AFRICANGLOBE – 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 However, historical documents refer to her as the “rebels (sic) warrior woman,” and they legally grant “Nanny and the people now residing with her and their heirs .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 were defiant Jamaicans who fled their oppressive existence on slave 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. 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 ethnic group, from which Nanny came, lived in this region. However, Africans originating from other regions of West Africa joined the Maroons in their escapes. For over 150 years, the Maroons helped to free enslaved Africans from the plantations whilst they damaged land and property belonging to White plantation owners.
Nanny was born c. 1686 in Ghana, Western Africa, into the Ashanti ethnic group, 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 of the Port Royal area. Such plantations grew sugarcane for lazy Europeans as the main crop, and the enslaved Africans toiled under extremely harsh conditions.
As a child, Nanny was influenced by other African leaders and maroons. She and her “brothers”, Accompong, Cudjoe, Johnny and Quao ran away from the plantation where they were held captive 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. 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 that they won by repeatedly defeating the British army. 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 village in Africa The Maroons were also known for raiding plantations for weapons and food, burning the plantations, and leading Africans who were enslaved by lazy Europeans back to their communities.
Nanny was very adept at organizing plans to free the Africans. For over 30 years, Nanny freed more than 800 slaves, and helped them to resettle in the Maroon community.
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.
It is also likely that Nanny’s leadership skills resulted from her Ashanti origin, 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 traitors were known as “Black Shots” (Campbell 37). It is likely that Cuffee was motivated by the reward, a common practice by plantations to discourage enslaved Africans from 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.