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Nanny of the Maroons: History, Memory, and Imagery
by Kimberly Juanita Brown, Yale University
Kimberly Brown, a graduate student in the African American Studies and American Studies joint program at Yale University, discusses Nanny of the Maroons, the subject of the Gilder Lehrman Center logo. Ms. Brown's PhD dissertation is "The Repeating Body: Literary and Visual Reiterations of Black Feminine Strength."

Nanny, leader of the Windward Maroons is something of a mysterious figure in Jamaican historiography. Situated somewhere between mystic and martyr, rebel and myth, the former slave and military leader nevertheless occupies a place of great importance and reverence in Jamaica. The current and continuous debates concern not the existence of Nanny, but her level of participation in Maroon battles and the range and extent of her leadership. Priestess, warrior, spirit figure, Queen Mother…was she all of these things? Was she any?

After Jamaica gained its independence from Britain in 1962, a national emphasis on the history of resistance from slavery, colonization, and economic oppression was the collective desire. Along with other inductees into national hero status, Nanny of the Maroons was included with slave rebel Samuel Sharpe in 1975.

Nanny, according to Karla Gottlieb is “mentioned only four times in written historical texts.” [ 1 ] The most important is a 1740 land patent offering five hundred acres of land to “Nanny and the people residing with her.” [ 2 ] We know that Nanny was most likely an Akan/Asante woman sold into slavery in the early eighteenth century. Along with other slaves, most of them African-born, Nanny escaped into the mountainous landscape of Jamaica and helped to form a community of free women, men and children-—the Maroons.

Maroon populations, especially those located in Jamaica and Suriname were a particular problem for colonists. From the time the British seized Jamaica from the Spanish in the middle of the seventeenth century, wars were fought over the capture and control of Maroons. Using the dense backlands and high, hilly terrain, from 1655 until the land grant in 1739/40, ex-slaves and their would-be enslavers battled over the stolen cargo that the fleeing bodies of the Maroons represented. Kenneth Bilby and Filomina Chioma Steady argue that the ultimate success of the Maroon population in Jamaica was a combination of wit, military expertise and the West African influenced matrifocal system of cooperative power. The core of Maroon settlement, according to Bilby and Chioma Steady was the “valuation of women and their contribution to maroon survival.” [ 3 ] Since women played such an integral part of Maroon development in strategic battle defenses, it is no surprise that one of the most famous leaders to emerge out of Maroon oral history is a woman.

Literary critic Jenny Sharpe insists, “the story of Nanny is the story of contending forms of knowledge: written versus oral histories, colonial versus national cultures, institutional versus popular ways of knowing.” [ 4 ] Among these complicated and multi-layered images, the artistic renderings of Nanny have contributed to her present prominence. Poet Grace Nichols envisions Nanny as an “earth substance woman / of science / and black fire magic” fully capable of inflicting pain on those who would seek to re-enslave the escaped Maroons. The image of Nanny as a force to be reckoned with is extended as Nichols writes that Nanny is an awe-inspiring warrior:

Standing over the valleys
dressed in purple robes
bracelets of the enemy’s teeth
curled around your ankles
in rings of ivory bone [ 5 ]

Cover art, Wars of Respect
Figure 1. Cover art, Wars of Respect.
See full-size image.

For Lorna Goodison, Nanny exists more as an icon than mythologized subject. Her poem, “Nanny” insists upon historical redemption, placing the ex-slave at the center of Jamaica’s legacy of slave resistance. The poem also imagines Nanny as a spiritual figure chosen by the ancestors in Africa to help those enslaved fight for their freedom. “And when my training was over,” Nanny tells us, “they circled my waist with pumpkin seeds / and dried okra, a traveler’s jigida, / and sold me to the traders / all my weapons within me. / I was sent, tell that to history.” [ 6 ]

In Honor Ford Smith’s “A Message from Ni” an alternate vision of the leader emerges, one laced with fear, apprehension and self-doubt. While still envisioned as a leader of the Maroons, Nanny is alternately imagined as a woman plagued with the burden of her responsibilities. In the poem, Nanny tells of the multiple journeys she must travel alone. Journeys which are,

…Blinded by a future
I could not vision, my old words meaningless,
choked to silence in a forest of trees
I had no names for, I fell and fell,
was lost, bled, marooned in a landscape
that grew stranger with each discovery I made. [ 7 ]

Sketch of Nanny of the Maroons, National Library of Jamaica
Figure 2. Sketch of Nanny of the Maroons, National Library of Jamaica.
See full-size image.

