Nanny of the Maroons
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Queen Nanny or Nanny (c. 1685 – unknown, circa 1755), Jamaican National Hero, was a well-known leader of the Jamaican Maroons in the eighteenth century. Much of what is known about Nanny comes from oral history as little textual evidence exists. However, historical documents refer to her as the "rebels [sic] old obeah woman," and they legally grant "Nanny and the people now residing with her and their heirs . . . a certain parcel of Land containing five hundred acres in the parish of Portland . . ." (quoted in Campbell 177, 175). Nanny Town was founded on this land.
The Maroons are descendants of imported West Africans who fled the oppressive experience of slavery on plantations and formed their own communities in the rugged, hilly interior of the island. They were considered skilled fighters and hard to defeat. Under Spanish rule, up to the 1650s, slaves escaped and intermarried with the native islanders, Arawaks, in their communities on the west of the island. Later, when the British assumed control of the colony, more slaves were able to escape from plantations to join the two main bands of Maroons in Jamaica: Windward and Leeward Maroons, headed respectively by Nanny of the Maroons and Captain Cudjoe.
The Maroons mainly consisted of people from the Ashanti region of Ghana. However, a minority of slaves originating from other regions of West Africa joined the Maroons in their escapes. For over 150 years, the Maroons helped to free slaves from the plantations whilst they damaged land and property belonging to the plantation owners.
Life and Work
Nanny was born c. 1686 in Ghana, Western Africa, into the Ashanti tribe, and was brought to Jamaica as a slave. It is believed that some of her family members were involved in intertribal conflict and her village was captured. Nanny and several relatives were sold as slaves and sent to Jamaica. Upon arrival in Jamaica, Nanny was likely sold to a plantation in Saint Thomas Parish, just outside the Port Royal area. Such plantations grew sugarcane as the main crop, and the slaves toiled under extremely harsh conditions.
As a child, Nanny was influenced by other slave leaders and maroons. She and her "brothers", Accompong, Cudjoe, Johnny and Quao ran away from their plantation and hid in the Blue Mountains area of northern Saint Thomas Parish. While in hiding, they split up to organize more Maroon communities across Jamaica: Cudjoe went to Saint James Parish and organized a village, which was later named Cudjoe Town; Accompong settled in Saint Elizabeth Parish, in a community known as Accompong Town; Nanny and Quao founded communities in Portland Parish. She was married to a Maroon named Adou.
Nanny became a folk hero. There were stories of British attacks on Nanny Town, but thanks to the strategic location and her idea of having only one entrance/exit to the town, they were able to fight off all but one British soldier even though they were severely outnumbered. Cudjoe went on to lead slave rebellions in Jamaica.
By 1720, Nanny and Quao had settled and controlled an area in the Blue Mountains. It was given the name Nanny Town, and consisted of the 500 acres (2.4 km²) of land granted to the runaway slaves. Nanny Town had a strategic location as it overlooked Stony River via a 900 foot (270 m) ridge, making a surprise attack by the British practically 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.
Maroons at Nanny Town and similar communities survived by sending traders to the nearby market towns to exchange food for weapons and cloth. The community raised animals, hunted, and grew crops, and was organized very much like a typical Ashanti tribe in Africa. The Maroons were also known for raiding plantations for weapons and food, burning the plantations, and leading slaves back to their communities.
Nanny was very adept at organizing plans to free slaves. For over 30 years, Nanny freed more than 800 slaves, and helped them to resettle in the Maroon community.
Leadership and Obeah
Many in her community attributed Nanny's leadership skills to her Obeah powers (Campbell). Obeah is an African derived religion that is still practiced in Suriname, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Barbados, Belize and other Caribbean countries. It is associated with both good and bad magic, charms, luck, and with mysticism in general. In some Caribbean nations, aspects of Obeah have survived through synthesis with Christian symbolism and practice introduced by European colonials and slave owners.
It is also likely that Nanny's leadership skills resulted from her tribe of origin, Ashanti, known for its strong resistance to Europeans in West Africa and the New World. As well, she was heavily influenced by her brothers and other Maroons in Jamaica.
It is also known that Nanny possessed wide knowledge of herbs and other traditional healing methods, practiced by Africans and native islanders. This would have allowed her to serve as a physical and spiritual healer to her community, which in turn would elevate her status and esteem.
In the Journal of the Assembly of Jamaica, 29–30 March 1733, we find a citation 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 old obeah woman" (Campbell 177). These hired soldiers were known as "Black Shots" (Campbell 37). It is likely that Cuffee was motivated by the reward, a common practice by plantations to discourage slaves escaping.
However, in 1739, a parcel of land was awarded to "Nanny and her descendents" (Gottlieb 2000)named Nanny Town. Some claim she lived to be an old woman, dying of natural causes in the 1760s. The exact date of her death remains a mystery, and part of the confusion is that "Nanny" is an honorific and many high ranking women were called that in Maroon Town. However, the Maroons are adamant that there was only one "Queen Nanny."
Nanny's remains are buried at "Bump Grave" in Moore Town, one of the communities established by the Windward Maroons in Portland Parish.
Attacks on Nanny Town
Between 1728 and 1734, Nanny Town and other Maroon settlements were frequently attacked by British forces. After Nanny's death (1733), many Maroons of Nanny Town travelled across the island to unite with the Leeward Maroons. In 1734, a Captain Stoddart attacked the remnants of Nanny Town, "situated on one of the highest mountains in the island", via "the only path" available: "He found it steep, rocky, and difficult, and not wide enough to admit the passage of two persons abreast." (Edwards vol. 1, page 525)
In addition to the use of the ravine, resembling what Jamaicans call a "cockpit", Maroons were skilled at disguising themselves as bushes and trees. The Maroons also utilized decoys to trick the British into a surprise attack. This was done by having non-disguised Maroons run out into view of the British and then run in the direction of the fellow Maroons who were disguised. After falling into these ambushes several times, the British had to resort to their own trickery: Captain Stoddart "found the huts in which the negroes were asleep", and "fired upon them so briskly, that many were slain in their habitations". (Edwards vol. 1, page 525)
In 1739 the British governor in Jamaica signed a treaty with the Maroons, promising them 2500 acres (10 km²) in two locations. They were to remain in their five main towns Accompong, Trelawny Town, Mountain Top, Scots Hall, Nanny Town, living under their own chief with a British supervisor. In exchange, they agreed not to harbour new runaway slaves, but rather to help catch them. The Maroons were also paid to return captured slaves and fight for the British in the case of an attack from the French or Spanish.
Nanny is known as one of the earliest leaders of slave resistance in the Americas, and one of very few women. She is celebrated in Jamaica and abroad.
- The government of Jamaica declared Queen Nanny a National Heroine in 1976. Her portrait graces the $500 Jamaican dollar bill, which is colloquially referred to as a "Nanny".
- Nanny's Monument is located in Moore Town, Portland, Jamaica.
- Nannyville Gardens, a residential community located in Kingston, Jamaica was founded in 1977.
- The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University uses Nanny's portrait in its logo. The Center sponsors research and conferences on slavery in the Americas.
- Gottlieb, Karla. The Mother of Us All: A History of Queen Nanny. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2000.
- Campbell, Mavis C. The Maroons of Jamaica, 1655-1796. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press. 1990.
Among the early historians to mention the Jamaican Maroons were the following:
- R. C. Dallas, The History of the Maroons, From Their Origin to the Establishment of their Chief Tribe at Sierra Leone. 1803
- Bryan Edwards, History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies. 1793.
- Edward Long, The History of Jamaica. 1774