BLACK HISTORY MONTH: BLACK HEROINES, PART 6: NANNY: THE NATIONAL QUEEN OF THE MAROONS

Nanny was an African who had never known slavery. She first entered the history books as an old woman, around 1690, the year of the birth place that bears her name: Nanny Town. . . .
 
 

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The history of the Maroons of Jamaica presents us with one of the most astonishing and least known chapters of the history of the New World. Today, their descendants, who still live in these parts, these ancient battle sites, are still mute about the past. The very same past they once faithfully carried in their minds from one rainy season to the next as their brothers, Suriname’s Saramaka.

 

Nevertheless, stories have come through here and there, historical narratives in the guise of legends: the long memory of Africa was still present and had been gathered bit by bit without anything being lost, like grain in a silo.

 

Most poignant and remarkable is the name that kept coming back to the lips of these people. The name they uttered with the utmost veneration is that of a woman, of the true mother of their people:

 

An old woman they call Nanny.

 

Nanny of the Maroons, also known as Queen Nanny and Granny Nanny, a National Hero of Jamaica, was a well-known leader of the Jamaican Maroons in the eighteenth century. Contemporary documents refer to her as the “rebels (sic) old obeah woman,” and  Nanny and the people residing with her on land located in the Blue Mountains. Nanny Town was founded on this land. Most of what we know about Nanny comes from the oral tradition, and many claims about her cannot be verified with traditional historical evidence of the textual or empirical sort, hence her memory is shrouded in the mists of legend.

 

Nanny was an African woman who never knew slavery. Legend has it, just off the boat, she rushed straight for freedom, as it was embodied by the chain of mountains seen from the shore. She was originally Ashanti, like the great Accompong, a renowned maroon chief whose name designates both a town in present-day Jamaica and the most important deity for Kromante-speaking people:  Akompong’h. Similarly, two towns in Jamaica have been named for Nanny, a ghost town and a town still flourishing. Many different places and customs are related to her story: for example, the main branches of a palm used to build shelters are slao commonly called Nanny. As for the name by which she is known, it is a variation of an old Kromante word:  ‘Hni, which means “mother,” and sometimes even “mother queen” or “mother of men.”

 

From what few accounts of that time ago, it seems Nanny never became a mother. Nothing in Jamaica’s or the Maroon’s oral history evokes Nanny as a mother. On, the contrary, Nanny surfaced in history as an old woman around 1690, the year of the foundation of the community of Nanny Town. She was an obeah, a magic worker.

 

Queen Nanny is presumed to have been born around the 1680’s in Africa’s Gold Coast (now known as Ghana). She was reported to belong to either the Ashanti or Akan peoples, and came to Jamaica as a free woman.

 

 

Queen Nanny is credited with being the military leader of the Windward Maroons who employed clever strategies which led to their repeated success in battles with the British. She guided the Maroons through the most intense period of their resistance against the British, between 1725 and 1740. She was a master of guerrilla warfare and trained Maroon troops in the art of camouflage. Oral history recounts that Nanny herself would cover her soldiers with branches and leaves, instructing them to stand as still as possible so that they would resemble trees. As the British soldiers approached completely unaware that they were surrounded they would swiftly be picked off by the Maroons.

 

It was said, according to Jamaican lore, that her powers were beyond compare. She would prepare charms meant to kill, to heal, or to make oneself be the object of someones affection. Placed at the head of the armies, she encouraged them with her dances, chants, and invocations. It was said that Nanny could turn into an invisible bird to spy upon the enemy and strike them from a distance.

 

Nanny was said to have the power to turn back white men’s bullets. She was not really a warrior and never carried any arms, but in every desperate situation, the old woman stood defiantly and resolutely before the enemy as the bullets bounced off of her and chased after the gunmen instead, sowing panic and destruction.

 

Due to the cruel treatment of female slaves by plantation owners, Nanny made her decision to escape along with her five brothers. The most famous of her brothers, Cudjoe, went on to lead many more slave rebellions in Jamaica with the aid of her other brothers Accompong, Johnny, and Quao.
The family then made the decision to split up in order to be able to organize more Maroons than was possible if they stuck together. Therefore, Cudjoe went to St. James and organized a village, which was later named Cudjoe Town. Accompong went to St. Elizabeth, while Nanny and Quao made their way to Portland, becoming the Windward Maroons.
 
Nanny Town was an excellent location for a stronghold, because it overlooked Stony River via a 900 foot (270 m) ridge making a surprise attack by the British virtually impossible. The Maroons at Nanny town also organized look-outs for such an attack as well as designated warriors who could be summoned by the sound of a horn called an Abeng.
Nanny was very adept at organizing plans to free slaves. Over the span of 50 years, Nanny has been credited with freeing over 800 slaves. Nanny also helped these slaves remain free and healthy due to her vast knowledge of herbs and her role as a spiritual leader.
 
 
 
The black men that Nanny accepted to be by her side all went through the same trial. She gave them a drop of poison to drink and whispered with a kind smile: “Slave, prepare to die, we all have to return the body we borrowed from the earth some day.” Then, after they had lost consciousness, she resurrected them with an herbal infuson, and with an impeccable gesture, the old magician gave them a fraternal kiss or else, simply dismissed them.
 
All the testimonies from oral tradition indicates the existence of a “Town of Women,” near the Great Plantation Walk, a town that served as a refuge or secret shelter for mothers and their daughters and their children, whom Nanny cared for.
 
Between 1728 and 1734, Nanny Town was attacked by the British time and time again.
 
Acounts on how Nanny died differ. Some say she died in the battle of 1734; others, say she died in 1750 of old age.
 
