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 7: mission to offer quaho a peace treaty - jtl ]

Only a mind stirred to recollection and provoked by blatant falsehoods could recall so vividly events that, due to the passage of time, seem like a mere dream. It's interesting how people in old age often forget recent happenings but retain a perfect memory of their youth.

About three months after the unfortunate incident at Spanish River, Governor Trelawney, like the Duke of Marlborough, gave me another chance. I was again ordered out with a party of three hundred regular troops, under Captain Adair's command. We had captured a prisoner from Captain Quoha's group, who was also a horn blower. He agreed to guide us to their main settlement, as at this point Quoha was unaware that Cudjoe (the leader of the western Maroon group) had already accepted Governor Trelawney's peace terms.

It was impossible for these two Maroon groups to communicate with each other. Our prisoner, the horn blower, assured us that the western Maroons had laid down their arms and gained the liberty they sought. He warned us that we would fail if we attempted to take their town by force. He described its location as virtually inaccessible, with hours of advance notice given by their lookouts. Words can hardly describe the steep and perilous cliffs we traversed, where those wearing shoes were less sure-footed than the barefoot Maroons, who used their toes like fingers for grip.

After days of strenuous marching, the horn blower led us to the base of a steep mountain. In the valley below, we found a plantation of yams, plantains, and other crops. He informed us that on the other side of the mountain, equally steep and fortified, stood their town. The only way up was a narrow path with holes dug every few feet and crutch sticks placed for the defending Maroons to rest their guns on. He warned us that the first person to appear would be shot, and another Maroon would be ready to take his place. It would be impossible, he said, to get our men up the mountain in force, as the Maroons were already aware of our approach and waiting for us.

Recognizing that a direct assault was futile, Captain Adair, much to my relief, ordered the horn blower to sound his horn. The Maroons, recognizing the call of their missing comrade, responded with their own horns, though not a single one of them was visible. We hailed them with a trumpet, assuring them we came in peace, not war. We informed them that the governor had granted Cudjoe's people freedom and offered them the same terms. This account aligned with what the prisoner had told them, which carried weight. However, when they learned we were regular soldiers, not militia, they became alarmed, as they viewed soldiers as ruthless and relentless.

After a lengthy parley through trumpets, they agreed to exchange one of their captains for one of ours to negotiate terms. To our astonishment, an acre of undergrowth was instantly cleared, revealing a multitude of Maroons! Each man had cut down a bush with a single blow in the blink of an eye. Soon after, terms were agreed upon, and we marched, or rather scrambled, up the narrow path, finding the holes and crutches exactly as described. When we descended an equally steep path on the other side, the way widened enough for us to march two abreast, with drums beating.

This sight terrified the women and children, who fled into the woods with their little ones. However, once our drums fell silent and our men stopped, they gradually returned. As I was the hostage and the first to enter the town, I stayed at Captain Quoha's dwelling. It was amusing to observe the animosity his children had towards white men. Despite seeing their father converse civilly with me, they couldn't resist poking their fingers at my chest, as if they were knives, mockingly saying, "Becara! Becara!" (white man!).

I was also disturbed to see the lower jawbone of the poor Laird of Laharret, a previous prisoner, adorning the horn of one of their horn blowers. We discovered that the upper teeth of our men killed at Spanish River had been drilled and worn as bracelets by their Obeah women and some of the town's high-ranking ladies. However, when we informed Quoha that these objects were distressing to us, they were no longer displayed the following day.

I was curious about how the Laird of Laharret had been executed, but Quoha was evasive. He only said that the Laird had pleaded his own case and that of the Maroons so well (as he was a man of intellect and education) that Quoha had intended to send him to Governor Trelawney with an offer of surrender. However, their Obeah woman, consulted for guidance, had opposed the idea, claiming the Laird was trying to deceive them and should be killed.

God only knows what the poor Laird suffered before his execution. The old Obeah woman who had sentenced him wore a girdle with numerous knives, many of which had likely been used on human flesh.[jtl: believed by some to be a ref: nanny] The reader can imagine my feelings, having recently escaped a similar fate at her hands.

