ACCOMPONG, Jamaica-The Cockpit Country is a rugged mountain region in the mid-western interior of Jamaica. It is an area of steep limestome towers separated by deep glens that reminded whoever named the region of cockfighting arenas. Few jungles are so inhospitable. Jagged and coated with algae, the rock offers trecherous footing, and one struggles constantly to keep balance. At the same time, swarms of small mosquitoes and the spiny leaves of a nettle-like shrub called cowitch raise welts whenever skin is exposed.

As a final perversity there is no water, although half an inch of rain often falls in the afternoon, and clothes are drenched in the cloying humidity. No river or stream runs through the Cockpit Country. All the water slips underground, percolating through shafts and sinkholes in the limestone. It is a classic example of karst topography, like parts of kentucky, Yugoslavia and northern Florida. It was once a plateau, but running water, acid from vegetation, has eaten out a jumble of hollows that have no surface exit-the water goes out the bottom. So disjointed are these hollows, as one goes from one to the next, that it is almost impossible to keep a compass bearing.

For the last 300 years the Cockpit Country has been the preserve of a fiercely independent group of people called the Maroons. The word Maroon is said to be derived from the Spanish word for wild board, which the Maroons traditionally hunted. Today there are few boars left but Maroon jerk pork is still considered to be the best on the island.

The Maroons are descended from the most warlike tribes of western Africa, brought as slaves to Jamaica: Mandingos, Gold Coast Coromantees, Ashantis, Ibos, Whydahs, Nogos, Sambos, Congos and Angolas. They took to the hills in the chaos of 1655, when Jamaica changed hands and became an English instead of a Spanish colony. Their number were increased by runaways, mulattoes with Spanish blood and later by a breed called Madagascars, who had jet-black skin, soft, loose hair and European features.

The British made repeated attempts to subdue them and were repeatedly devastated by malaria, yellow fever and the Maroons' devious guerrilla tactics. "Concentrated in the weird and almost impenetrable Cockpit Country," an early history of Jamaica relates, "the Maroons developed a form of warfare which baffled most of the parties sent against them. Skilled in woodcraft and familiar with the untracked forest, they usually avoided open fight, but disguised from head to foot with leaves and cunningly concealed, preferred to attack from ambush. The surprise of these attacks, plus the accurate shooting of the Maroons, often brought them quick victory."

The place names of the region commemorate these early skirmishes. The southwest corner of the Cockpit Country is called "The District of Look Behind," because the redcoats rode two to a horse, one man facing the rear and nervously scanning the tree. The roadless and uninhabited interior of the Cockpit Country is a blank on most maps, except for the cryptic message "Me No Sen You No Come," which refers to an extinct community of runaways who had wanted to be left alone. Another hamlet is called Quick step.

In 1738 the British threw in the towel and sued for peace with the Maroons. A treaty was signed that granted the ex-slaves and their descendants perpetual freedom and dominion over the land they had occupied. They were in effect recognized as a state within a state. To this day they are immune to Jamaican law, except in the event of murder, and are even entitled to a British passport. In return for these privileges, the Maroons agreed to stop raiding the sugar plantations and to cooperate as allies of the British in any further uprisings.

THERE WERE two main Maroon communities. One was in the John Crow Mountains, on the eastern end of the island. Its leader was a fearsome woman named Nanny. Nanny's Maroons were not runaway slaves but Moors and Berbers who had come to Jamaica in 1509 as mercenaries with Diego Columbus; only professional soliders of fortune were foolish enough to follow a man to the edge of the earth. They used the guerrilla tactics they had perfected in the desert, jumping up from behind six-inch rocks, attacking and withdrawing, harassing and confusing, never involving more than six men at one time out of a basic force of 24. They fought with a four-pronged spear called a "junga", greased from head to foot with goose fat and naked except for a leather codpiece.

Nanny's descendants live in a settlement called Mooretown. They are Moslems and give the traditional greeting, salaam aleikum . I asked a Mooretown Maroon why their leader in battle was always a woman. "Have you ever run afoul of your wife?" he said. "Have you ever encountered such cunning or such wrath?"

