A Maroon victory in Jamaica & improving our catalogues

The following post contains offensive and oppressive language and themes, being direct quotes from the original documents. We believe it is important to retain the original language as it reflects the attitudes of the time.

Like so many terms and names used to describe individuals and communities of African descent, ‘Maroon’ was originally used as a derogatory term to describe individuals who escaped their enslavement from the 16th century. The term is particularly associated with individuals in Jamaica, some of whom escaped during the Spanish occupation of the island, and their descendants who two centuries later continued to challenge the system of enslavement imposed by the British occupiers.

The conflict between 1728 and 1740 came to be known as the First Maroon War. The British occupiers, including but not limited to the enslavers, regarded the Maroons as rebels not to be tolerated. In opposing the British forces, the Maroons took advantage of hilly, densely vegetated, remote and therefore inaccessible parts of Jamaica, moving rapidly and making extensive use of ambush tactics.

During re-cataloguing of a small number of records in the Wilmot-Horton of Osmaston and Catton family archive, reports and correspondence have been discovered containing detailed contemporary information of a particular engagement in November 1731 where the freedom fighters successfully repelled an advance of the British. Whilst the records only contain the British account of what happened, describing the Maroons as “Rebellious Negroes”, it is clear that the British soldiers (using conventional tactics suitable for the open battlefields of Europe) were no match for the Maroons. After eight more years of war, the British recognised defeat and sued for peace. Treaties were signed with the Maroon communities in 1739 and 1740.

Earlier in 1731 two British regiments had been sent to Jamaica to strengthen British forces available to the governor of Jamaica, Major General Robert Hunter. In November a British officer, Captain de la Milliere, led an unsuccessful expedition against the Maroons. His account of the event survives in the form of a letter to the governor, a copy of which is held in the Wilmot-Horton papers at Derbyshire Record Office, and from which the following is extracted:

Copied extract from letter by Captain de la Milliere to Major General Hunter, 8 Dec 1731, giving an account of the defeat of a "party sent from Port Antonio in pursuit of Rebellious Negroes"
Copied extract from letter by Captain de la Milliere to Major General Hunter, 8 Dec 1731, giving an account of the defeat of a “party sent from Port Antonio in pursuit of Rebellious Negroes”

De la Milliere describes a march taking several days “over steep rocks through deep and fast rivers”. There was then a disagreement between de la Milliere and a guide about whether to take a lengthy detour to avoid a location known to be at risk of ambush. De la Milliere’s letter seems to indicate that he preferred the longer route but that his authority did not prevail. The party found themselves ambushed by a group of Maroons. Several of the British party were killed and in retreat, guns ammunition and supplies were abandoned. As if to justify the failure of the mission, de la Milliere records his judgement that after the ambush there was no prospect of success: “The road we went is such that in a hundred different places ten resolute men are sufficient to stop a thousand”.

A transcript of the original letter (which is held at The National Archives), along with accounts by two other participants – Major Jasper Ashworth and Thomas Peters – was published in the Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies, and is now available via British History Online.

Other documents in the Wilmot-Horton papers include contemporary copies of recriminatory correspondence between the governor, Robert Hunter, and a trio of regimental officers.

Copy letter of Robert Hunter to Col. Cornwallis, 13 December 1731

Hunter called a meeting of his field officers to consider “the proper measures for pursuing and Destroying the Rebel Slaves on this Emergency”

Copy letter of Robert Hunter to Col. Cornwallis, 13 December 1731

Copy of Hunter's letter to Cornwallis with the Council's Resolution, 13 December 1731

consulting the Council of Jamaica and expressing his determination that as many troops as possible should be deployed to Port Antonio against the “rebels”.

Copy of Hunter’s letter to Cornwallis with the Council’s Resolution, 13 December 1731

There was an immediate response from three British officers: Stephen Cornwallis, James Fountain and John Hely. Their investigation found that the fateful ambush was the third which British troops had suffered at the same location. They pointed out that reaching the opposing force’s territory required several days march involving frequent crossing of rivers with chest-high water and crossing steep rocks which required men to climb on another’s back. Thick woodland made a further impediment. The Maroons adopted effective tactics adapted to the terrain which allowed them to remain out of sight and to fire from cover. The three officers put forward their view that a successful campaign would require the creation of an access route with intermediate forts or refuges and the development of an improved supply chain.

