The Legend of the Great Dismal Maroons

The Legend of the Great Dismal Maroons
Swamp Rats of the World Unite!
A Secret History of “The Other America”
James Koehnline


Freemasonry arose as a white, middle-to-upper class male conspiracy against God and King which sought to establish a new deal of the ages, a wholly rational infrastructure, administered by white male land-owners of the merchant class, so beautifully logical in its operations as to cause order to reign forever, in spite of human nature. White because the child-races were not ready. Male because logic was alien to women. Landowners because they alone knew responsibility. Merchants because they knew how to balance the books. The celestial clockwork of the church was to be anchored firmly in the earth. The royal monopoly on nobility was to be smashed and redistributed among all who could pass the entrance exam and return the secret handshake. So constituted, Freemasonry was not so much a body as a big fat head in search of a muscular mass to ride into the perfectible future. It succeeded with a vengeance in realizing the glorious dream: A racist, sexist, reductivist, venal order, headed by lawyers and accountants; an order so universally established that its logic is almost inescapable. Nearly everyone serves the planetary work and war machine, and a great many subscribe to its religion of profits and progress, persuaded by its logic–Ya gotta work to survive. Freemasonry, hybrid seed of the Renaissance quest to reassemble the potsherds of the Golden Age, spent its 17th-Century adolescence sifting through sand-piles of symbols, searching for portents, seeking the future in the detritus of the past. America opened her arms and offered herself as an only-slightly-smudged slate on which to write the New Jerusalem. In the eighteenth century, after Newton fused heaven and earth, the project began to seem more practical than philosophical. Gravity was the key by which their mad celestial schematics could be drawn down to enshroud the earth, to impose the map upon the unruly territory. No matter that the fit was imprecise, that the great, green riot of life was forever poking through the gaps, mocking from beyond the edges. No matter that our movement and speech were infected with its mad jazz patterns. When you live IN the map you hardly notice these things, any more than you notice the nameless ones silently slipping beyond the pale, leaving the map behind. Who cares who goes there, who goes nowhere?


In 1717 the Grand Lodge of England was formed and the “respectable” half of masonry began pushing the “irregulars” off the map. Tradesmen, including any stone masons who might have been in Freemasonry, were among the exiles. In 1741 members of the black-listed lodges staged a wild masonic parade in London to ridicule the Grand Lodge. They called themselves Scald Miserable Masons. By this time numbers of exiled masons were washing up on the American shores—convicts, vagrants, rebels, Irish—sentenced or sold into plantation servitude from which they escaped at their earliest convenience. Most headed west of the seaboard colonies, keeping ahead of the advancing map, (the great wagon road making its way, north to south and west,) joining the multi-racial maroon communities of the South Carolina hills and elsewhere, some whole communities calling themselves Freemasons. But we may safely assume that at least a few of these Scald Miserable Masons were guided to the secret maroon capital of the upper south, there to become citizen-warriors of the Great Dismal Swamp, on the Atlantic coast where Virginia and Carolina meet, the heart of the New World.


