Nanny, who appears on Jamaica’s $500 bill, was a fierce fighter who escaped slavery, freed more than 1,000 enslaved Black people from sugar plantations in Jamaica and waged a war, defeating the British during the First Maroon War from 1720 to 1739.
“She was a small, wiry woman with piercing eyes,” according to the Jamaica Information Service. “Her influence over the Maroons,” a rebel community of Black people who lived in the mountains of Jamaica, “was so strong, that it seemed to be supernatural and was said to be connected to her powers of Obeah. She was particularly skilled in organizing the guerrilla warfare carried out by the Eastern Maroons to keep away the British troops who attempted to penetrate the mountains to overpower them.”
Nanny is one of the most famous leaders of the Maroons, warriors who fought across the “New World,” including in South America, the United States and the Caribbean, resisting slavery in uprisings. Many of these Maroons came from the West African empires of Ashanti and Dahomey and helped bring an end to slavery in Jamaica, where more than 600,000 enslaved Africans had been transported during the Transatlantic slave trade, from 1503 to 1807, according to the National Library of Jamaica.
By 1673, the number of sugar plantations grew to more than 430. “Enslaved Africans filled the large labour force required for the industry,” according to the Jamaican Information Service. “They continued to ship Africans to the West Indies to be sold to planters who forced them to work on sugar plantations.”
But the planters soon met the wrath of these warriors. Many enslaved Black people escaped the plantations into the mountains of Jamaica, where they formed Maroon communities, dividing into two groups.
“The Windward Maroons were those located in the East of the island, while the Leeward Maroons were those occupying the Western part of the island,” according to the National Library of Jamaica.
Nanny is believed to have been born in Ghana, an Ashanti warrior. After capture by slave traders in Africa, she was taken in the 1600s to Jamaica, where she was enslaved on a St. Thomas plantation. Nanny and her four brothers rebelled, according to Jamaican history, leaving the plantation behind them in flames and escaping into the Blue Mountains.
Nanny became a leader of the Windward Maroons and established Nanny Town in the Blue Mountains, where she could see movements of British troops and launch attacks using guerrilla warfare.
Nanny became feared by the British for her military brilliance and command of Obeah, often defined as a spiritual practice of magic in the Caribbean. Legend had it that Nanny could catch bullets with her bare hands. She was said to cover her soldiers with magic and command them to hide in trees and stand still. As the British troops approached, the Maroons would wage surprise attacks.
The Maroons “fought with a lethal combination of intelligence and tenacity," according to Archaeology and the Maroon Heritage site in Jamaica. "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.”
Robert Hunter, then-governor of Jamaica, sent urgent pleas to Britain.
“The teror of them spreads itself everywhere and the ravages and barbarities they commit have determined several planters to abandon their settlements,” Hunter wrote. “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."
Philip Thicknesse, who served as a British soldier in Jamaica, described Nanny as an old woman who wore a “girdle round her waist, with … nine or ten different knives hanging in sheaths to it, many of which I doubt not had been plunged into human flesh and blood."
Nanny’s soldiers seemingly appeared from thin air, ambushing British soldiers.
“Here the greatest difficulty is not to beat, but to see the enemy," a governor of Jamaica wrote. "In short, nothing can be done in strict conformity to the usual military preparations and according to a regular manner.”
Much of Nanny’s life story and military victories were documented by British accounts.
“Nanny was real, not a myth,” according to a Jamaica Gleaner column. “Yes, there are fabulous folklore and fantastic tales, stuff that legends are made of, about her. The stories of her indomitable spirit and exploits are many. Her undaunted mettle and iron fortitude made her catch bullets with her backside, one story goes. She was said to have supernatural powers that drove fear into the heart of the British,” the Gleaner wrote. “But myths apart, Nanny was a live and breathing woman.”
In 1734, a British captain claimed to have destroyed Nanny Town, killing all the Maroons who lived in the village. “In fact,” according to the Slavery and Remembrance Project, the captain “had not destroyed the maroons, nor did he kill Nanny. She and some of the survivors took refuge, it is believed, near the Rio Grande in Jamaica.”
In 1739, Cudjoe, a Leeward Maroon leader, signed one of the first Maroon treaties of peace with the British. The treaty granted the Maroon 1,500 acres of land in Trelawny Town and Accompong, according to the Slavery and Remembrance Project.
But “this treaty that Cudjoe signed did not apply to the Maroon community in its entirety as the Windward Maroons were not involved in the process and were possibly unaware of such occurrence,” according to the National Library of Jamaica. “They maintained their defense, however, not long thereafter (four months) they were also offered to sign a treaty by the English. The English had made five attempts at getting them to sign this treaty, which was eventually signed by the Windward Maroon leader, Quao, on 23rd December 1739. As a result of a divide between the Windward Maroons, another treaty was signed a year later by Nanny, perhaps the most celebrated leader of the Moore Town Maroons.”
It is not known exactly when Nanny died, but many historians say her wars of resistance waged would eventually lead to the abolishment of the British slave trade. In 1807, the British House of Lords passed the Slave Trade Abolition Bill, prohibiting the slave trade in the British Empire. The bill received Royal Assent on March 25, 1807.
In 1833, the British Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act, which ended slavery in many of the British colonies and freed more than 800,000 enslaved Black people in the Caribbean. The act took effect on Aug. 1, 1834.
In 1982, Jamaica conferred upon the “Right Excellent Nanny of the Maroons” the “Order of the National Hero,” according to the Jamaica Information Service.
A grave in Moore Town, Portland, marks the burial site of Nanny. It is engraved with the inscription: “National Hero of Jamaica, beneath this place, known as Bump Grave, lies the body of Nanny Indomitable and skilled chieftainess of the Windward Maroons who founded this town.”
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