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.
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.
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. . . .
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.
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.
3 responses to “BLACK HISTORY MONTH: BLACK HEROINES, PART 6: NANNY: THE NATIONAL QUEEN OF THE MAROONS”
nanny is a loving hero every time i read this i cry even tho i didnt know her
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