Nanny (fl. 1730s)

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Nanny (fl. 1730s)

Afro-Jamaican chieftainess and key leader of the Maroons, descendants of escaped slaves who maintained their freedom by successfully waging guerilla warfare against white planters.

Nanny's date of birth and death are unknown to historians, and most details of her life are little more than tantalizing fragments. But her feats as a leader of the Maroons remain vivid in Jamaica's national consciousness. A major personality in her nation's history, she has embodied the spirit of defiance and pride of Jamaica's black population both during and after the savage era of slavery in the New World. Examples of resistance by both indigenous peoples and imported Africans against their slave masters are numerous. Among the most successful acts of organized defiance was that carried out by Jamaica's runaway slaves, the Maroons. They came from a number of different places. As early as the 16th century, when Jamaica was under Spanish rule, some Arawak Indians destined for enslavement escaped into the island's craggy hill regions to live in freedom. Another community of free mountain people was descended from Moor and Berber soldiers of fortune who arrived in the early 1500s. By far the largest number of Maroons, however, were those Africans who had escaped from slavery by establishing communities in the virtually impenetrable mountain range of midwestern Jamaica. Here they created viable settlements that retained many African traditions.

In 1655, a British fleet of 38 ships entered Kingston harbor. Desperate officials of the Spanish Crown gathered together slaves whose masters had fled, promising them clothes, money and freedom if they pledged to fight the British invaders until reinforcements arrived from Cuba. After the British conquered the island, they too made promises, in a bid to motivate a growing number of free blacks, the Maroons, to fight for Great Britain against Spanish attempts to return to the island. A regiment of blacks, led by Juan Lubola (Juan de Bolas), quickly became a seasoned military unit with members who were doubtless aware that they would be of crucial importance to the British effort to retain control of Jamaica. The leader of the Spanish forces, Don Cristoval Arnaldo Ysasi, noted ruefully: "All these negroes are very capable and experienced, not only as to the roads but as to all the mountains and most remote places." British Major General Sedgewick was aware of the double-edged sword inherent in the strategic decision to arm them: "Of the Blacks there are many who are like[ly] to prove thorns and pricks in our sides. They will be a great discouragement to the settling of a people here."

By the end of the 17th century, the Maroons were firmly established in their remote mountain retreats. They wished to be left alone to live in freedom and retain their African traditions. Whenever British forces appeared on their lands, they fought with a lethal combination of intelligence and tenacity. Rarely if ever did the British have the benefit of surprise: burdened with supplies and weapons, the Crown's soldiers wore colorful (and miserably hot) uniforms as they advanced, at best five miles a day, into the mountain jungles. Marching single file, the often undernourished and ill soldiers moved toward what was frequently their doom. In defense of their lands, Jamaica's Maroons communicated among themselves with gombay drum signals that relayed messages up the steep mountain passes. Some units relied on the mournful notes of the abeng, a cured cow-horn instrument, to pass on strategic information to their allies. Unlike the British, the Maroon warriors were able to take full advantage of surprise; fear of ambush consistently sapped the invaders' morale.

Although there were probably not more than a thousand Maroons living freely in the Jamaican mountains in the year 1700, they could not be subdued or re-enslaved. Their defiance of the planters posed a constant threat to the entire system of slavery upon which the colonial regime was based. With a European population that was outnumbered more than ten to one by their slaves, the island's population of Maroons, who could not be crushed, served as a beacon of hope for the slave majority and an admission of white weakness. While absentee plantation owners lived ostentatious lives in London, their overseers and accountants in Jamaica often walked apprehensively through dense fields of towering sugar cane, knowing that the next instant could find them victim to a bloody Maroon ambush.

Voicing the planters' fears, a Jamaican governor pleaded for more assistance from the British Crown: "The teror [sic] of them spreads itself everywhere and the ravages and barbarities they commit have determined several planters to abandon their settlements. The evil is daily increasing. Our other slaves are continually deserting to them in great numbers and the insolence of them gives us cause to fear a general defection." In what turned out to be little more than an exercise in futility, the island's Assembly passed 44 Acts to suppress the Maroons, squandering a staggering £250,000.

