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Lands of Freedom

Deep in the Amazon rainforest of South America, reside a small community of Africans, whose ancestors escaped from slavery hundreds of years ago. They went on roving raids to liberate their brothers and sisters, and fought with the colonial army for their right to exist in peace.
They are the known as the Matawai Maroons.
This is their story.

Photo from Edward C. Green papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution (box 3)

The Amazon Conservation Team en de Matawai gemeenschap



With the awareness that the history and memory of slavery still continue to play a structuring role in multicultural societies today, and largely constitute the matrix of racial injustices which still victimize Africans and their descendants throughout the world, in 1994 UNESCO decided to launch the project  The Slave Route: resistance, freedom, heritage . The initial objective of this multidisciplinary project was to “break the silence” on the tragedy of trafficking and slavery in the world, by casting light on their scale, their root causes, their challenges and their modalities of operation. The project aimed to highlight more concretely the global transformations and cultural interactions resulting from these constrained interactions, to promote scientific research on this theme, and to preserve the tangible and intangible cultural heritage associated with it.
Today the project focuses its efforts on delivering a new narrative that moves the gaze from the slavers to the “slaves” themselves. Indeed, until now, the methods of writing history have mainly focused on exploring the archives and traces left by slavers. Historians faced the paradoxical task of writing an objective history about the reality of the condition of millions of men and women who had been thrown into the violence of slavery, but only from the perspective of the executioner, through an understanding of his narration, and administrative and juridical context. Now, we are carrying out an ethical reversal, which in fact invites a new epistemology: namely, that of reinscribing in the writing of the history of slavery a strangely silent voice, that of these very men and women who have suffered from, but also resisted, this system which reduced them to the condition of “movable property”.


This new narrative, currently under development, is constructed from “new” materials, or better said, materials which had until recently held little interest for a certain historiographical tradition. Until now, the few recorded biographical accounts in existence have served as the primary support for this endeavor; but, the main material, which are the oral archives (testimonies, tales, songs, expressions, etc.) are still largely under-developed despite some promising work on subjects such as the formation of the Maroons.
Facing very similar ethical and epistemological issues in the 1960s in the process of rewriting African history from the perspective of Africans themselves, the Scientific Committee of the General History of Africa (composed of eminent historians such as Joseph Kizerbo or Cheick Anta Diop), or even the pioneering work of Jan Vansina, had largely cleared the ground by exposing the shortcomings of a Eurocentric methodological conception. The notion of archive had to be “decolonized”. This titanic work, which called for the rehabilitation of oral sources, prompted UNESCO to create two centers for the collection and processing of oral tradition, in West Africa (Niger) with the CELHTO (Center for the Linguistic and Historical Study by oral tradition), and in Central Africa (Cameroon) with CERDOTOLA (Regional Center for Research and Documentation on Oral Traditions and for the Development of African Languages).

The Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) is taking action to help the Matawai safeguard their intangible cultural heritage. Since 2015, ACT has been partnering with the Matawai civil society organization Stichting voor Dorpsontwikkeling Matawai to use a participatory methodology training young Matawai to record and interview their elders about Matawai oral history.


To date, the initiative has produced more than 17 hours of footage of more than 150 historically significant sites along the Saramacca River.

34 elders from villages across Matawai were interviewed at length, with as many points of view represented as possible.


Photo credit: Amazon Conservation Team