Nanny Grig (late 1700s—early 1800s), an enslaved Creole of African descent known for her role in the 1816 rebellion in Barbados, was born in the late 1700s in Barbados. Her name also appears in historical documents as “Nanny Grigg.” A domestic on the Simmons Plantation in St. Philip, Barbados, Grig has been characterized by the historian Hilary Beckles (1999) as a woman who “took liberties” and was the “principal conceptualiser and ideologue of the 1816 rebellion” in Barbados (p. 163). Although Beckles situates Grig’s participation in the revolt as a performance in the politics of freedom and as an example of “matriarchal leadership,” Grig’s participation was more than this. Indeed, she challenged the conception of black women as little more than brute labor for an insatiable plantation economy and as easy sexual targets for voracious plantation owners.
In most histories of slave revolts, particularly those characterized as violent or involving some type of warfare, the rebellious slave is invariably characterized as male—as someone driven by the gendered behavior of violence as much as by attempts to correct injustice. Nanny Grig shatters these imaginings. This enslaved woman was as much a thorn in the side of colonial officials as any enslaved male. Her name was written in the colonial documents and uttered from dockets not because of her docility and acceptance of the idea of her rightful place in society, but because of her participation in a revolt as one of the “infuriated ravagers” (Report from a Select Committee, 1818, p. 4).
Information about Grig’s participation in the revolt of 14 April 1816, which is known most commonly as “Bussa’s Rebellion,” was summed up in testimony from Robert, an enslaved man who was also from the Simmons Plantation. According to him, Grig’s participation in the rebellion was unequivocal. Indeed, if Robert’s testimony is to be believed, it was Grig who “first” spread the word among the enslaved that they were to be freed on “New-year’s Day,” 1816. Grig claimed to have learned about this impending freedom from reading the newspaper. A fortnight after New Year’s Day, Grig informed the other enslaved persons that they were to be freed on Easter Monday, and that the only way to get their freedom was to “fight for it, otherwise they would not get it” (Report from a Select Committee, 1818, p. 29). Grig detailed what this fight was to look like: the enslaved were to “set fire,” a tactic used during the Haitian Revolution. “Set fire” seems to refer to the literal and figurative destruction of the plantations and anything that was representative of them.
In assessing Grig’s historical contributions, we can say that she defied the plantocracy and the narratives that located blacks as “slaves” and nothing more. By spreading ideas of revolt, she was creating her own counter-discourse. Grig also ensured her own “immortality” by forcing herself into the archival record, and consequently into the historiography on slave rebellions. This was exemplified at the Celebration of the Day of Women of the Americas in 2009, when the Barbadian historian Trevor Marshall argued that she should be recognized as one of Barbados’s national heroes. Thus Marshall, like Robert and the colonial officials, recognized the way in which Grig had defied circumstance and the slave society to argue for her place in society on her own terms.
Read the full, original biography by Dawn Harris in the The Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography.
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McGreevy, Nora. "Barbados Breaks with Elizabeth II to Become the World's Newest Republic." Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, 2 Dec. 2021, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/barbados-elizabeth-british-empire-republic-180979147/?edit.
Beckles, Hilary McDonald. “Taking Liberties: Enslaved Women and Anti-slavery Politics.” In Centering Woman: Gender Discourses in Caribbean Slave Society, pp. 182–198. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 1999.
The Report from a Select Committee of the House of Assembly, Appointed to Inquire into the Origin, Causes, and Progress, of the Late Insurrection. Barbados: Printed (by order of the Legislature) by W. Walker, Mercury and Gazette Office; London: Reprinted for T. Cadell and W. Davies, Strand, 1818.
Jennifer Mojica Santana
Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center