The African Jamaican heroine Nanny, also affectionately known as “Granny Nanny,” is a symbol of African agency, resistance, and freedom. In the 18th century, Nanny became the spiritual, cultural, and military leader of the Windward or Eastern Jamaican Maroon community. Nanny has been excluded from much of the written literature on Jamaican history, and much of what is known about her has been passed down from generation to generation by way of oral tradition, in addition to several written references. In some cases, many of the historical accounts of Nanny come from second-and third-hand sources, in many cases unreliable, such as those provided by racist British writers of the 18th and 19th centuries and Maroon captives being held under duress by Europeans. Nanny's legacy has also been passed on from generation to generation by way of song, storytelling, and ceremonies commemorating her leadership and accomplishments on behalf of African people in Jamaica.
Although these sources are sometimes contradictory, there is some agreed-on knowledge with regard to Nanny's legacy. In 1975, the Jamaican government inducted Nanny as a national hero, and her portrait now appears on the Jamaican 500-dollar bill. Most important, her legacy of unyielding resistance and freedom fighting lives on in the hearts and minds of people of African descent. Her legacy is perpetuated through stories, sayings, language, ceremonies, rituals, symbols, objects, and places named in her honor.
Nanny is believed to have been born in the Gold Coast area of West Africa (today's Ghana) to the Ashanti people during the late 17th century. The name Nanny is said to be a combination of the word nana, an honorable title given to Ashanti chiefs, and ni, which means first mother. It is reported that, along with her brothers Cudjoe, Accompong, Johnny, Cuffy, and Quao, Nanny was transported as a free woman from Africa to Jamaica in the early 18th century. While in Jamaica, Nanny, along with her five brothers, abandoned the British and joined the already existing Maroon community. The Maroons were formerly enslaved Africans who originally escaped from Spanish enslavement as the Spanish fought against the British. The British eventually won colonial control of Jamaica.
By 1720, Nanny had assumed leadership of Moor Town or the Blue Mountain Rebel Town, which eventually became known as Nanny Town. Nanny Town consisted of approximately 300 freedom fighters under Nanny's command. The Maroon communities made themselves responsible for freeing enslaved Africans from British slavery and colonialism as well as resisting European cultural dominance by preserving African culture, identity, and knowledge through African customs and cultural practices. Nanny was known for her leadership, military genius, spiritual prowess, and healing abilities. She was also able to use her military tactics and strategies to beguile and manipulate British soldiers, in many cases rendering them defenseless against attacks and counterattacks from Maroon warriors. Nanny trained Maroons to camouflage themselves to blend in with the trees and branches and to use the abeng, special horns to communicate with one another over long distances. She ordered lookouts to warn of approaching Europeans, and she commissioned spies on sugar plantations to find out when the British were planning to attack them. It is said that under Nanny's leadership, more than 800 enslaved Africans were rescued from slavery and brought to freedom in the Maroon communities of Jamaica over a period of 50 years.
African spirituality had played a central role in Maroon military struggles for freedom, and Nanny was known for summoning the powers of the ancestors to provide their assistance. The colonial authorities referred to Nanny as an Obeah, an Akan word signifying a person with advanced spiritual powers. In Jamaica, the term was used to refer to a person who practices traditional African religion. Nanny used her spiritual knowledge to communicate with African ancestors and protect her community from harm. She provided the members of her Maroon community with spiritual training so that they could maintain their health and protect themselves. The spiritual system that Nanny preserved was referred to as the Kromantee Religion, heavily influenced by the Akan of Ghana. The word Karomantee is the name of a particular area in Ghana. Most of the leaders of the Winward maroons were from Ghana. According to the legend of Nanny, her spiritual power made her resistant to the deadly threat of European weapons. It is said that Nanny had the ability to catch the bullets fired by European soldiers and redirect them toward her enemy. Nanny was also able to use her extensive knowledge of herbs to heal members of the Maroon community.
After decades of resistance and freedom fighting, in around 1734, it is alleged that Nanny met her death at the hands of African collaborators who were compensated by the British for fighting against their African brethren in the Maroon communities. This event is doubted due to an abundance of evidence that she lived up until the 1750s. Nanny vehemently opposed signing treaties with the British because she feared they were only attempting to subvert autonomous African communities in Jamaica. However, several of the Maroon communities eventually signed land grant treaties with the British. The treaties allowed the Maroons to occupy their own communities. In exchange, the Maroons had to agree to help the British government catch and return runaway Africans to slavery, to keep and maintain a number of white men on their land, and help put down slave rebellions. It is said that, although Nanny detested the idea of compromising with European authorities, white planters in Jamaica consistently surrounded and threatened to take over the Maroon communities, forcing those who still held territory to sign land agreements. In 1734, a land grant treaty agreement was drawn up in Nanny's name, although it is doubtful that she in fact signed the document herself, and there is no evidence of Nanny's compliance with stipulations in the treaty demanding the capture of escaped Africans, keeping white men on her land, and fighting alongside the British.
- Gottlieb, K. (2000). The Mother of Us All. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
- Monteith, K., and Richards, G. (2002). Jamaica in Slavery and Freedom: History, Heritage and Culture. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press.
- Price, R. (1996). Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Zips, W (1999). African-Caribbean Freedom Fighters in Jamaica. Princeton, NJ: Marcus Wiener Publishers.