Thursday 3 February 2011

"The rebels old obeah woman"

In Jamaica we have what are called our National Heroes, people who are honored for their exemplary service to the Country, as freedom fighters, politicians, or simply those who’s voices carried deep to inspire our countrymen in their greatest times of need. The only woman among the original 7 National Heroes, is a woman, all women should take pride in. Her name is Queen Nanny.

No one is quite sure when Nanny was born, but she was a fierce young woman when she arrived on the island in c1686. She and several of her people, as well as several of her brothers were from the Asante' or Ashanti tribe of Ghana, West Africa; were captured and were brought across on the "Middle Passage" and dropped off in Jamaica, to a plantation in Saint Thomas Parish, where they were made to raise sugar cane.

Nanny, who many of her followers claim, was the daughter of the leader of their tribe, chose to run away with her brothers, rather than be a slave. They ran for the Blue Mountains, which is the interior of the island, there they created several free holds for other slaves to run away to.  These independent African societies were complete with towns, crops and armies, the ranks of which were constantly being supplied by newly freed runaways. Nanny Town, as it later came to be called, which was founded in 1720, by Nanny and her brother Quao, was a 600 acre parcel of land in Portland, which the Maroons took refuge. The other towns founded by her brothers included: Cudjoe who went to Saint James Parish and founeded Cudjoe Town; Accompong went to Saint Elizabeth Parish and founded Accompong Town.

Nanny organized small raiding parties which went to different plantations and helped to free the slaves; sometimes they freed the entire plantation. Mostly non confrontational in the beginning, this changed when the British took over the island in 1655 from the Spanish. During the vacuum created by the power exchange, many more slaves ran away and joined the different tribes of what was now being called the "Maroons", the freed slaves, intermarried with the remaining Arawak Indians who were native to the island.  The Arawak Indians, shared their intimate knowledge of the island with the Maroons, which allowed them to do guerrilla style hit missions.These missions entailed raiding the plantations of their weapons, and supplies, and freeing their slaves.  To survive the Maroons would also trade with nearby villages and market towns, for items they could not raise, hunt or make for themselves, such as weapons and cloth.

Once the British were in power, Nanny the leader of the Maroons helped to launch an 30 year struggle against them.The British however did not take kindly to the 'liberation of their properties' and Nanny became a marked woman. The activities of the Maroons sparked island-wide slave revolts in 1690 and 1734. Whole regiments of the British army were annihilated in battle with the Maroon forces. This was mainly accomplished by the layout of the land, the Maroon towns were placed in strategic positions of almost impenetrable fortresses. Nanny Town was in the basin of a mountain valley which had one entrance, a shear mountain pass which overlooked the Stony River, via a 900 foot ridge. This made it impossible for the British to do surprise attacks, but Nanny placed look outs anyway, they would alert the town of immanent attack via a horn called an Abeng. (much like the image in the painting above)

The British were never able to defeat them. As the Maroons were prone to ambushing the soldiers sent after them, by disguising themselves as the local fauna of bush and trees, they would then send an undisguised man where the British could see him; he would then run back leading the soldiers back to the hidden warriors. This method worked for years, especially for Nanny as the land she had chosen made it impossible for more than one solider at a time to pass, creating a bottle neck effect, and effectively making the soldiers easy targets.

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." (Edwards vol. 1, page 525) 
He then fired on the remaining huts of sleeping villagers, as most of the Maroons had traveled to the other tribes of Nanny's brothers in the West of the island.

Several more years of battle took place before the British declared peace with the Maroons in 1739 (you read that right 1739), and recognized their independence and their right to large areas of the island, mostly within the valleys and mountains.
"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's death was believed to have taken place  in 1733, or so the rumors circulated.
"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" (Campbell 177). These hired soldiers were known as "Black Shots" (Campbell 37). 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. (taken from the Wikipedia website)"

In her time as leader of the Maroons, Nanny freed over 800 slaves, she is the blueprint for Harriet Tubman. Much like Harriet was a nurse, Nanny was the 'obeah' woman of her tribe. Obeah or Voodoo as it's now called was the Ashanti's religion, which allowed Nanny to be both healer and Spiritual leader to her people. Her knowledge of herbs, and the traditional healing methods, elevated her esteem among her people. 

You can learn more about the brave Ashanti Woman here, as well as here. There is information as well on the Jamaican National Hero website, Although much of what is known about Nanny comes from the oral history of the Maroons, the British letters and diaries of the military leaders in charge lend credibility to the stories.

Now you know one of the reasons Jamaican woman walk with their heads held so high, this is our blueprint of a strong woman.
Be Blessed my loves


  1. Very interesting! Gotta respect a strong woman like Queen Nanny!!

  2. @Sophiadawn, she's a great ancestor spirit for me to call on. Respect is definitely warranted.
    Thanks for commenting


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