Nanny’s visual likeness, culled from maroon accounts and testimonies reinforces the aura of power associated with her history. The cover of Kamau Braithwaite’s, Wars of Respect, features Nanny standing tall amid destruction and chaos; a mountain against a sea of muskets and redcoats. She raises her fist in marked defiance of British enslavement. The raised arm is replete with a broken shackle around its wrist, and in Nanny’s hand she carries the Ghanaian war horn, the abeng. (See fig. 1)

The abeng is both tool and symbol, signifying as it does an African center for Diasporic rebellion. In this way, Nanny is a figure of Caribbean hybridity and re-creation.

In 1994, Nanny’s image was honored with a denomination of currency in Jamaica. The Gilder Lehrman Center features the identical image as appears on the Jamaican five hundred dollar bill. Here, as in the previous sketch, Nanny is wearing a headscarf, but unlike the image in figure 2, her eyes do not directly engage the viewer. Both artistic renderings desire a remembrance imbued with the physicality of youth, the promise of movement and battle engendered by the visual in Figure 1. According to historical reports, Nanny was believed to be well into her sixties when she led the Maroons. And as Jenny Sharpe suggests, it is unlikely that Nanny would have held such an important position in Maroon society had she still been of childbearing age. [ 8 ] It is possible that both images speak to the enduring cultural legacy of the Asantes in Jamaica, and seek to emphasize the Afro-Diasporic promise that a figure like Nanny embodies.

Five hundred dollar bill, Jamaica.
Figure 3. Five hundred dollar bill, Jamaica.
See full-size image.

Because of the scarcity of written information, much of what is known about Nanny is part myth, part folklore and part legacy. Present day Maroons consider themselves Nanny’s “yo-yo” or progeny, calling her Grandy Nanny or Queen Nanny. [ 9 ] Tales of her outsmarting British soldiers by calling on mystical and spiritual powers have become part of the national narrative, reinforcing what Selwyn Cudjoe calls a “wealth of mythology that inheres in the very life, history and landscape of the Caribbean.” [ 10 ] In order to ascertain and comprehend the significance of Nanny of the Maroons, she must be observed through this national narrative and accorded her rightful place in the historical record.

  1. Karla Gottlieb, The Mother of Us All: A History of Queen Nanny, Leader of the Windward Jamaican Maroons (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2000), 23.
  2. Gottlieb, The Mother of Us All, 95.
  3. Kenneth Bilby and Filomena Chioma Steady, “Black Women and Survival: A Maroon Case,” in Filomina Chioma Steady, editor, The Black Woman Cross-Culturally (Rochester, VT: Schenkman Books, 1981), 452.
  4. Jenny Sharpe, Ghosts of Slavery: A Literary Archeology of Black Women’s Lives (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 2.
  5. Grace Nichols, “Nanny,” in Ramabai Espinet, editor, Creation Fire: a CAFRA Anthology of Caribbean Women’s Poetry (Tunapuna, Trinidad and Tobago: CAFRA, 1990), 269.
  6. Lorna Goodison, Guinea Woman: New & Selected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press Limited, 2000), 24.
  7. Honor Ford Smith, My Mother’s Last Dance (Toronto: Sister Vision: Black Women and Women of Colour Press, 1997), 15.
  8. Sharpe, Ghosts of Slavery, 22-23.
  9. Bilby and Steady, “Black Women and Survival: A Maroon Case,” 458.
  10. Selwyn Cudjoe, Resistance and Caribbean Literature (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1980).