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Stories / Nanny of the Maroons

Nanny of the Maroons

Nanny of the Maroons was likely born into an Akan in present-day Ghana. Nanny is the first and foremost leader of the Windward Maroons of Jamaica, an autonomous community of self-emancipated enslaved.people. Dispossessed of her homeland sometime around the turn of the eighteenth century, she survived the  Middle Passage across the Atlantic. In the legend that distinguishes Maroons from Jamaicans, Nanny and her sister, Sekesu, arrived in Jamaica. Nanny escaped into the mountains, establishing the lineage of Maroons; Sekesu remained enslaved, establishing the lineage of Jamaican non-Maroons. Alongside  this mythical arrival in Jamaica, a growing consensus among contemporary Maroon leaders argues that  she arrived in Jamaica with her brother, Kojo.  

Nanny and Kojo plagued the British plantation owners and soldiers so fiercely that they forced the  British to draw up a treaty with the Maroons, formally declaring their autonomy from the Crown in 1738 and 1739, and again in 1796. A 1741 land grant stipulates the gift of five hundred acres to Nanny  and her people. This area, originally called New Nanny Town, is now called Moore Town, and on the  annual Jamaican observance of National Heroes Day in mid-October, locals celebrate Nanny Day, commemorating the founder of their community. At some point during her life in Jamaica, it is possible that she married a man named Adou. She had no children, and yet all “true-born Maroons”—those who  can trace an endogamous Maroon genealogy—claim her as their ancestor. It is believed that she died  sometime in the 1750s.

Nanny’s Maroon Town grew in the first half of the eighteenth century, following the social organization  of matrifocal Akan society, and swelling to the size of between eight hundred and a thousand people.  Protecting Nanny Town from invasion and administering spiritual and physical sustenance though  natural and supernatural means marked the parameters of Nanny’s responsibilities. While the colonists  referred sparingly and negatively to the Maroons in their records, enforcing a kind of discursive  invisibility on them and rendering them without history, the Maroons themselves made judicious use of  the tactics of invisibility in guerilla warfare to obstruct the colonists’ desire to find, overtake, and  enslave them. Nanny strategically positioned her community along a 900-foot precipice that  overlooked the Stony River. From this position and from others nearby, she advised her Maroon  warriors on the techniques of concealment, misdirection, and ambush. She covered them in branches  and leaves, cloaking them from soldiers’ sight, and used an abeng, a cow’s horn also used among Akan  tribes, to signal the moment of surprise attack. 

In the long-standing oral tradition recomposed by Windward and Leeward Maroons, Nanny is a central  figure and the foremost ancestor of both groups. Several stories about Nanny recur, and some of them  have their roots in the colonial writings on Jamaica. In colonial discourse, these stories seek to prove Nanny’s diabolical use of obeah, a British term for West African-based witchcraft, but here referring to  what Maroons describe as Nanny’s oracular wisdom and science, or the mixture of natural and  supernatural practices that make up her abilities. These Maroon stories reveal Nanny as an  astoundingly gifted leader of her people, at times magically saving them from certain death. Three  stories were transposed from the oral tradition and published in the Daily Gleaner by the Maroon  Colonel C. L. G. Harris in 1967, reformatting Nanny’s achievements into written form, which catalyzed  the effort to historicize this legendary figure of Jamaican national identity. 

The story that is most repeated in the oral histories, and most critiqued by scholars of marronage,  concerns Nanny’s ability to catch and fire bullets with her buttocks—a tale that did not appear in print  until Thomas’s Untrodden Jamaica (1890). Twentieth-century writing on Nanny regularly refers to her  bullet-catching abilities. Kamau Brathwaite and Carolyn Cooper have led the efforts to critique this  talent rather than simply repeat it. In Wars of Respect (1977), Brathwaite suggests that while Nanny’s  abilities as a bullet catcher can be traced to similar alleged feats reported among African military  maneuvers, the reference to the power of her buttocks is an attempt in colonial discourse to vulgarize  and denigrate the fearsome power and presence that Nanny commanded. By focusing on one part of  her body at the expense of considering the whole, colonial discourse and the oral histories of the  Maroons commit a synecdochic violence on Nanny, eliding her other major qualities, such as leading,  nurturing, and healing. Cooper highlights the empowering possibilities inherent in bodily acts  committed by women, placing Nanny at the beginning of a practice by which Jamaican women assert  authority through the self-conscious vulgarization of their own bodies. Brathwaite joins Cooper in  consensus on this point in a 1994 reflection on Nanny, when he suggests that her bullet-catching feat is  at the root of the Jamaican woman’s practice of showing her backside to express insult toward another. 