By powerful blasts on a horn called the abeng , and later by messages beamed from polished steel or pieces of glass, Nanny's Maroons kept in close touch with their brothers in the Cockpit Country. The Cockpit Maroons were led by a short, stocky man named Cudjoe, who was said to be as broad as he was tall. Cudjoe's decendants live in a village called Accompong, on the southern edge of the Cockpit Country.

Accompong - a corruption of the Ashanti word for God-was a brother of Cudjoe, and one of his captains. There are about a thousand Maroons in Accompong. They are less than 5 feet 6 for the most part-which gives them added maneuverability in the rain forest - powerfully built, and enjoy extraordinary health. A few years ago a woman of 118, who has been threading needles with her naked eyes right up to the end, finally died. Their longevity is probably as much a function of well-developed heart muscles from the vertical terrain as of the rigorous selection process during their early fugitive period, which only the strongest survived.

The Maroons have few visitors, and hardly any who stay longer than a day. But anyone who has spent time with them discovers that their African heritage is still strong. They still practice a form of obi the black magic of West Africa, pound the goombay, a square goatskin drum from the gegion, perform trance-inducing Myal dances, and sing ancient Coromantee songs to ensure the success of their crops.

When a child is born his umbilical cord is planted under a tree, usually a coconut or a breadfruit; the tree and all the fruit it bears belong to him and his descendants. Between 9 and 16, depending on his physical maturity, a boy is sent into the woods with only a flintstone. To become a man he must kill a boar. Finding a stout ashwood pole, he cuts it and peels it with a sharp rock. Then, striking a piece of iron against the flintstone over a pile of soft, rotten wood, he starts a fire and "quails" the ashwood pole, hardening it into a spear. "With that I killed my first wild boar, who almost killed me in the process," a Mst wild boar, who almost killed me in the process," a Maroon who is now 38 recalled. "I was 10 and almost my present size. The boar was carried into the village on a mule. My grandfather dipped his finger in the blood and smeared an X with it on his forehead."

DURING THE 1930s my father and his uncle, a Russian-born lepidopterist, made the definite collection of the butterflies of Jamaica. One of their bases was at Accompong, where they collected the butterflies of the Cockpit Country and caught several that were new to science. Among them was a small, shimmering blue one that eventually became known as Shoumatoff's hairstreak.

In 1972 I went to Jamaica to see if any of the butterflies that bear the family name were still around. I made my way to Accompong. The Maroons are not always friendly to "outers," especially whites, but some of them had fond memories of my father, and I was treated royally during my brief visit.

I saw no hairsteaks, but formed a lasting impression of a people who, though trapped by poverty and harsh geography, had learned to live in deep contentment.

When I returned to Jamaica six years later with my wife, Ana, we headed back to Accompong. A new paved road led to the village from a crossroads seven miles away that bore the laid-back name of Retirement. But Accompong had not changed. In a large palm tree halfway up the hill a colony of several hundred swallows still swarmed. We passed the tintopped houses scattered along the ridge and five churches that attested to the community's religious fervor, and pulled into Mistress Cawleigh's yard. She had not aged a bit: still the regal woman who had borne Jim Cawleigh 10 children. Cawleigh had been colonel of the Maroons before his death in 1968.

The Cawleighs were the aristocrats of Accompong, the most educated of the Maroons and about the only ones whose English was easily understandable to me. The rest spoke in the Jamaican patois, a lilting and virtually undecipherable mix of Elizabethan English, island Creole and pure African. The Jamaican patois still contains hundreds of words that are direct translations from Twi, the original Ashanti tongue. To further complicate matters, it varies considerably from parish to parish. In the Cockpit Country, for example, yikli is substituted for lickle , the word for "little" on most of the island. The Maroon language is lost.

