Nanny of the Maroons
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Exhibiting the courageous fighting spirit found in military leaders, Nanny of the Maroons established herself in history as Jamaica’s only female national hero. She became known for all time as a symbol of Jamaica’s strength and dogged resolution to maintain independence. Nanny led her people against the colonizers during the First Maroon War known by the British settlers as an outstanding military leader.
Queen Nanny or Nanny (1686 – 1733), Jamaican National Hero, was a well-known leader of the Jamaican Maroonsin the eighteenth century. Historical documents refer to her as the "rebels (sic) old obeahwoman," and they legally grant "Nanny and the people now residing with her and their heirs.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 Townwas founded on this land. Much of what is known about Nanny comes from oral history as little textual evidence exists .
The Maroonswere defiant Jamaican slaves who fled their oppressive existence on 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 Akanregion of West Africa. The Ashante tribe, from which Nanny came, lived in this region. However, slaves originating from other regions of West Africa joined the Maroons in their escapes. For over 150 years, the Maroons helped to free slaves from the plantations whilst they damaged land and property belonging to the plantation owners.
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Nanny’s Life and Work
Nanny was born 1686 in Ghana, Western Africa, into the Ashantitribe, 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 Royalarea. Such plantations grew sugarcane as the main crop, and the slaves toiled under extremely harsh conditions.
As a child, Nanny was influenced by other slave leaders and maroons. She and her brothers, Accompong, Cudjoe, Johnny and Quao ran away from their plantation and hid in the Blue Mountainsarea of northern Saint Thomas Parish. While in hiding, they split up to organize more Maroon communities across Jamaica: Cudjoe went to Saint James Parishand 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, but had no children.
Nanny and her brothers became folk heroes. Her most famous brother, Cudjoe, went on to lead several slave rebellions in Jamaica with the aid of her other brothers.
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 granted to the runaway slaves. 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 tribein Africa. The Maroons were also known for raiding plantations for weapons and food, burning the plantations, and leading slaves back to their communities.
Nanny was very adept at organizing plans to free slaves. For over 30 years, Nanny freed more than 800 slaves, and helped them to resettle in the Maroon community.
Nanny’s Leadership and Obeah
Many in her community attributed Nanny's leadership skills to her Obeahpowers (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 introduced by European colonials and slave owners.
It is also likely that Nanny's leadership skills resulted from her tribe of origin, Ashanti, 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.
Attacks on Nanny Town
Between 1728 and 1734, Nanny Townand other Maroon settlements were frequently attacked by British forces. After Nanny's death (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", Maroons were skilled at disguising themselves as bushes and trees. The Maroons also utilized decoys to trick the British into a surprise attack. This was done by having non-disguised Maroons run out into view of the British and then run in the direction of the fellow Maroons who were disguised. After falling into these ambushes several times, the British had to resort to their own trickery: Captain Stoddart "found the huts in which the negroes were asleep", and "fired upon them so briskly, that many were slain in their habitations".
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”. These hired soldiers were known as "Black Shots”. It is likely that Cuffee was motivated by the reward, a common practice by plantations to discourage slaves escaping.
Nanny's remains are buried at "Bump Grave" in Moore Town, one of the communities established by the Windward Maroons in Portland Parish.