Just when peace seemed assured, an incident occurred that nearly destroyed our hard-won peace agreement and could have plunged the island into civil war. A militia colonel, leading a large party of his men, heard that Captain Adair had negotiated a peace treaty and joined us at Trelawney Town [jtl: see addendum]. Being of higher rank than Adair, he insisted the terms be sent under his name, not Adair's. This dispute between the regular soldiers and the militia officers escalated to the point where Adair had us ready for battle. If the colonel hadn't backed down, I believe we would have fought each other.

The Maroons were understandably alarmed by this display of conflict and potential for violence. We had to reassure Quoha and his people that they were safe between the two opposing groups of white men. If Quoha hadn't been a former plantation slave with some understanding of white customs, all would have been lost. It was clear that the peace treaty was Captain Adair's achievement, although the militia colonel, upon joining us, could have assumed overall command, which Adair refused to accept.

As Quoha spoke decent English and seemed reasonable, I questioned him about the events at Spanish River and the fate of our wounded men left behind. He was cautious in his answers, but when I asked what damage our random firing had caused, he pointedly replied, "Massa, you no see this hole in my cheek? One of your shot bounce again my gun, him fly up, and makeum." He was the only one on their side who had been injured that day, while we had suffered greatly in both body and mind.

One of the Maroons listening to our conversation mentioned that he had noticed me specifically after we had left the ambush. When we reached the thicket, I had found a small keg of shrub (a liquor) that one of our baggage carriers had dropped, and we had all taken a swig from it using a soldier's tin cup. It provided much-needed relief after standing for hours in water under the hot sun. I asked the Maroon where he had been at the time. He explained that he and another man had been hunting wild boar and weren't part of the ambush, but the sound of gunfire had drawn them to the scene. They had hidden behind a large cotton tree and fired a single shot at us before we left the river. That shot had hit the man in the knee, causing us to retreat, as we feared being surrounded and captured alive. We would have preferred immediate death to the torture we believed awaited us at the hands of the terrifying Obeah woman.

I've gone into such detail about this incident because the author of the history of Jamaica, in discussing the peace treaty with the Maroons, failed to distinguish between the two separate agreements with two distinct groups under different leaders. It was as if he described making peace with France and Spain as a single act, when in reality, it was two separate events.

This great service to Jamaica should have been recognized by the Assembly with a statue of Governor Trelawney in St. Jago, honoring the man who preserved their lives and property. As they are a generous, brave, and hospitable people, I hope that when they rightfully erect a statue to Lord Rodney for his valiant defense of the island by sea, they won't forget their debt to the man who secured them equally important benefits on land.

Although it's been fifty years since these events, there are undoubtedly many people alive in England and Jamaica who remember them. If the false accuser, Mackittrick, cannot produce the "gentleman of respectable character" or those to whom this story was supposedly told in Bath, confirming that I was solely in command, ran away, and that my sergeant won the victory while I boasted of my own prowess, then I trust the reader will agree with me that the accusations were base, wicked, cowardly, and such that no man with any sense of honor, conscience, or integrity would have dared to publish.


Ambuiguity in Thicknesse
Thicknesse's account of the peace negotiations contains ambiguities, particularly regarding the location and timeline of the conflict between the militia colonel and Adair. These ambiguities may be due to the approximately 50 years that elapsed between the events and the writing of the memoirs, or to the writing style itself, which is not always clear. A closer reading suggests a possible interpretation:
Crawford Town Encounter: Thicknesse and Adair initially meet with Quao at Crawford Town, the Maroon settlement, to negotiate peace.
Agreement Reached: A peace agreement is reached between the British and Quao's Maroons at Crawford Town.
Trelawney Town: The parties involved (possibly including representatives from both Maroon groups and British officials) gather at Trelawney Town, to formalize the peace agreement.
Militia Intervention: The militia colonel and his men, unaware of the prior negotiations at Crawford Town, arrive at Trelawney Town and attempt to take credit for the peace process, leading to a conflict with Adair and his troops.
This interpretation resolves potential inconsistencies in the original text and offers a clearer timeline of events. However, given the ambiguities in Thicknesse's account, further research might be necessary to definitively confirm this sequence.