The unrest that swept across Jamaica in the 17th century transformed the colonial plantations into fiery wastelands of ash and cinder. Like an unbreakable fever, the desire for freedom gripped the island’s slaves. On plantation after plantation, estate after estate, they defied their oppressors and set the dreaded cane fields ablaze…
In fact, slaves had been rebelling ever since Spanish colonists brought them to the island from West Africa in the 16th century. Those who successfully escaped their masters tended to retreat into the rugged Blue Mountains of the island’s interior. There they formed “Maroon” communities or merged with existing indigenous Arawak populations. Over the years, the rebel strongholds grew strong, especially after the British invaded in 1655.
Initially, the British established a formidable presence on the island. In fact, in the years immediately following the British conquest in 1655, there were some 12,000 white colonists living in Jamaica. But by 1662 their population had fallen by three-quarters. And without adequate numbers to enforce control over the island, the British faced a protracted slave rebellion lasting more than seven decades. One of the rebel leaders was a remarkable woman known only as “Nanny.”
Nanny’s younger days are shrouded in mystery, but she is believed to have been born around 1686 in modern-day Ghana. In fact, Nanny was a member of the Asante tribe – a West African people who fought fiercely against European incursions. She was probably captured by a rival group, sold into slavery and shipped to Jamaica. It’s thought that Nanny was then forced to labor in a sugar cane plantation near to Port Royal.
According to legend, Nanny escaped from slavery with her “brothers” Accompong, Cudjoe and Quao (it’s unclear whether they were true blood relatives or merely “brothers-in-arms”). How and when they broke free is not known for certain, but it’s likely that they fled to the Blue Mountains during a major uprising on Sutton’s plantation in 1690. Indeed, most of the estate’s 400 slaves escaped during the rebellion.
The rebels formed into two groups. Cudjoe and Accompong led the so-called Leeward Maroons on the west side of Jamaica. Nanny and Quao led the Windward Maroons on the east of the island. Their de facto capital was Nanny Town, which occupied a defensive position on an isolated ridge in the Blue Mountains. The settlement was well-guarded and In the event of trouble, the guards could muster soldiers by blowing a horn.
Meanwhile, Nanny waged guerrilla war on the British. She taught her warriors how to fight and raid, use camouflage, and ambush the enemy via decoys. Nanny also taught her people the value of liberty, autonomy and self-governance. Above all, she inspired them to show courage in the face of oppression.
And over the course of three decades, Nanny led many raids against British plantations. She burned down the estates, stole their weapons and resources, and freed a multitude of slaves. In fact, Nanny is believed to have liberated at least 1,000 of them during her lifetime. For that reason above all others, she is regarded as a hero.
Nanny has been described as a slight woman with a lean frame and a penetrating gaze. As well as a military organizer, she was a community chief who helped to safeguard cultural traditions. She was also a spiritual leader and was thought by her followers to possess supernatural powers.
In fact, Nanny was a practitioner of Obeah – a West African religion that involves black and white sorcery and the petitioning of spirits and ancestors, much like Voodoo. Nanny was even thought to be able to magically deflect British bullets. She was also said to be a knowledgeable herbalist and a healer.
As time went on, Nanny Town grew and flourished, its population enlarged by wave after wave of newly liberated slaves. This became a major embarrassment for the island’s colonial overseers – and a major threat to the plantation owners. Something had to be done, they decided, so they created companies of army conscripts, militia fighters and mercenaries. They then sent them into the jungle to root out the Maroon communities.
Among the hunters were so-called “black shots” – Afro-Caribbean freemen who worked as guns for hire. One of them, Captain William Cuffee, also known as Captain Sambo, is said to have killed Nanny in battle. “Captain Sambo… [is] a very good party negro,” stated the Journal of the Assembly of Jamaica on March 29-30, 1733, “having killed Nanny, the rebels’ old obeah woman.” However, there were also reports that Nanny survived any such attack.
Indeed, according to a least one version of the story, Nanny not only endured but also led a group of 300 refugees across the island to join the Leeward Maroons led by Cudjoe. However, Cudjoe apparently refused to accept them and the group was forced to turn back.
Then, in 1734 the last remnants of Nanny Town were allegedly destroyed by a British officer named Captain Stoddard. “[He] found the huts in which the negros were asleep,” claimed an account of the attack penned by plantation-owner Bryan Edwards five decades after the supposed incident. “[And he] fired upon them so briskly, that many were slain in their habitations.” However, other historical evidence suggests that in fact fewer than ten Maroons were killed in the incident.
In 1739 and 1740 the British finally made peace first with Cudjoe and the Leeward Maroons, and later with Nanny and the Windward Maroons. The treaties stipulated the provision of some 2,500 acres of land for the Maroons, of which one-fifth went to Nanny and her followers. There they founded New Nanny Town. It was one of five major Maroon settlements, each one governed by a Maroon chief and overseen a British supervisor.
The treaties also stipulated that in exchange for land, the Maroons must assist the British in rounding up newly escaped slaves and returning them to the plantations. The Maroons were also expected to serve in wars against other European colonial powers. Nonetheless, the peace held firm initially, and New Nanny Town thrived for half a century. However, in 1795 a second Maroon war broke out.
The conflict went on for more than half a year and concluded with the surrender of the Maroons. Of course, Nanny was almost certainly dead by then, although the exact date of her passing is unknown. Some claim she was killed by Captain Sambo in 1733. Others say she survived, which is why her name appears in land records dating to 1740. To confuse matters further, “Nanny” was a title given to several women of high standing in Maroon society at this time.
Whatever the circumstances of her death, though, Nanny is today an icon of resistance. Her legacy has been the subject of numerous works of art, poetry, songs and folklore. What’s more, the Jamaican $500 bill features her portrait and is known as a “Nanny.” In 1982 the Maroon rebel leader was officially made a national hero and granted the title of the “Right Excellent Nanny of the Maroons.”
Meanwhile, New Nanny Town (where Nanny was apparently buried) was later renamed Moore Town. Despite the name change, though, it remains a bastion of Maroon cultural traditions, including sophisticated drumming techniques and a dialect called Kromanti, which stems from the Akan languages of West Africa. And a Moore Town ceremony called the “Kromanti Play” was named a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations in 2003.
Ultimately, Maroon sovereignty was recognized by the Government of Jamaica after the island gained independence in 1962. Today, Moore Town is governed by an elected “Colonel.” And the Maroons’ “right for self-government in matters relating to local affairs” is enshrined by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007). Thanks to Nanny and her warriors, then, Maroon culture has endured. And resistance, it seems, is the key to cultural survival.