The first order of business, after getting settled in our room at the Cawleighs, was to pay my respects to Col. Martin Luther Wright, the present leader of the Maroons. Until a few year ago, it had been necessary to have a letter of introduction from the governor-general of Jamaica to visit the Maroons. The policy was now relaxed, but I had still written ahead, and brought with me a photograph of my father standing with Col. Rowe, the head man in 1940, and several other Maroons, which I present to Col. Wright. He was delighted with the gift. A curious group gathered to argue over the identity of the others in the photograph.

THE NEXT MORNING I set out with Thomas Rowe, a 50-year-old banana grower, his son Trevor, and Bernard, one of the many "illegitymuts" Mistress Cawleigh had taken in over the years.Our intention was to traverse the trackless Cockpit Country from Accompong to Maroon Ttown, a distance on my topographic map of about 15 miles. Though Rowe had never done it himself, he said it was a one-day trip. "Only de rain will stop us." Because of the rain, we'd have to camp out, and would probably reach Maroon Ttown late the following morning.

We set off through the cane fields and banana groves that ring Accompong. The sun was climbing and the bird songs were fading into silence. We met a girl of about 14 standing in the path with a bucket of water on her head and talking with an old woman sitting under a tree, the old woman's face lit up with a soft, wistful happiness. The girl was doing an unconscious dance to keep the water from spilling. The old woman said something and the girl laughed, making the water rock, which in turn sent new waves of animation through her body.

Rowe gave a wide berth to the ganja gardens. Though I would have liked to see them, the marijuana plots are guarded by men with guns who shoot interlopers on sight. I hadn't realized before the importance of ganja in Maroon culture. More than half of Accompong "burns" it (which is also true of Jamaica as a whole), and almost everyone drinks it medicinally. After bananas and bauxite, ganja is the island's third-largest export, supplying 55 percent of the U.S. market. A pound of "herb" goes for 30 Jamaican dollars in the Cockpit Country, and "lab's bread," a superior cut grown from a seedless hybrid, fetches $40. Ganja is grown by many of the young people, especially those who are involved in the Rastafarian movement, which attaches religious importance to it. It is an easier and more profitable crop than sugar cane, which the Appleton rum distillery, 10 miles away, buys at $14 a ton.

By midmorning we had entered the rain forest, following an old logging path on which the men carried out cedar or mahogany sleepers to sell to the railroad company. Few people went into the Cockpit Country any more, only the odd logger or party in search of wild yams. "De holden people were in here more often," Rowe said. I could see why the place didn't draw many visitors. Each step had to be tested while holding on to something in case it give away. A slip could be fatal, especially i case it gave way. A slip could be fatal, especially if you were stradding a shaft. Once Bernard picked up a boulder and dropped it in a black hole 6 feet in diameter. I counted to four before it made contact with anything.

Sometimes the cockpits were so deep that we didn't go into them, but traversed hillsides that sloped at 60 degrees. The stone was like bone, sticking up like the bleached relics of dinosaurs. It was smothered with big ferns, some of them trees, which added to the Mesozoic character of the place. Because of the constant moisture and the limy substrate, ferns do particulary well in Jamaica: there are 473 species in all. Some of the ferns grow only on trees, sharing crotches with orchids and blue-and-red flowerstalks of wild pine, a pineapple relative. Sometimes, at the bottom of a cockpit, the vegetation was so thick that it took Bernard or Trevor four cutlass chops to advance a step. Sometimes we would emerge into a clearing to be blinded by sunlight.

BY MIDAFTERNOON I felt that I had had the Cockpit experience, and that there was no need to prolong my return to Accompong and Ana any longer. I now had full insight into the place names of the region like Wait a Bit and Rest and Be Thankful. My clothes were drenched in sweat and I was covered with mosquito bites. "Dem dreadful," Rowe said, swatting a horsefly that had landed between my shoulder blades. "Right up dat glade," he ordered. "We will go straight up dat hill and when our yikl feet are weary we will rest."

