When driving outside of New Orleans, we probably don't pay much attention to the bodies of water that we're driving over, or the swamps that the interstates and bridges cut through. Prior to colonization, New Orleans and the colony of Louisiana consisted primarily of swampland. Once colonizers settled on the land of the Natives with plans of development (and enslavement), enslaved Africans were responsible for draining the swamps with their bare hands, literally building the foundation for the city that we know and love. Other swamps, such as those seen when driving throughout southeast Louisiana, have been preserved and serve not only as a reminder of our region's beauty, but of our ancestors' strength, resilience, and durability.
This is the story of Jean Saint Malo.
Maroons are defined as Africans that escaped enslavement. Maroon communities were bands of fugitive slaves that established their own societies and were common along the slave colonies. These communities extended from The Great Dismal Swamp (located near Virginia and North Carolina), the island of Jamaica, to here in Louisiana. The maroons of Louisiana would run away from their master's plantation to the outskirts of the city and seek refuge in the swamps. It was common for one family member to remain on the plantation, not only as a lookout, but to steal food and weapons and pass it off to the maroons. Maroons would escape far enough to hide, but close enough to where they could return to the plantations to access what they needed.
By the late 1700's, Spain gained control of Louisiana from France, with Esteban Rodríguez Miró as the Governor of Louisiana at the time. However, French was still the predominant language of the land. Before Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion in 1831 and Charles Deslondes' Slave Revolt in 1811, a maroon from the New Orleans area had every European in the colony shook by his audacity.
By the Spaniards, he was known as Juan San Malo, with "malo" meaning "bad" in Spanish. To the French, he was Jean Saint Malo, after the city of Saint-Malo, a slave port located in Brittany, France. He lived on the plantation of Pierre Frederick d'Arensbourg near New Orleans, with little to no documentation about his life as a slave. We do not know his physical appearance or when and how he escaped. What we do know is that after running away, St. Malo emerged as the leader of a group of nearly fifty maroons (called cimaroones by the Spanish) that escaped from neighboring plantations. This group consisted of men and nearly half of women, including St. Malo's wife, Cecilia. This high percentage of women was unheard of in other maroon societies.
They occupied the Indian territories and swamps Bas du Fleuve, meaning "downriver" between the mouth of the Mississippi River and New Orleans. More specifically, St. Malo had control of the areas of Chef Menteur, areas surrounding Lake Borgne, The Rigolets (French for "gutter," a passage of water connecting larger bodies of water) near Slidell, and parts of the land that we know today as the Westbank.
The group's most notable occupancy was that at Terre Gaillarde ("land full of life" in French). This area was defined as the land between Lake Borgne and the Mississippi River. St. Malo baptized Ville Gaillarde himself, declaring: "Malheur au blanc qui passera ces bornes" (Woe to the white who would pass this boundary) when striking an axe into a tree. This area, now known as Bayou St. Malo, is credited as the largest maroon settlement in Louisiana history.
Although the maroons were off the plantations, the conditions of the swamps were not easy. Luckily, they were often met with assistance from the Native Americans, particularly the Choctaw Indians. When you hear people say, "I got Indian in my family," they're probably be telling the truth. This relationship between Africans and Native Americans in Louisiana's maroon colonies was the origin of what would become New Orleans' Mardi Gras Indian tradition.
The swamps St. Malo and his group inhabited consisted of cypress trees, marshes, and chest-high muddy waters. Animals ranged from hogs, birds, frogs, and turtles; to alligators and snakes. Maroons often killed wildlife, cultivated crops, and lived off roots and herbs as means of survival. They would build underground caves in the swamps to avoid capture, with female maroons sometimes giving birth in these caves. St. Malo would often do the lumber and field chores of 'plantation slaves' in exchange for the master's weapons and ammunition.
St. Malo's Journey
One day, St. Malo and some fellow maroons ran into an American that demanded to know where they were headed. Words were exchanged, several other white men arrived, and all of the maroons except St. Malo were tied up. The men loaded the maroons into their pirouges (French for "boats"), and headed towards New Orleans to turn them in. St. Malo untied his companions and struck one of the men. There was a struggle between the men and the maroons, and four Americans were left dead. St. Malo and the maroons fled to Chef Menteur, where they hid for several months.
