Shrouded in mystery, the tales of one of Jamaica’s most revered national heroes comes to us only by word-of-mouth and scraps of surviving text.
Born in 1685 in the Asante Empire – modern-day Ghana – Nanny was a young lady village was attacked by beastly slave traders. She was captured and sold off to slavery, being thrust on a boat and packed alongside hundreds of other slaves who were being forced by the greedy European slave traders to go and work in the New World – plantations in Jamaica, Brazil, etc.
Upon her arrival, she was sold off to a plantation in the Port Royal Area, near the Saint Thomas Parish.
She was forced to work in the sugarcane farms. She was forced to toil in the hot sun to pander to the whims of the cruel slave-owners.
However, amongst the many slaves were many courageous revolutionaries who did not want to accept that life. Young Nanny was a descendant of one of Africa’s proudest empires, and she was influenced very early on to live up to that heritage.
Eventually, Nanny and her peers (Accompong, Cudjoe, Johnny&Quao) fled the plantation and hid in the Blue Mountains, towards the north of their prison. From there, they decided to help free all the salves in Jamaica. They all split up and founded settlements for free slaves; Nanny went with Quao to Portland Parish and founded communities in Portland Parish. There she married a Maroon called Adou.
The Maroons were descendants of slaves stolen from their homelands. They were mainly made up of descendants of Arawaks and Asante people. The former were the original inhabitants of Jamaica, and the latter were from the proud African Empire. They intermarried and formed strong ties, and eventually became one people; they were also composed of many people from other places. Essentially, the Maroons were a band of runaway slaves combating colonialist rule.
They were considered skilled fighters and often trapped and ambushed colonialist raiding parties out to re-capture them. They built free slave communities in many places and fought bravely to regain their freedom.
There were two main bands of Maroons: the Windward and Leeward bands. The former was headed by Queen Nanny, and the latter by Captain Cudjoe, as they came to be known. The Maroons would fight the sick cruelty and invasion of the slave traders for over 150 years.
Queen Nanny started to become a popular figure amongst slaves because of her work – freeing slaves. She established many communities and came to be the head of the WINDWARD Maroons. She was notorious amongst the governors of Jamaica for her raids on plantations, freeing slaves and burning down places of torture used by the colonialists.
By 1720, Nanny had established a major community called Nanny Town; 500 acres of free land for runaway slaves. It overlooked Stony River through a 9000m high ridge, and was thus impervious to sneak attacks by the British
They became an organized stronghold, founding a contingent of warriors to help slaves who were being chased. These men were summoned by a horn called an Aubeng, and they were alerted by sentries posted at several locations surrounding the town.
The village supported itself economically through raids on cruel slave-owner’s homes and plantations, as well as through trade with local merchants. They would disguise themselves as normal slaves and obtain the resources they needed.
The Maroon settlement in Nanny Town lived a typical Asante life – farming, hunting and rearing animals for consumption
Efforts to capture and/or kill her often failed because of her ingenuity; she had only created a single entry into her base of operations, and for anyone to gain access to her they would have to go through a thin pass that could only allow 2 men side-by-side.
Queen Nanny was very successful in her operations, freeing up to 800 slaves in her lifetime. She was a traditional healer of the Obeah religion, and her knowledge of herbs and roots was invaluable to her counterparts, as they often had to make do with very little. This was one of the reasons she has such a high standing in her society, and rose to become a revered leader.
Queen Nanny’s death remains a mystery, and nobody is quite sure about what happened.
However, a publication of the Journal of the Assembly of Jamaica (the newspaper of that time) dated 29th-30th March 1733 claims that one of the slaves paid to fight other slaves, a man named William Cuffee was responsible for “having killed Nanny, the rebels old obeah woman”. The veracity of the publication is of course up to interpretation, but it remains the only reference to her death up to today.
Contradictory reports claim that in 1739, “Nanny & her descendants”were granted a parcel of land named Nanny Town. It is rumoured that she diee there in 1760s, an old woman. The confusion is compounded by the fact that many women were granted the title “Nanny” in Maroon Town as a sign of high social status.
After Nanny’s official death, many Maroons left Nanny Town and went to join up with Captain Cudjoe’s Maroons.
In 1976, the Jamaican Government granted her rightful place as a national hero, and she is greatly celebrated in her nation.