In the Journal of the Assembly of Jamaica, 29–30 March 1733, for “resolution, bravery and fidelity” awarded to “loyal slaves . . . under the command of Captain Sambo,” namely William Cuffee, who was rewarded for having fought the Maroons in the First Maroon War and who is called “a very good party Negro, having killed Nanny, the rebels (sic) old obeah woman”. This account has not been conclusively proven. The high reward offered for Nanny may have caused Cuffee to advertise that he killed her, since descriptions of her, as well, may have conflicted with the actual appearance of Queen Nanny.
 
In 1739, Nanny’s successor, Quao, signed a peace treaty with the British, said to be sealed by a blood oath, whereby six hundred acres of land  was ceded to the Windward Maroons, and they were allowed independence.
 
In his report about the ceremony, Philip Thickness, the Queen’s Lieutenant, described a ferocious looking old woman “who had nine or ten different sheathed knives around her waist; and who had showed her disapproval by wearing anklets and bracelets made of the teeth of white men killed in battle.”
 
A legend still told by people in the Blue Mountains has an altogether different ending:
 
Tired of the peace treaty, especially the clause that dictated that runaway enslaves should be sent back, Nanny went back to fighting, with a group of about forty carefully chosen men at her side.
A black militia, formed specifically to hunt her down, surrounded them. Cornered against a hill, the last Maroons fought to the sound of Nanny’s famous war song:
 

Come we to go to Adaa country

Go petta a brownie

Granny Nanny A O

Granny Nanny A O

 

Suddenly the old woman stood above the melee and offered her body to the bullets, as before. But, this time, she discovered that the enemie’s weapons were held by black hands, and she let out a scream of fright, or shame, or perhaps impotence. No one knows. This time, the traditional protection did not work: a hundred bullets crippled her body.

 

The site of the old Nanny Town remained inviolate for a long time. After the Treaty of 1739, Nanny Town returned to nature and was soon no longer distinguishable from the rest of the forest. In 1890, historian Herbert Thomas noted that there was a “superstition” that forbade anyone from entering that place. In 1930, the explorer Reginald Murray described frightening, awful sounds, which he said, were heard for a whole night on the edge of the site. Other witnesses mentioned the presence of an unknown bird with a red tail, and still others spoke of  a mysterious fire being lit and the sounds of invisible weapons coming from the surrounding bushes.

 

Queen Nanny is credited with being the single figure who united the Maroons across Jamaica and played a major role in the preservation of African culture and knowledge.

 

Nanny was buried, according to Ashanti tradition, on a hill—-now called Moore Town—-that stands not very far from New Nanny Town. After more than two centuries, the neighborhood around her presumed grave has never been cultivated, nor has any house been built there.

 

And no one has set foot on a certain slice of land, about the length of a human body, and surrounded by the stones and rubble of another country. . . .

 

 

 

 
 

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The government of Jamaica declared Queen Nanny a National Heroine in 1975 and a Memorial was erected. Her portrait is on the 500 Jamaican dollar bill, which is colloquially referred to as a “Nanny”.
 
 
 
 
$500 note
Front
The Rt. Excellent Nanny of the Maroons
National heroine, Nanny, stands out in history as the only female among Jamaica’s national heroes. She was a leader of the Maroons at the beginning of the 18th century and was known by both her people and the British settlers as an outstanding military leader. She became a symbol of unity and strength for her people during times of crisis and was particularly important to them in the fierce fight with the British during the First Maroon War from 1720 to 1739. Nanny (or ‘Granny Nanny’, as she was affectionately known) is said to have been a small, wiry woman with piercing eyes. Her influence over the Maroons was so strong that it seemed to be supernatural. Like the heroes of the pre-independence era, Nanny too met her untimely death at the instigation of the English some time around 1734. However, the spirit of Nanny of the Maroons remains today as a symbol of that indomitable desire that will never yield to captivity.
 
 
 
 
Nanny is also a part of  the National Heroes Park in Jamaica, a botanical garden in Kingston, Jamaica. The largest open space in Kingston at 20 hectares in size, National Heroes Park features numerous monuments, and is the burial site of many of Jamaica’s National Heroes, Prime Ministers, and cultural leaders.
Nanny’s monument reproduces the sound of the abeng, a traditional African instrument used by the fighters.
 
 
REFERENCES:
 
 
“In Praise of Black Women: Heroines of the Slavery Era,” by Simon Schwarz-Bart.
 
 
“Jamaica’s True Queen: Nanny of the Maroons”:  http://www.jamaicans.com/articles/primearticles/queennanny.shtml
 
 

Karla Gottlieb, “The Mother of Us All: A History of Queen Nanny”. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2000.

 
 

Mavis C.Campbell,  “The Maroons of Jamaica, 1655-1796”. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press. 1990.

 
 
Bryan Edwards, “History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies. 1793.”
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3 Comments

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3 responses to “BLACK HISTORY MONTH: BLACK HEROINES, PART 6: NANNY: THE NATIONAL QUEEN OF THE MAROONS

  1. samantha

    nanny is a loving hero every time i read this i cry even tho i didnt know her

  2. ASA

    Greetings All,

    Until the Lion has his owe historian, the hunter will always be the hero. Queen Akousa Asntewaa was of the Ashante Royal Family a daughter of the Ghana Golden Stool. She had no children and the village the Asante women lived in and protected all other women and children was where my three grandmothers lived all over 106 years old. The oral history was told to me and I took it all the way to the Ashanti Royal House of Akan Dakon house. From there the history of the five

    Prince and one Queen became clear. Queen Nanny and her brothers came to Jamaica as free men and women a Royal family. Upon their arrival in Jamaica they were taken captive in Discovery Bay St Ann’s

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