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Background on Punishments of Maroon Slaves

Masters of maroon (runaway) slaves who were returned to their plantations punished these maroon slaves in several ways, both to prevent them from running away again, as well as to publicly humiliate and display their slaves’ transgression in attempting to run away.  One of the Caribbean’s leading historians, Gabriel Debien, details several of these punishments in his book titled Les Esclaves Aux Antilles Françaises.

Debien states that in maroon slave advertisements found in 18th century newspapers, plantation owners would often promise not to punish their slaves if they returned back to the owner’s plantation.  However, this decision to offer impunity to maroon slaves depended on the individual character of the slave owner, as many slave owners simultaneously believed that offering total impunity to returning maroon slaves would tempt them to runaway again (431-432).1

For a slave’s first runaway attempt, Debien states the slave would be punished most often with anywhere from 30 to 50 whip lashes.  For a second, unsuccessful attempt of running away, the most common punishment of the slave would be detention for several days, during which time the slave was not allowed to work.  The detention center would often be the plantation hospital, where the slave’s legs were shackled between two beams of a bed.  Slaves particularly dreaded this form of punishment, as it removed the slaves from any form of communication with their peers (432).1

For slaves who were returned to their plantations after their third, fourth, or subsequent runaway attempt would face severe punishment, where whipping was just a beginning to the punishment techniques used against the slaves.   Plantation owners would often give these slaves “la chaîne”, also known as “l’empêtre”, “le collier”, and/or “le nabot”, described below (432).1

1. “la chaîne”, also known as “l’empêtre” were shackles of about three feet long, to which two rings either closed with a padlock or hinges were added.  The lower area of the slaves’ legs were put in these shackles.  The shackles were not heavy enough to prevent the slave from walking, but slowed the slave down immensely in his/her movement.  If the slave master felt that the shackles were not heavy enough to impede the slave’s movement, an additional weight would be added onto the chain (432).1


2. “Le collier”, also known as a slave collar, consisted of a flat iron circle containing three or four spikes, where each spike was the length of about four to five inches.  The collar was fixed to the slave’s neck with a padlock.  The collar was a more stigmatized punishment than the iron shackles, as slaves felt more isolated from their peers once they began to wear the collar, and slave owners intended for the collar to be a sign of humiliation for the slave.  For example, the collar inhibited female slaves from singing and dancing, two activities that they might have normally participated in as part of their social life (432-433).1


3. “Le nabot” was a large, circular iron weight weighing anywhere from six to ten pounds and was attached firmly to the slave’s foot.  However, some slaves still went maroon with the “nabot” attached to their feet, indicating that the “nabot” was not enough to prevent a slave from running away again (433).1


In addition to these devices attached onto the slave in attempts to impede them from running away again, slave masters also often put their slaves in “cachots effrayants”, which were narrow prisons with hardly any light.  However, these “cachots” were not found on all plantations, but primarily on sugar plantations (433).1

Debien mentions that many plantation owners, especially as the eighteenth century went on, preferred to use “nabots” and “cachots” to punish unsuccessful maroon slaves without always relying on tribunals for a judicial sentence as to what the slave’s punishment should be.  When slave masters chose to go to tribunals to determine their slaves’ punishment, the process would be long and costly.  Judges would often have slaves’ ears and/or hollows of their knees cut, or condemn slaves to the pillory.  Nevertheless, several slave masters preferred to keep the decision of their slaves’ punishment to themselves (433).1

Difficult conditions in the life of a slave, such as his/her master’s cruelty and the hard physical labor involved, were, in general, reasons for slaves to go maroon.  However, Debien mentions that the types of punishments mentioned above, such as whipping and the “nabot”, directly instigated several runaway attempts as well (457).1

Works Cited

1. Debien, Gabriel. Les Esclaves Aux Antilles Françaises (XVIIe – XVIIIe Siècles). Basse-Terre, Fort-de-France: Société d’Histoire de la Guadeloupe and Société d’Histoire de la Martinique, 1974. Print.

13 Responses to Background on Punishments of Maroon Slaves

  1. pillard

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  3. Artisanat Marocain

    Maroon communities were different from place to place. I will talk about the maroons of colonial Cartagena because that is what I know most about. Maroon palenques, were normally organized around some form of military structure since their very existence was tentative. For example, a maroon settlement’s units were sometimes divided by African ethnic groups with each having their own commander. These commanders would elect one leader or chief to run the palenque.

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