The Maroons, regarded by whites as an all-encompassing embodiment of the black will to overthrow slavery, were by no means a united society. Having been formed over the centuries largely through chance opportunities for freedom, they never became completely homogeneous, but rather fashioned a protean collection of settlements united as much by the need to fight against the forces of re-enslavement as by any shared cultural experiences. They were descendants of Arawaks, Spanish-speaking Maroons, runaways from Barbados, refugees from shipwrecked slave ships, and even a few Madagascans. Some could point with pride to bloodlines that linked them to fierce Ashanti and Coromante warrior ancestors. Since they initially spoke many different African languages, over the years the Maroons evolved a common language, one based on a basic English vocabulary utilizing a West African grammar, that enabled their different villages to remain in contact with one another.

The women of Jamaica's several mountain settlements played a key role in maintaining the Maroons' cultural identity. Many of them were famous for their knowledge of the complex rituals and traditions of Obeah (Obi), an Africanbased "occult science" comparable to Voodoo in Haiti and Candomblé in northeast Brazil. Women often took part in battles and, as a result of their prowess in war, Maroon towns—like Diana, Molly, and Nanny—were named in their honor. Nanny was by far the most famous and respected leader of the Maroons, and she was uniquely honored by having two settlements named after her.

Surviving evidence suggests that she was a formidable military tactician, even if some exaggeration crept into the most detailed description of her, which comes from Phillip Thicknesse, a contemporary white observer of events in Jamaica. After accusing Nanny of sentencing a white emissary to death, Thicknesse described her as "The Old Hagg [who] had a girdle round her waist, with (I speak within compass) nine or ten different knives hanging in sheaths to it, many of which I doubt not had been plunged into human flesh and blood." The British authorities in Jamaica officially refused to accept the political authority of female military and spiritual leaders like Nanny, and it is therefore not surprising that contemporary documentation on her from the colonial side is scarce.

Nanny enjoyed a reputation of having slain British soldiers in battle with her own hands, and even in her own lifetime she was said to have the power to summon forth supernatural forces on behalf of her people. She was by no means unique, for women were often integral fighters in battles between former slaves and white soldiers. (In Dutch Surinam, the uprising of the "Seramica rebels" succeeded in maintaining the freedom of a group of slaves in 1728–30, and the uprising was crushed only when eleven of the captured rebels, eight of them women, were executed. Of the eight women, six died in agony on the rack, while the other two were decapitated. A contemporary observer, John Stedman, noted that "such was their resolution" under torture that the women submitted to these horrors "without uttering a sigh.")

Although Nanny most likely died some time in the middle of the 18th century, her military exploits lived on in the oral traditions of Jamaica's black population, both free and slave, well into the 19th century, as legends and inspirational tales about her were passed from generation to generation. These included a story that attributed to her the ability to catch British cannonballs between her buttocks and to fart them back into the ranks of the enemy forces with deadly effect. Larger-than-life tales of Nanny's defiance served to maintain the morale of the Maroon population at times when the fainthearted began to doubt the wisdom of continuing to resist. As a guerilla warrior par excellence, she embodied the martial skills of a people at home in their environment and thus at a great advantage over their invader enemies. An exasperated Governor Trelawny reported in 1738: "Here the greatest difficulty is not to beat, but to see the enemy.… In short, nothing can be done in strict conformity to the usual military preparations and according to a regular manner, bushfighting as they call it being a thing peculiar to itself."

Since Jamaica achieved its independence in August 1962, Nanny has been celebrated as one of the island nation's historical giants. Jamaican artists, including beloved poet Louise Simone Bennett , have often referred to Nanny's heroic deeds in their works. Even Jamaican banknotes pay homage to "Nanny of the Maroons." She is depicted on the current $500 note, in circulation since 1994.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia