Jamaica Fiwi Roots

The First Maroon War

through the eyes of phillip thicknesse.
extracts from his memoires about his time in jamaica

Philip Thicknesse, a British soldier, author, and traveler, offers a unique and unfiltered glimpse into 18th-century Jamaica in his memoirs, "Memoirs and Anecdotes," published in two editions (1788 and 1790).

His candid observations on the island's social dynamics, racial tensions, political landscape, and plantation life provide a valuable, albeit controversial, historical perspective. The passages related to his time in Jamaica are included below. In them, he recounts his encounters, military service, and reflections, giving us—two centuries later—a perspective and a deeper understanding of this pivotal period in the island's colonial past.


Note: The following is a rephrased excerpt from the original memoirs. The language has been modernized for clarity and readability, but the content remains faithful to Thicknesse's account. The original manuscript, presents challenges for modern readers due to its unstructured format, lack of paragraph breaks, lengthy sentences, archaic language, and variant spellings. The original unedited version text can be found here:

[ chap 6: mission to find quaho & battle at spanish river - jtl ]

During Governor Trelawney's tenure, two formidable groups of Maroons, escaped slaves living independently in the wilds of Jamaica, operated without any connection to each other. The western gang was led by Captain Cudjoe, while the eastern gang was under the command of Captain Quoha. A captured member of Quoha's gang was sent to his comrades with the terms of peace offered by Governor Trelawney, which Cudjoe's group had already accepted before Quoha had even heard of them.

At this time, I had been transferred from my duty at Port Maria Bay to a place called Hobbie's, five miles inland in the parish of St. George's. I was under the command of Lieutenant George Concannen, a gentleman with extensive experience in Jamaica, and brother to Mathew Concannen, then the attorney general of Jamaica. St. George's, one of the island's finest and most fertile parishes, had been largely deserted due to Maroon activity. Although it once thrived with sugar plantations, we were now forced to travel thirty miles for rum and other necessities. We didn't dare venture outside our barracks after nightfall, as the Maroons surrounded us and would often mock our sentries' calls of "All's well!"

Lieutenant Concannen received reinforcements of a lieutenant and fifty militia men, both black and white, along with seventy baggage carriers. Our orders were to march along a river until we found a Maroon town, which reliable information suggested was located on or near its banks. After several days of marching, we came across a spot on the riverbank with numerous footprints of all sizes, along with dog tracks. We were certain our target was near, but with limited daylight, we decided to camp for the night and attack at dawn.

Before sunrise, we spotted smoke rising from their settlement. Maroons always kept fires burning in their huts to ward off mosquitoes. We hoped to catch them by surprise, but these Maroons usually only defended easily defensible positions. Their attacks typically began with heavy gunfire from hidden locations. However, this settlement was not a main town, but a temporary fishing and hunting camp situated on the riverbank, making it easily accessible and impossible to defend. The inhabitants had clearly discovered our approach and fled during the night, or perhaps only minutes before we arrived, as we found seventy-four huts with fires still burning, but no one present.

Having completed our initial mission of locating the settlement, Lieutenant Concannen shared the further orders he had received from Captain James Adair in the governor's name. We decided, perhaps unwisely, to burn the town and pursue the enemy. We immediately set fire to the settlement and followed the rough path the Maroons had cut through the undergrowth.

Every half mile, we found coconuts, yams, plantains, and other food, likely left as a distraction to make us believe they were afraid of being overtaken. We eventually found a fire pit with roasted wild boar, probably intended as a meal for us. We continued the chase until nightfall, and upon hearing their dogs barking, we assumed they had heard us as well, and gave up hope of catching them. We had marched rapidly all day and were exhausted. Shortly after, we reached the banks of the Spanish River, where we planned to rest for the night. The next morning, we intended to follow the river downstream to the coast and find our way back to Hobbie's.

As second in command, I was positioned at the rear of the entire group. Since soldiers on such duty can only march single file, I had been at least a mile behind Lieutenant Concannen throughout the previous days. Now that the pursuit was over, I asked Concannen to let the militia lieutenant take up the rear so I could join him at the front. After a shared cup of wild sage tea, we handed our muskets to the drummer and moved on.

Unbeknownst to us, some of the Maroons had been following us the entire day. Others had positioned themselves along a steep, thickly wooded mountain on the opposite side of the river, which we had to cross. They had observed us from their vantage point and knew our numbers and who the officers were.

The Maroons allowed the lead sergeant and his group to pass unnoticed, but as soon as we officers came within range, they opened fire. Had they aimed, most of us would have been killed or wounded, but they are such cowards that they fire haphazardly from a prone position. Several soldiers were hit, and the drummer beside us was shot through the wrist. At this, the baggage carriers dropped their loads and fled, along with all the militia men except their officer, whom we never saw again.

The Maroons fired and shouted, "Becara run away!" referring to us as cowards. We might have fled as well, but fortunately, large boulders from the mountainside had fallen into the river, providing us with cover. Although we could hear the Maroons, we couldn't see them. Our original force of thirty soldiers had dwindled, and as far as I can recall, only sixteen or seventeen of us remained behind the rocks. We could only fire at the smoke from their guns until we ran out of ammunition.

Our medical supplies, spare ammunition, and provisions had been lost in the river. We were too afraid to run, as the Maroons only fired when they saw a head or arm above the rocks. We remained waist-deep in water for four and a half hours, exposed to the scorching sun, terrified of being captured alive. I believe the fear of capture can sometimes overcome the fear of death.

Eventually, one of our men was shot through the knee, indicating the Maroons had crossed the river and were surrounding us. We decided to leave our cover and face their remaining fire, putting on a brave face with our unloaded weapons. Only Lieutenant Concannen, the surgeon, and I had a few spare cartridges.

We quickly crossed the river, which was less than forty yards wide, and were met with another volley of gunfire. The mortally wounded men, who had been waiting for death by the river, were so terrified of being captured that they ignored their injuries and followed us. One man, shot through the body in the initial attack, was hit again, yet still managed to cross the river and climb a steep hill, begging us to kill him.

Within minutes, the militia lieutenant, who had been hiding behind a tree, joined us. Fearing pursuit, we climbed as fast as our exhausted and injured bodies could manage. From the heights, we could hear the shouts, drums, and celebrations of our victorious enemies below, reveling in our captured supplies and, as we later learned, carrying the heads of our dead comrades in triumph.

The fleeing militia reached the settlements that same evening. Had it not been for their wounds, they would have claimed to have fought bravely. A rumor spread that Lieutenant Concannen and the entire party had fled. This angered Concannen's supporters, who then claimed that Governor Trelawney, due to his animosity towards Attorney General Concannen, had sent his brother, the lieutenant, on this dangerous mission with a small force to sacrifice him.

I am relieved, even after all this time, to say that Governor Trelawney was too wise, kind, and noble to be capable of such a vile act. The fact that we found the Maroon town as expected proves that the orders were given solely for the good of the service. It was our youthful council of war, which Lieutenant Concannen consulted, that led us into that disastrous situation at Spanish River.

I must now return to my fellow survivors. Lieutenant Concannen, having stood for hours in the water with the sun beating down on him, and his mind no doubt troubled by many concerns, suddenly fell ill with a violent fever. Before we climbed the first steep hill, we thought it wise to reach the highest point, which we did with great difficulty. The wounded drummer, who had been hit in both thighs during our retreat, cried out for water, saying he could go no further. Lieutenant Concannen was in the same desperate state, but no water could be found. My friend and fellow officer lay down and urged me to escape with those who could still walk, rather than sacrifice everyone for a few who were unable to continue.

One of the soldiers had a small hammock made from a barrack sheet. We managed to get Lieutenant Concannen into it, although he was a large man. He collected rainwater in his hat, moistening his mouth but unable to drink much due to lack of further supply. Night fell, and a profound silence was necessary, so each man endured his suffering without a sound. We were in a state as miserable as those who suffered in the Black Hole of Calcutta.

I lay down beside my fellow officer, my tongue parched, praying for the dew to fall, which is considered fatal to those exposed to it. Thankfully, the next morning we found a giant cotton tree with roots that had formed a reservoir of rainwater. Although it was as black as coffee, it was more welcome than a treasure of gold. By that evening, we reached the coast and found hospitable locals who provided us with aid and comfort.