Nanny of the Maroons
By Ras Abimelech
Queen Nanny or Nanny a 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 However, historical documents refer to her as the “rebels (sic) old obeah woman,” and they legally grant “Nanny and the people now residing with her and their heirs .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 . . .”. 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, in their communities. 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 Akan region of West Africa. The Ashanti tribe, from which Nanny came, lived in this region. However, 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 soldiers 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 kmÂ²) 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 4 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. 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, practised 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.
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.
1. The government of Jamaica declared Queen Nanny a National Heroine in 1976. Her portrait graces the $500 Jamaican dollar bill, which is referred to as a “Nanny”.
2. Nanny’s Monument is located in Moore Town, Portland, Jamaica.
3. Nannyville Gardens, a residential community located in Kingston, Jamaica was founded in 1977.
4. 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