With this act of bloodshed, word eventually got back to the authorities of New Orleans about St. Malo and his group of maroons. Governor Miró feared that this large, strategic maroon colony would spark a rebellion among 'plantation slaves', so St. Malo had to be stopped. They tried many tactics: having enslaved people pose as maroons and return with the location of St. Malo's whereabouts, sending free people of color to hunt and kill maroons in their settlements, and forcing information out of 'plantation slaves' that enabled St. Malo and his group.
St. Malo learned of these tactics and returned back to Terre Gaillarde to warn the other maroons. Unfortunately, they were met with the group of free people of color sent by Miró. Several maroons were killed, some were arrested, but St. Malo was able to swim away. It was decided that two of the maroons were to receive "the greatest and more severe punishment" in order to set an example. They were charged, sentenced to three hundred lashes, and exiled over 900 miles away. However, Spanish authorities wouldn't be satisfied until St. Malo himself was captured.
The Cost of Freedom
Following the attack at Terre Gaillarde, St. Malo and the remaining maroons had to find a temporary safe haven. They settled at Détour des Anglais (French for "English Turn," located on the Westbank) on the outskirts of a neighboring plantation. Eventually, they made way back to Terre Gaillarde. Over in New Orleans, Governor Miró and Spanish authorities were planning a final crackdown on St. Malo and his group. A bounty was put on St. Malo, with freedom offered to any slave who could "bring back the leader's head." A plan was devised to send armed men to all of St. Malo's reported areas.
St. Malo's journey met its demise near Terre Gaillarde. He was shot in the arm, captured with other maroons, and brought to New Orleans to face punishment. Some maroons were hung, others were branded on the cheek with an "m" for maroon, and were returned back to their owners. The remaining maroons fled to the swamps of Barataria (south of Marrero on New Orleans' Westbank) when they heard of St. Malo's capture.
On June 19, 1784, maroon leader Jean Saint Malo was hung at Plaza d'Armas (Jackson Square) in the French Quarter. Over eighty years later in 1865, this date ironically became known as "Juneteenth," marking the official end date of slavery after the emancipation of remaining slaves in Texas.
Sainthood in Voodoo
The legacy of Jean Saint Malo is known by few, with his story primarily passed on through oral tradition. There are few resources that document his story. There are no monuments or streets named in his honor. He has never been mentioned in any textbook or history class that I have ever taken. But for those that know, they never forget. Legend has it, a statue labeled "Saint Marron," described as "a colored saint that white people don't know nothing about," was seen on an altar at the home of Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau. It is said that she deemed this "Saint Marron" as the patron saint of runaway slaves. If this was in fact an image of St. Malo, then it was in its rightful place.
Immortality through Martyrdom
Slavery was never a choice. Nor did our ancestors idly sit by for 400 years without resistance or opposition. St. Malo and the maroons represent a society outside of slavery. They didn't have time to wait around for an Emancipation Proclamation; they reclaimed their own freedom. They strategically maneuvered throughout southeast Louisiana, often times on foot. They risked their lives with the extremities of the swamps and the possibility of capture. Their fearlessness, resistance, and solidarity is truly something to glorify. They are the heroes and martyrs that should be memorialized through monuments, statues, schools and street names, instead of the ones that initiated, funded and enabled their oppression.
After deciding to share the story of Jean Saint Malo, I went on a Honey Island Swamp Tour to gain a better understanding of the swamps that St. Malo and so many other maroons inhabited. Honey Island rests near Pearl River, The Rigolets near Slidell, and Lake Borgne -- where St. Malo once settled. Through the heat and humidity of the swampland, we were met with beaucoup alligators, snakes, frogs, raccoons. Touring further into the swamps had me thinking, "My people should've never had to go through this," but at the same time, leaving the tour with a great sense of pride and appreciation that they did.
Some stayed on the plantations. Some helped their masters search for the maroons themselves. Some snitched. Some weren't made for the journey. Some died trying. None of these experiences should be discredited, as they all endured a brutal system that thankfully, we never had to. Although literal slavery has been abolished, the system of oppression has changed face and manifests in our laws and institutions rather than chains and whips. Much like the maroons, slaves, and free people of color -- existing as Black in America is an act of resistance in itself.
Jean Saint Malo lives on; through literature, song, martyrdom, and through all of us. Let his story serves a reminder of what we come from, and as a reference of how far we still have to go.
Pour toujours, Jean Saint Malo!