On Emancipation Day I am thinking about Queen Nanny of the Windward Maroons of Jamaica. It is said she was an Akan/Asante woman of the Gold Coast (now known as Ghana) sold into slavery in the early eighteenth century who escaped into the mountains of Jamaica to form the community of the Maroons. Others say she came to Jamaica from Africa a free woman with slaves of her own. Either way, she is famous for leading her people in an heroic struggle against the British colonial empire and its institution of slavery in Jamaica.
Queen Nanny was the spiritual, cultural and military leader of the Windward Maroons, guiding them through the most intense period of their resistance against the British, between 1725 and 1740. She and her people were “fierce and ferocious fighters with a preference for resistance, survival and above all freedom and refused to become slaves.” (www.jamaicans.com). Led by Queen Nanny the Maroons repeatedly won battles against the British. Story has it she was an expert in guerilla warfare and trained her troops in the art of camouflage, covering soldiers herself with tree branches and instructing them to stand as still as possible so that they would resemble trees. “As the British soldiers approached completely unaware they were surrounded they would swiftly be picked off by the Maroons,” says writer Deborah Gabriel. Queen Nanny built Maroon settlements high in the mountains with only a narrow path leading to the towns, so that soldiers approaching single file could be seen from far off and taken out one by one. The Maroons’ ability to beat back great numbers of British troops with only small numbers of their own is now legend.
African spiritual practices like Obeah and Voodoo were always at the heart of African slave rebellions and it is likely that Queen Nanny was herself an Obeah priestess, expert in the Earth Religion arts of ancestor worship, herbalism, and rituals that brought the community together in ways that made them a united and unbeatable force to be reckoned with. Legend has it that she placed a large cauldron on a mountain path that was said to be boiling even though there was no fire beneath it. British soldiers are said to have looked into the pot, fallen into it and died, or they collapsed and fell down the mountain. Some say she juiced the pot with special herbs with anaesthetic properties. Another legend tells of a time when the Maroons were near starvation and about to surrender when Nanny heard the voices of the Ancestors telling her not to give up. When she woke there were pumpkin seeds in her pocket, which she planted and grew a hillside of gigantic pumpkins in a few days, saving her people. Pumpkin Hill still exists in Jamaica today.
Some said Queen Nanny could catch bullets with her hands apparently a highly developed art form in some parts of Africa. But I like better the story that says she could catch bullets with her buttocks and fart them out again. This vulgar spin on the story was added by the British who hated and despised her in an effort to be deliberately offensive when speaking of her. But I have a feeling she would laugh out loud to hear it. Some said she wore a belt of many knives, others said her belt was hung with the teeth of colonial soldiers. She is a mythical, magical figure in the national narrative of Jamaica, a folk shero with an identity always growing and changing with every new generation. But as Gabriel writes, “the story of the Maroons endurance and ability to hold off the British troops for almost eighty years is one that has never been repeated in history.” Their greatness as a force of resistance and rebellion in the face of the massive Colonial empire is fact. And it is undeniable too that Queen Nanny was the greatest of all their leaders.
Queen Nanny of the Windward Maroons is loved and revered by her descendants who still live in Jamaica today, though the male writers of patriarchal Jamaican history have largely ignored her. The best Caribbean poets of today like Kamau Braithwaite, Lorna Goodison, Grace Nichols and Honor Ford Smith have all written of her, her image is on the Jamaican five hundred dollar bill. Present day Maroons consider themselves Nanny's progeny and call her Grandy Nanny or Queen Nanny. She has become a symbol of resistance, endurance, survival and triumph for all oppressed people.
It would have done me good to hear about this iconic womanish figure of the islands when I was growing up a brown child of difference in Nassau in the 1970s. Maybe I could have prayed to her as my Caribbean ancestor and in turn been inspired to more bravery, more fighting spirit, a better sense of self preservation, a greater sense of justice and how to create it. I'm grateful to know about her now. I feel sure I have the right to claim her as one of my sacred, womanish ancestors of the Caribbean, even with all my apparant whiteness. I wonder if Queen Nanny was known to my own Black great grandmother, Helen Minns Drudge, who most probably had a great grandmother of her own who survived slavery. I hope so. I believe so. I also believe that the present-day, global women's movement would do well to revisit the legacy of Nanny as we continue our struggles against oppression, violence and inequality in a patriarchal world. I feel called to point out here that at the time of this writing the American State Departmnent reports that over the past year at least 700,000, and possibly as many as four million men, women and children worldwide were bought, sold, transported and held against their will in slave-like conditions. The victims are mostly women and girls from developing countries.
So to celebrate Emancipation Day I light a candle for Queen Nanny of the Windward Maroons, invite her in to join my ever-emerging, personal pantheon of Caribbean goddesses and sacred grandmothers, thank her for her good fight to free us all.