Between 1600 and 1870 approximately 4 million West African people were imported to the Caribbean as slaves. A mind boggling number. Many of these people fought against and escaped their captors. These escaped slaves, known as Maroons, often set up their own communities out of the reach of the planters and European powers of the day.
Because of its mountainous, difficult terrain,* Dominica became a Maroon stronghold. By 1785, there were 13 major Maroon camps spread out over the interior of the island, populated by men, women and children. These communities cultivated crops, erected buildings and carried on their own organized societies. They also developed defenses and waged guerrilla warfare on the plantations, oftentimes with stunning success.
The locations of the Maroon Camps
This past week, we visited one of these Maroon encampments, a placed called the Jacko Flats. As you might expect, it wasn’t easy to get to. But it was well worth the trip. We brought along our guide for the Boiling Lake, Nigel George, as he has never been to the Flats and wanted to learn the area for future clients.
The Start of our Hike
The Jacko Flats is a natural fortress. The Maroon leader Jacko and his followers must have been thrilled to find it. A high, beautiful plateau, it is surrounded on three sides by huge cliffs, making it an almost perfect refuge.
At the start of our hike, we met a modern day gatekeeper. A woman named Roberta informed us that the area was treacherous and that we needed a guide. And lucky for us, she happened to be one. $50EC later, we were on our way. “A guide leading a guide,” as she phrased it. Her teenaged daughter also came along, although she spent most of the grueling hike head down texting on her phone even on the cliff edge. Teenagers are the same wherever you go.
We Paid a Small Toll to Cross this Rasta Family Farm–Drying Cacao for Chocolate
Roberta was quiet (perhaps because we had the competition along?), but we were glad to have her help. She led us up the steep hillside and onto the flats, which we crossed to the edge of two cliffs. And there, cut into the hillside we saw the main attraction of this hike–The Jacko Steps. Descending down the sheer cliff side were a long series of 100’s of steps, each about 3.5ft in height. Jacko’s front entryway.
I would not have wanted to be one of the local militia members tasked with finding this place and capturing its inhabitants. These people must have been remarkably strong, fierce and industrious. They had to be, I’m sure. As I jumped down each step, I thought of the work it must have taken, and the struggle and fear mixing with the peace and beauty of this place.
A Different History
It is easy to find the legacy of European colonization in the Caribbean. There are crumbling plantation works and fortifications spread across the land. This is history written as it usually is–by the conquerers. But here on these steps I was seeing and feeling something very rare and different–history made by an enslaved people at their direction and for their own use. I was honored to use Jacko’s steps and I silently thanked him as I hopped off the last step and into the Layou River. Jacko and his people built an enduring legacy here, hidden deep in the forest.
Wading and Swimming our Way Back up the Layou River
The Jacko Flats are above the Cliffs in the Background
*Christopher Columbus is said to have used a crumpled up a piece of paper to help describe the mountainous terrain of Dominica to the Spanish King and Queen. It is hard to drive it even today with modern roads.