He told me about five white men he had taken into the Cockpit Country in 1967. They had wanted to go from Accompong to the "rat-bat" cave at Windsor ("rat-bats" are bats, while "bots" are butterfiles). Two of them turned back the first day. Four days later, when the expedition had run out of food and Windsor was still nowhere in sight, two more of them announced that they could go no further. So Rowe and the fith man went for help and a day later discovered that they were far east of where they had thought they were, and had put only a little more than half the distance - 30 miles on the map - behind them. Police helicopters were sent after the other two but were unable to find them. Two days later, Rowe finally returned with food and reinforcements.

At 2 o'clock the sky began to blacken and we took shelter on a ledge under an overhang halfway up a cliff. And that was as far as we would get that day. At 2:40 the rain came, a thundering deluge that lasted four hours. The rain was not due to the arrival of clouds from elsewhere. It fell every day at about 3 p.m., when enough of the previous day's rain had evaporated to saturate the air. Bernard made a fire and cooked supper - rice, curried corned beef, wild yams he had dug up earlier. On stakes jammed into crevices in the rock, Rowe and I mounted two rock-climber's hammocks I had brought. To pass the time, Rowe called the trees by name: the broadleaf tree, the grape tree, the olive tree, the redwood tree, which made to good staff. "And dat de scowah pan," he said, pointing to a shrub with white flowers. "De holden people dem scowah der vessel wid it. When you rub it it sud."

At 7 the rain stopped and was replaced by a deafening chorus. Beatles and lizards croaked, tree frogs rattled, crickets creaked, birds sang their hearts out as the day ended. "Some a dam a holla, some a bawl." After night fell the birds stopped and big fireflies with two lights apiece - one on their head, the other on their tail-came out. They looked like the headlights of far-away cars. The frogs and insects kept it up until dawn. There was also something that whinnied periodically, just like a horse, and Rowe told me about "de Simit Man," a ghost who made metallic staccato sounds like a tinsmith pounding with his hammer.

"De woods are full a de hanted spirits a de holden slaves," he told me. "You generally find dem making strange sounds in de woods in de months of November and December, near de Christmas season. Dey always knock tinderbox." One when he and several others were sleeping in a hut they had thrown up for the night they heard a terrible noise, as if all the trees in the vicinity were falling down, but in the morning they found nothing. Another time a man came on a wild boar walking with her brood. Each of the piglets had a red string around his neck. The man turned back. It was not a good sign.

The next morning we broke camp and a few hours later came to a well-worn path. It seemed to follow exactly the north-by-northwest course we were on, so we followed it, expecting any minute to arrive in Maroon Town. The jungle gave way to hillsides of bananas. Rowe sang out the varieties: Gross Mitchell, Lacatan, Ribosta, Chinee, Valery, Bumpee, Black Taylor, White Taylor. We met a woman who seemed scared by the four strange men who had come out of the woods. Rowe asked where we were. "Mellowwood," she said. Rowe muttered a barely audible curse. Mellowwood was only a third of the way to Maroon Ttown. Though we had taken sight bearings wherever it was possible and were sure we were keeping to the course, we had somehow veered in a slow arc far to the west. It would have taken several days to get to Maroon Ttown, we now saw. The only attempts to traverse the Cockpit Country in recent years and ended with both parties getting lost and failing to reach their destination.

WHEN WE RETURNED to Accompong the two maiden schoolteachers, Cinderella Robinson and Norris Levy, were practicing duets in the small room they rented from Mistress Cawleigh. One of the songs was called "Central Never Busy." The chorus went:

Telephone to glory,

O what joy divine,

I can feel the current

Moving on the line . . .

and the last verse began:

Carnal combinations

Cannot get control

Of this line to glory

Anchored in the soul .