Ever since 1524 when the Spanish founded the first European (and African) settlement in what is now the U.S., slaves had been walking away from bondage, joining or forging alliances with friendly Indian nations. In the early days most of these Maroons were white-at least from among the English colonies-Irish and poor English convicts, indentured servants and slaves. There were also a great many Americans who had been taken as slaves and escaped, only to find their tribes decimated. The growth of the African slave trade brought increasing numbers of Africans into the Maroon camps. In 1586 Sir Francis Drake, returning north from the wars with Spain in the Caribbean, carried a shipload of former Spanish slaves-300 South American Indians, 200 Guinea Coast Africans, 200 Moors-as a sort of gift to the English colonists on Roanoke Island, (Raleigh's second attempt to establish a colony there). No sooner had they arrived than a great storm blew up, frightening the English back to England with Drake. When they returned a year later to try again they were dismayed to find that their servants had deserted, joined the Indians on the mainland. A year later, when Raleigh's ships returned to reprovision the colony the white colonists had also deserted. Raleigh's agents could find no trace of them on the mainland and the Indians just shrugged their shoulders. Perhaps they were hiding out in the nearly impenetrable Great Dismal Swamp nearby. Perhaps, four hundred years ago, these Maroons of four continents held a big pow-wow, dedicating themselves to the fight against slavery even then As the English colonies up and down the Atlantic seaboard bustled with new settlement and commerce, North Carolina, the ancient Albemarle, was strangely silent. The lords proprietors collected enough rent to keep themselves comfortable and left the inhabitants to their own devices. The Tuscarora nation still exercised considerable influence in the region, and the settlers, it seems, had no objection to this arrangement. The settlers were, by and large, Maroons. By 1650 they had their own government under Nathaniel Batts, who converted to the Tuscarora religion and was accepted as an honored member of the tribe. The settlers had full representation in the governing councils of the Tuscarora nation. New fugitives arrived regularly to join them. They lived at their ease, hunting, fishing, trapping, adventuring together and generally celebrating their good fortune to live free and among friends. By 1708 political forces in England had determined that the time had arrived to develop North Carolina as a commercial plantation slavery colony. This necessitated a full-scale war against the old settlers, which was followed by a full-scale war with their allies, the Tuscarora nation. The British declared victory and established their colony. The Maroons never admitted defeat. They retreated to the depths of the Great Dismal Swamp and from their sanctuary waged a 160 year guerrilla war against slavery. In the end, they won. They fought alongside the British under Lord Duninore in the revolution, because Dunmore promised an end to slavery and gave them uniforms with a special sash that read “Freedom For Slaves”. They fought as “Buffalo Soldiers” on the side of the Union in the Civil War, holding all the surrounding territory without army support. In between, they sent out continuous raiding parties to free slaves and discourage slavers. They established an extensive communication system throughout the upper south through a network of plantation preachers and conjuremen and women. The swamp had been considered a holy place by the Indians since time immemorial. It was now doubly'so for the slaves and Maroons. There were many Maroon enclaves up and down the coast in the swamps and pine barrens but none larger or more militant than the Great Dismal. Here was the original Rainbow Coalition. With Emancipation they left the swamp to make a life in the open, but their triumph was short-lived. Some were absorbed into the African-American community, some went to the reservations and a few passed for white, but the majority had no desire to be so segregated. This was true of the other maroon enclaves as well. They emerged to find slavery being replaced by a rigid caste system that had no place for them. They were marginalized, isolated and despised. Some even went back to the swamps. They were our Dark Secret, an enormous blind-spot in our collective psyche. Within twenty years liberal progressive Christians had launched a “scientific” crusade to deal with the problem: the American Eugenics movement. By the early years of this century they were promoting a Final Solution- compulsory sterilization. In 1907 Indiana was the first state to pass a compulsory sterilization law. It was aimed at a nomadic, tri-racial tribe in that state, the Tribe of Ishmael. Rather than submit to this the Ishmaelites dispersed. This law, which came to be known as “The Indiana Plan,” seemed like such a great idea that within twenty years 29 states had adopted similar Eugenic laws and the Indiana Plan had been adopted by seven European countries, most notably Germany, where it served as the legal foundation for an escalating series of racial laws that led, ultimately, to the Nazi Final Solution. At Nuremberg after the war there was much debate over whether or not forced sterilization could be prosecuted as a war crime. Of course, they decided it could not be, as it was still legal in the U.S. Today the descendants of the Maroons are still with us, some still living in the cracks, many more have blended into the crowds of the nameless. You may be one, in blood, or spirit, or both. Search the dark, rough recesses of your heart and mind. See if you can find traces of that Other America, the one that did not build its celestial city on a foundation of cruelty, murder and deceit, but gathered the exiles of four continents in its Great Dismal City of Refugee.


Trapped between faith and fear, progressive liberalism is adrift in the current of modernity which eats away at faith and builds fear, moving toward an end which is only that: Finis. Lacking an articulate alternative, lacking, too, the communal basis of alienation, ours is a vague search for something which is missing. What is it? The counter-culture has always been just that. A negation bound up with what it rejects; the underside of liberalism. Its notions of human communion are tied to the immediate realization of something very like the old liberal utopia-total private liberty and gratification of desire. That old utopia is wholly blind to the nature of communion, rooted in self-loathing and fear of the other; hostility to the ego, a desire to blot it out; fraternity as alliance of embattlement again. The possibility of citizenship has been eclipsed, and, having been eclipsed, it waits to be bloom anew. It awaits a new polity, and in the dismal swamp heart of the “inner” city something stirs. Still we hide our bones for fear of being born because birth's first lesson is loneliness. To build a new city among these multitudes of strangers we must learn to recognize our fellow citizens when chance shall throw us together, and find the means for affirming our mutual “patriotism.” We are obliged to set an example, to be the preachers and poets and tellers of tales of the great dismal city of refuge. We must steer clear of the Jeffersonian fraternal ideal which, in the name of unity, blows up such a cloud of sentiment as to obscure a dark and violent city. We must avoid charity as the plague it is, with its ethic of condescension. We must remember that war is no medicine for loneliness. Try love-laughter-song-dance, the tonics, before resort to narcotics and final solutions. In the lonely crowds of the urban wilderness there is mingled a saving remnant, a band of brothers and sisters, mostly unknown to each other, whose lavish hearts still accommodate the possibility of The Other America-who are holding the pass, so to speak, until we are ready, each in his or her own time, to go back over all the rough, dark places, to try, and finally, to fathom our old love-America. We must make the pilgrimage of Huck Finn, back to the beginning, divesting ourselves of false romance, disciplining our imagination in the school of nature, seeking fraternity with the strong victim, one to one, with the strength of personal character and devotion such that both of us are stretched toward our full stature. Then we shall find ourselves in the Great Dismal City of Refuge, candidates for citizenship. If we have learned well to recognize ignorance and dependence in ourselves and the world at large, and if we have learned to draw on the inexhaustible well of humor within which laughs aside our fears and pretensions, cheering us in our search for a true humanity, then we shall be the shining citizens of the Great Dismal City of Refuge, brothers and sisters in the global swamp-rat communion.