamp – that is, their daily social life, social order, subsistence practices, spiritual practices, child rearing, recreation, and pleasure – we might actually celebrate the ways the archive remains silent on these aspects of maroon life, because it means that the maroons were victorious in eluding, escaping, and evading. They successfully kept intact clandestine and oppositional knowledge, to which the dominant archive and its authors often failed to capture.
On the other hand, what this continued evasion means for my work, is that I must be far more creative with how I inquire about maroon lives and lived positions and experiences. In addition to reading against the documentary archive, I must also ask: what archives exist to tell these stories outside of the ones produced by slaveholding authorities? Trying to understand largely undocumented fugitive forays in and out of the swamp led to my reading of this natural environment – the living swamp landscape – as a kind of alternative archive. And so the insurgent ecology is both a conceptual framework for articulating how Black people inscribed the swampland as a space of insurgency and Black self-empowerment, and it is an actual source for understanding more fully the movement of maroons, the literal paths they took through the forested swamp, what they would have seen, smelled, what they would have eaten and drank, and what plants they would have used to administer medicine and treat themselves. It is also a source for understanding how maroon encounters with this wilderness refuge would have shaped their political mobility, how they could have weighed danger in the swamp versus the danger that existed outside of it, and their ability to more freely devise and strategize and intellectualize. The insurgent ecology as an alternative archive is a source to recover not just the physical mobility of the maroons, but it is also a spatial archive that can be used to begin to recover the ways maroons used the environment toward radical lifeways and action plans.
Your article cites the work of Marisa Fuentes and Jennifer Morgan. How has their scholarship informed your research about resistance, revolts, and rebellion?
I have deeply appreciated the ways these scholars have named the work of centering enslaved people and their very real and imaginable intellectual and political labor – or, “gestures of redress,” that are in fact our “moral imperatives” – to use their own words.
By mapping and contextualizing the worlds they lived in, Fuentes retraces the possible steps, vision, and movement of Black women in Barbados in order to more fully understand struggle, contestation, and power, as well as the assertions and political mindfulness of the women she gestures toward. Morgan has shown that nobody understood the relationships between loss, labor, gender, race, and capitalism better than Black women in the early Atlantic world, so we should look more closely at their choices and responses to enslavement in search of their political labor. Both of their methodological values to really sit long and still within the lived and embodied experiences of Black women, against and despite the enormity of what can never be known about them, invigorates the same impulse in me and the work I am doing to understand Black women’s defiance and formerly unexplored contributions to marronage and insurgency in the Great Dismal Swamp. Their interdisciplinary approaches and methodologies – including their use of Black feminist theory, geographic frameworks, and critical race studies – ultimately refuse to see the silences and limitations of the dominant archive as the end of the story. I share in this refusal.
Archival silence must instead be harnessed to see the many obstacles and strategies of defiance Black people faced and carried out in the very same world that produced these documents. Black women are largely absent from accounts of revolt, for example, but being critical of the production of that absence means recognizing that the patriarchal white men serving local courts could only conceive of Black men’s political intelligence or deliberations of force. As Fuentes and Morgan have shown, refusing the limits of the archive means looking closer at the spaces Black women do appear – whether giving testimony or being mentioned or accused in connection with male rebels – for the possibilities of their leadership and nurture of organized resistance, and the underlining spirit of insurgency.
A lot of organizers, artists, and academics can often point to books that helped radicalize them. Are there any books that radicalized you? How so?
I would say that the books and writings that inspired me to speak unapologetically about the place of bold resistance, marronage, and the politics of self-defense probably begin with David Walker’s urgent pamphlet, Malcolm X’s similar calls for self-defense, Angela Davis’ discussion of Black women’s consciousness raising and resistant practices in “Reflections of the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves,” and Cedric Robinson’s discussion of the long history of the Black radical tradition, that really begins with the oppositional consciousness and revolutionary politics of captive Africans and their enslaved and maroon descendants. I am sure these works spoke to me in conversation with the late Rosayln Terborg-Penn’s important chapter, “Black Women in Resistance,” where she really makes plain, for one of the first times in the historiography of slavery, that both enslaved and maroon women were central to building and sustaining the everyday culture of opposition, revolt, and enduring communities of maroons. This body of works instructs that Black women and men have always been mindful and politically intelligent and aware of the ways oppressive systems and attitudes work – and that they have relentlessly fought, and on their own terms as well – which have been varied and diverse.
The work of Herbert Aptheker is also foundational to the work I am doing. In American Negro Slave Revolts and other writings, he really made the point, in a moment when no one else was – I’m talking the 1930s and 40s – that Black Americans in the United States south were operating in total defiance to the system – practicing marronage – and were in constant, relentless pursuit of greater freedoms through dozens of conspiracies and organized revolts, and dozens more (he estimated at least fifty) maroon communities they formed across the southern states and colonies.
The truths and evidence in these works cemented for me the idea that all practices of resistance and political organization and assertion require our care and attention, not merely the covert or quotidian. This is true even if, and in fact especially if such practices suggest the need for self-extrication, autonomous political action, or the readiness to self-defend. These works make plain to me that Black women and men have always needed all forms and practices of protective strategy and resistance.
Which two books published in the last five years would you recommend to BAR readers? How do you envision engaging these works in your future scholarship?
I highly recommend Vanessa Holden’s Surviving Southampton: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community (2021) and Rebecca Hall’s Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts (2021). Books like these are long overdue, and we still sorely need more works focused on the ways enslaved and maroon women were instrumental to overt, and not merely covert, or everyday, resistance. The commonly held and erroneous assumption that slave rebellion and marronage were exclusively male pursuits is one that these books certainly revise and correct.
I’m grateful that there is a growing body of scholarship that is not afraid to discuss Black women’s audacity, rebellion, and the important question of violence in the lives of women of African descent – not only as something done to them, but as an emancipatory force they helped make real. This is the first time that more than just one or two scholars are carefully and more thoroughly attending to these questions at the same time, and in the context of British North America and the United States. The questions Holden and Hall raise about revolt as community labor, about the particular invisibility of Black women’s tremendous labor in organized resistance movements, are ones I have had for a long time, and they are questions that my book, as well as my teaching, are also committed to asking and addressing.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.