As a powerful Maroon leader and a Jamaican National Hero, Nanny is celebrated in oral history,  scholarship, and imaginative writing as the quintessential Jamaican woman, and as the figure through  which African traditions are translated into a Caribbean setting. To begin the study of Jamaican  resistance history with Nanny argues that the story of the African diaspora begins not with “slavery  and conquest, but [with] the common human heritage of freedom and exploration” (Cooper, 1994 , p.  109). By this logic, the upright and powerful image of Nanny, refusing to countenance the British while  nurturing her Maroon community and its descendants, replaces the paradigmatic image of the man in  chains. 

In the 1980s, Caribbean fiction began to incorporate Nanny and the stories associated with her as a  way of reanimating folk traditions, histories of resistance, and feminist genealogies in the region. In Michelle Cliff’s Clare Savage novels, Abeng (1984) and No Telephone to Heaven (1987),  Nanny appears as the spectral presence of refusal and resistance that guides the protagonist toward  reclaiming a Jamaican identity. The Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé takes a more critical approach  to Nanny in her novella Nanna-Ya (1999). Though none of Nanny’s achievements  are diminished in the  novel, she has become an ancestral figure used by the modern-day Maroon characters to distinguish  themselves from Jamaicans, cleaving national identity into those descended from freedom fighters and  those descended from slaves.

Read the full, original biography by Erin M. Fehskens in The Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography.

View complete story (pdf)

Online Resources

Jamaican Government 
https://jis.gov.jm/information/heroes/nanny-of-the-maroons/

Bibliography

Bilby, Kenneth, and Filomina Chioma Steady. “Black Women and Survival: A Maroon Case.” In The Black Woman Cross-Culturally, edited by Filomena Chioma Steady, pp. 451–467.  Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkmann, 1981.

Brathwaite, E. Kamau. “Nanny, Palmares and the Caribbean Maroon Connexion.” In Maroon  Heritage: Archaeological, Ethnographic, and Historical Perspectives, edited by E. Kofi Agorsah,  pp. 119–138. Barbados: Canoe, 1994.

Brathwaite, E. Kamau. Wars of Respect: Nanny, Sam Sharpe, and the Struggle for People’s  Liberation. Kingston, Jamaica: API for the National Heritage Week Committee, 1977. 

Campbell, Mavis C. The Maroons of Jamaica, 1655–1796: A History of Resistance, Collaboration  and Betrayal. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World, 1990.

Cooper, Carolyn. “ ‘Resistance Science: Afrocentric Ideology in Vic Reid’s Nanny Town.” In Maroon Heritage: Archaeological, Ethnographic, and Historical Perspectives, edited by E. Kofi  Agorsah, pp. 109–118. Barbados: Canoe, 1994. 

Gottlieb, Karla. The Mother of Us All: A History of Queen Nanny, Leader of the Windward  Jamaican Maroons. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World, 2000.

Sharpe, Jenny. Ghosts of Slavery: A Literary Archaeology of Black Women’s Lives. Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 2003. 

Zips, Werner. Nanny’s Asafo Warriors: The Jamaican Maroon’s African Experience. Translated by Francesca Deakin. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 2011.

Adapted by

Briona S. Jones and Steven J. Niven

Contributing Institutions

Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Nanny of the Maroons on the $500 Jamaican banknote.

Key Events

c. 1680

born enslaved in present-day Ghana, into an Akran group

1738-1739

Nanny and her brother Kojo formally declare autonomy from the Crown

1741

land grant stipulates that five hundred acres are given to Nanny and her people

c. 1750

Nanny dies sometime around the 1750s in the original Nanny Town, as a uniting figure for the Windward and Leeward Maroons.

1975

Michael Manley government claiming her as a Jamaican National Hero in 1975. She is the only woman and the only Maroon, in the national pantheon.

1994

Nanny’s image appears on the new $500 Jamican banknote.