Often referred to as Queen Nanny, Nanny of the Maroons stands out in history as the only female among Jamaica’s National Heroes. She possessed that fierce fighting spirit generally associated with the courage of men. In fact, Nanny is described as a fearless Ashanti warrior who used militarist techniques to foul and beguile the English.
What we know of Nanny is mostly oral history as there are very few historical texts about her. Nanny was born c. 1686 in Ghana, Western Africa, into the Ashanti people. It is believed that some of her family members were involved in intertribal conflict and her village was captured. Nanny and several relatives were sold as slaves and sent to Jamaica.
Along with other defiant Jamaican slaves, Nanny escaped into the Blue Mountains area of northern Saint Thomas Parish and helped to form a community of free people called the Maroons. The Maroons were considered skilled fighters and hard to defeat.
More Maroon communities were set up across the island with the help of Nanny’s brothers (it is not known whether they were really related) Accompong, Cudjoe, Johnny and Quao. Eventually they split up to organise more communities across Jamaica. Cudjoe went to Saint James Parish and organised a village, which was later named Cudjoe Town; Accompong settled in Saint Elizabeth Parish, in a community known as Accompong Town; Nanny and Quao founded communities in Portland Parish.
By 1720, Nanny had taken control of the Blue Mountain rebel town that then became known as ‘Nanny Town’. Located on a ridge, it became a maroon stronghold with guards placed at look-out points. Maroon soldiers were called by the blowing of a horn of African origin called an abeng.
The Nanny Town Maroons survived by sending traders to the nearby market towns to exchange food for weapons and cloth. The community raised animals, hunted, and grew crops, and was organized very much like a typical Ashanti village in Africa.
The Maroons were also known for raiding plantations for weapons and food, burning the plantations, and freeing slaves. Nanny was very skilful at organising plans to free the slaves. For over 30 years, Nanny freed more than 800 slaves, and helped them to resettle in the Maroon community.
For six years from 1728, the British fought Nanny and her forces. Using cannon, they captured Nanny Town, and in 1734, Captain Stoddard, the British commander, reported that ‘all the maroons had been killed’. But there were survivors – the British pursued them and destroyed all the crops in the region. In some reports, Nanny and some of her followers escaped and made a new hideout near the Rio Grande.
Later that year, Nanny’s sent a party of maroons to join those in the west of the island. Around 300 men, women and children set out on one of the longest marches in Jamaican history. Eventually reaching St James, they wanted to unite with Cudjoe’s soldiers, but he refused the alliance. Nanny’s people went back to Portland.
Like the heroes of the pre Independence era, Nanny met her untimely death at the instigation of the English sometime around 1734. Yet, the spirit of Nanny of the Maroons remains today as a symbol of that indomitable desire that will never yield to captivity.