That night we toured the five churches, each of whose congregations was communing with the Almighty in its own way. The most lively was the United Church of Zion. Its members practiced poccomania, a Jamaican form of Afro-Christianity that emphasized healing, explication of dreams and visions, herbal medicine and spirit possession. Two women and a man were beating out a steady, rapid rhythm on goombays , and the 15-by-15-foot shack was filled with aroung 30 people, mostly women, who were shaking, sobbing, bobbing, moaning, passing out, reviving again, occasionally letting out little yips, clapping their hands together and saying amen at the appropriate moment. In the middle of them a man in a white turban was spinning around and occasionally doing an uncoordinated shuffle as if someone else had taken over his body. Between pauses to say "Yaymon" and to gulp a quick breath he preached:

"Get out, Zion,

Be on your double watch

If you want to do the work of Jesus . . .

What time de star shall appear?

When Jesus is going to talk to you?

When Jesus is going to show you de way?"

THERE WAS only one more thing we had to do in Accompong and that was to call on Mann O. Rowe. He was the secretary of the Maroons and the keeper of the treaty. He was also Thomas Rowe's uncle. The Rowes are the largest clan in Accompong and they all are short and square-jawed.

We took Mann O. Rowe a bottle of rum and a copy of my father's photograph, in which he recognized his uncle, Ba D. Rowe.

In 1956 the Jamaican police entered Mann O. Rowe's house and seized 75 pounds of ganja and some undesirable publications. Mann O. Rowe spent six months in prison. "It's him dat was wrong, you know," a Maroon told me. "He knew dey were coming but refused to hide de stuff."

Twenty years later, the arrest still rankles in Mann O. Rowe's mind. "Dey have no right in our territory.Why didn't dey invade America? Or Great Britain? Dey knew we were weak, and dat dey could come in and spoil our house. It was against the will of God."

I asked what books they had seized, expecting them to be works on communism or black magic. "My science books," he said, and he brought out a dusty tome on anatomy and physiology and a biography of William Mckinley that he had inherited from his grandfather. The police had given them back when he was released. "Why did they take them in the first place?" I asked. "There's nothing seditious in them." "Sheer convetousness," he said.

Next he brought out the treaty. It was the original copy, handed down from keeper to keeper. The 240-year-old paper, now sheathed in clear plastic folders, had turned gray, but the beautiful handwriting was still legible. The treaty went on for four pages. I copied the salient parts:

Whereas Captain Cudjoe, Captain Accompong, Captain Johnny, Captain Coffee, Captain Quaco, and several other negroes, heir dependents, and adherents, have been in a state of war and hostility against our Sovereign Lord the King, and the inhabitants of this island . . . to prevent the further affusion of blood, we mutually agree 1. That all hostilities shall cease on both sides forever 2. That aforesaid . . . shall be forever hereafter in a perfect state of freedom and liberty.

"'A perfect state of freedom and liberty,'" Mann O. Rowe repeated."You see dat? Dat mean no mon can mess wid us. Neither the government nor the magistrate has the right to interfere wid Maroon trial. Dat privilege was handed down to us by God and Cudjoe." Then he poured himself some rum and sang the song of Cudjoe:

Sali cotamundi.

Sali cotamundi.

Why sould a dundee?

The Coromantee words were a "state secret," he said, but after a second glass he agreed to reveal them.

"They trespass against us.

They trespass against us.

Why do they hurt us?"

The smoking of ganja, he claimed, originated from Cudjoe, although the earliest reference to Cannabis sativa - an introduced species - being in Jamaica is 1860. "Cudjoe say, 'If your brain is good you must smoke ganja.' Ganja is wisdom weed, is gunja, is hasbish, is mareejoanna," he said. "King Solomon say, 'Wisdom is too high for a fool,' so if your brain is not good enough, leave it out."

When I asked what the future held for the Maroons, Mann O. Rowe shook his head and said, "Better must come." There were two things he especially wanted: everlasting friendship with the United States, and a sawmill. "We have a gold mine here," he concluded. "But if we give our head to lice, lice will eat it." CAPTION: Map, no caption; Picture 1, Mann O. Rowe display the treaty won from the Britist by Cudjoe's Maroons in 1978. Photos by Alex Shoumatoff for The Washington Post; Picture 2, Dense foliage and steep hillsides surround a Maroon family's cabin in the Cockpit Country.