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.
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.
Briona S. Jones and Steven J. Niven
Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.