Queen Nanny or Nanny (c. 1686 – c. 1755), a Jamaica National Hero, was an 18th-century leader of the Jamaican Maroons. Much of what is known about her comes from oral history, as little textual evidence exists. She was born into the Asante people in what is today Ghana, and escaped from slavery after being transported to Jamaica.
Historical documents refer to her as the "rebels' old 'obeah' woman." Following some armed confrontations, colonial officials reached a settlement for peace. They legally granted "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 but was destroyed during the First Maroon War in 1734. Another Maroon town was founded by survivors and later known as Moore Town.
The Maroons are descendants of West Africans, mainly people from the Akan Asante people of what is today Ghana. They were known as Coromantie or Koromantee, and were considered ferocious fighters. A minority of slaves originated from other regions of Africa, including the Congo and Madagascar. After being brought to Jamaica in the course of the Transatlantic slave trade, many slaves fled from the oppressive conditions of plantations and formed their own communities in the rugged, hilly interior of the island. People who escaped from slavery joined the other Maroons. Up to the 1650s under Spanish rule, slaves escaped and intermarried with the native islanders, the Arawak people, in their communities in the Blue Mountains (Jamaica), located in Portland Parish and Saint Thomas Parish, Jamaica, in the eastern end of the island.
Later, after the British assumed control of the colony, more slaves escaped joining the two main bands of Windward and Leeward Maroons. By the early 18th century, these were headed respectively by Nanny of the Maroons and Captain Cudjoe. From 1655 until they signed peace treaties in 1739 and 1740, these Maroons led most of the slave rebellions in Jamaica, helping to free slaves from the plantations. They raided and then damaged lands and buildings held by plantation owners.
Life and work
Nanny was born into the Asante tribe/nation about 1686 in what is now Ghana, West Africa. 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 transported to Jamaica. There she was likely sold to a plantation in Saint Thomas Parish, just outside the Port Royal area. The commodity crop was sugarcane, and the slaves toiled under extremely harsh conditions to cultivate, harvest and process it. Another version of her life tells that she was of royal African blood and came to Jamaica as a free woman. She may have been married to a man named Adou, but had no known children who survived.
As a child, Nanny was influenced by other slave leaders and maroons. One story says that she and her "brothers", Accompong, Cudjoe and Quao, ran away from their plantation and hid in the Blue Mountains. 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's Town (Trelawny Town); Accompong settled in Saint Elizabeth Parish, in a community that came to be known as Accompong Town; and Nanny and Quao founded communities in the Blue Mountains.
A more likely origin for the Leeward Maroons occurred in 1690 when there was a Coromantee rebellion on Sutton’s estate in western Jamaica, and most of these slaves ran away to form the Leeward Maroons. Cudjoe is probably the son of one of the leaders of this revolt. While Cudjoe emerged as the leader of the Leeward Maroons of the west, Nanny came to prominence as one of the main leaders of the Windward Maroons of the east.
By 1720, Nanny and Quao had settled and controlled an area in the Blue Mountains. It was later given the name Nanny Town. Nanny Town had a strategic location overlooking Stony River via a 900-foot (270 m) ridge, making a surprise attack by the British very difficult. The Maroons at Nanny Town also organized look-outs for such an attack, and designated certain warriors to be summoned by the sound of a horn called an abeng.
Nanny became a folk hero. While the British captured Nanny Town on more than one occasion, they were unable to hold on to it, in the wake of numerous guerrilla attacks from the Maroons. The Maroons waged a successful war against the British colonial forces over the course of a decade.
When Nanny Town was abandoned, the Windward Maroons under the command of Nanny moved to New Nanny Town, which consisted of 500 acres (2.4 km²) of land granted by the government to the refugee slaves under a 1740 treaty ending the First Maroon War.
The community raised animals, hunted, and grew crops. Maroons at Nanny Town and similar communities survived by sending traders to the nearby market towns to exchange food for weapons and cloth. It was organized very much like a typical Asante society in Africa.
The Maroons were also known for raiding plantations for weapons and food, burning the plantations, and leading freed slaves to join their mountain communities. Nanny was highly successful at organizing plans to free slaves. During a period of 30 years, she was credited with freeing more than 1000 slaves, and helping them to resettle in the Maroon community.
Many in her community attributed Nanny's leadership skills to her Obeah powers. Obeah is an African-derived religion that is still practised 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.
Nanny's tribe of origin, Asante, strongly resisted Europeans in West Africa and the New World. She was also likely influenced by her "brothers" and other Maroons in Jamaica. She can even be compared to Asante figures such as Nana Yaa Asantewaa 200 years later who also resisted the British for the sake of Ashanti independence.
Nanny possessed a wide knowledge of herbs and other traditional healing methods, practised by Africans and native islanders. She served as a physical and spiritual healer to her community, which in turn elevated her status and esteem.
Nanny shared the leadership of the Windward Maroons with Quao. The leaders of the Leeward Maroons during the conflict were Cudjoe and Accompong.
Attacks on Nanny Town
Between 1728 and 1734, during the First Maroon War, Nanny Town and other Maroon settlements were frequently attacked by British forces. They wanted to stop the raids and believed that the Maroons prevented settlement of the interior. According to some accounts, in 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."
In addition to the use of the ravine, resembling what Jamaicans call a "cockpit", the Maroons also used decoys to trick the British into ambushes. A few Maroons would run out into view of the British and then run in the direction of fellow Maroons who were hidden and would attack. After falling into these ambushes several times, the British retaliated. According to a planter named Bryan Edwards, who wrote his narrative half a century later, Captain Stoddart "found the huts in which the negroes were asleep", and "fired upon them so briskly, that many were slain in their habitations". However, recent evidence shows that the number of Windward Maroons killed by Stoddart in his attack on Nanny Town was in single digits.
In the Journal of the Assembly of Jamaica, 29–30 March 1733, is 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". These hired soldiers were known as "Black Shots".
Another record states that in 1740, a parcel of land named Nanny Town was awarded to "Nanny and her descendents" under a treaty with the colonial government. Some claim that Queen Nanny lived to be an old woman, dying of natural causes in the 1760s. The exact date of her death remains a mystery. 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. New Nanny Town was renamed Moore Town in the 1760s.
By 1760, New Nanny Town, now known as Moore Town, was under the command of a white superintendent named Swigle, and the Maroon leaders of that town, Clash and Sambo, reported to Swigle.
Representatives of the British governor in Jamaica signed a treaty with the Leeward Maroons in 1739 and the Windward Maroons in 1740. The colonial authorities promised them 2500 acres (10 km²) in two locations. The colonial authorities initially recognised two Maroon towns - Crawford's Town and Cudjoe's Town, later to be known as Trelawny Town. Eventually, there were five Maroon towns in the eighteenth century – Accompong Town, Trelawny Town, Charles Town, Scots Hall, and Nanny Town (later Moore Town) – living under their own chiefs with a British supervisor in each town. In exchange, they agreed not to harbour new runaway slaves, but to help catch them for bounties. The Maroons were also expected to fight for the British in the case of an attack from the French or Spanish.
Nanny is celebrated in Jamaica and abroad:
- The government of Jamaica declared Queen Nanny a National Hero 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 and named after her.
- The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University in the United States uses Nanny's portrait in its logo. The Center sponsors research and conferences on slavery in the Americas.
- Burning Spear, the Jamaican reggae singer, has a song titled "Queen of the Mountain," which is inspired by Queen Nanny.