Contemporary copy of the end of letter from Cornwallis, Fountain and Hely to Hunter, 15 Dec 1731
Contemporary copy of the end of letter from Cornwallis, Fountain and Hely to Hunter, 15 Dec 1731

Hunter soon rejected the officers’ proposals: some of the proposed measures would be too time-consuming and other expeditions had covered the ground successfully. Hunter questioned the commitment of the officers: “it is the opinion of most in this Island that there has not been that alacrity in the officers”, and with a matter of fact tone he states that the British troops should be employed in the “Destruction or Reduction of the Slaves”:

Extract of a copy of a letter from Hunter to Col. Cornwallis, Col. Fountain and Major Hely, 21 Dec 1731 
Extract of a copy of a letter from Hunter to Col. Cornwallis, Col. Fountain and Major Hely, 21 Dec 1731 

The three officers were not minded to allow Robert Hunter the last word. On Christmas Day 1731 they wrote to him again. They respectfully insisted that their proposals should not be taken as showing an unwillingness to commit to action but rather as realistic measures to ensure success. The successful expedition cited by Robert Hunter had enjoyed advantageous circumstances. It should be recognised that at present the two regiments were significantly depleted and thus unfit to carry out an immediate attack. If there were to be an inquiry it would find no basis for any allegation of officers’ lack of commitment.

Here is where the documents relating to this event and copied into this volume end, although some related material survives in the Strickland family collection held at East Yorkshire Archives, reference DDSB/6/3.

About this record

The record from which these extracts are taken is a volume of papers found in the Wilmot-Horton of Osmaston and Catton family archive. This collection is one of the larger family and estate collections (about 130 boxes) at Derbyshire Record Office and, like many family archives, it contains title deeds and papers for estates across Derbyshire and further afield. The most significant part of the archive, however, are the official records created and collated by

  1. Sir Robert Wilmot (1708-1772), Resident Secretary in London to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1740-1772 (having been Deputy since 1737) and Deputy Secretary to the Lord Chamberlain of the Household in 1758-1772, or
  2. his grandson Sir Robert John Wilmot-Horton (1784-1841), Under-Secretary of State for War and the Colonies 1821-1828 and Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Ceylon 1831-1837.

Given the date of the original records copied into this volume and the lifespan of these two individuals, they were most likely copied years later, or at least have been inherited – in an official capacity – by one of these men. As Under-Secretary of State for War and the Colonies during campaigns for the abolition of the enslavement of African people, Sir Robert John Wilmot-Horton is perhaps the more likely candidate. Although two regiments sent to Jamaica in the 1720s had been sent from Ireland, perhaps offering a connection to the older official as well, the two regiments mentioned in the accounts described above came from Gibraltar. There are at least two different sets of handwriting in the volume, not surprising given that clerks would have likely been in employed to make the copies. A project to re-catalogue the whole archive and/or consult related records at The National Archives and elsewhere, could very possibly provide the answer.

This record and many of the other family archives were first deposited records with Derby Borough Council in January 1959. They were then purchased by Derbyshire County Council in 1987, with a grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. Whilst the collection is one of the most heavily used at the record office, there is no doubt that the current catalogue does not enable full discovery and use of the breadth and depth of the collection. In contrast to some catalogues, this one is quite detailed – for example, describing thousands of individual letters. However, not only is the arrangement of the catalogue difficult to navigate (because we haven’t described the contents by different categories, e.g. the estates or people they relate to) but we are also discovering just how deficient some of the descriptions are, even those that are seemingly quite detailed.

Improving our catalogues

Having talked about how to improve the representation of marginalised groups in our catalogues for several years, the events of last year prompted us to make a determined effort to take action. Very few of the archive catalogues contain any kind of subject indexing, but we have prioritised the indexing of archives and local studies material relating to Black history, in particular – due to the nature of the collections we hold – to the history of the enslavement and oppression of African people and we have recently published a research guide to help find these records in the catalogue.

Using these recently indexed entries, our long-standing cataloguing volunteer, Roger, has been consulting some of the records in great detail so as to improve the descriptions and enable greater discoverability of records relating to Black history. Roger has also indexed several of the lists of people enslaved on Fitzherbert plantations in Jamaica, and new – albeit – limited biographies have been created for nearly 100 individuals.

The volume described above is the most recent item that Roger has re-catalogued. The original catalogue, which contained no reference at all to the events of November and December 1731 or the First Maroon War, read:

Reference D3155/WH/3065

Representation (copy) of the Board of Trade to Lord Townshend, Apr 1715. Copy of the Duke of Portland’s commission as governor of Jamaica, Oct 1721. Two copies of the Duke of Portland’s instructions from the King, 16 Mar 1722. Reports and various other papers addressed to the Council in Jamaica, 1721-1731

Roger’s new description includes a list of contents, explicitly referring to each of the copied documents in the volume, and can be found under the same reference D3155/WH/3065.

Visit our website to find out more about how we are trying to improve our finding aids by tackling oppressive and offensive language and developing more detailed descriptions to reflect the representation of marginalised groups in the collections.

This post was jointly authored by Roger Jennens and Becky Sheldon

6 thoughts on “A Maroon victory in Jamaica & improving our catalogues

    • Thanks Tish, and everyone. I am merely the co-author of the post, credit for the work the record office is doing must go to Karen and Sarah

  1. The initiative to “improve the representation of marginalised groups in our catalogues” is an important one and deserves to be prioritised. What it reveals may be uncomfortable, but hidden history is without value. Well done!

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