Nanny of the Maroons: A Casualty of Colonialism

Who is Nanny of the Maroons?

Every culture, every place has a history. Of people, their deeds, of the consequences that led to the creation of an identity. “Cultural heritage has always been a pillar of tourism”. It lets us appreciate our travels on a deeper level and spreads awareness that, in turn, helps to sustain it. More and more people are looking to travel for cultural experiences but there are still obstacles in the way.

An inescapable reality is that many countries across the world have had their cultural history obscured, appropriated, or erased. It is very easy to get caught in tourist traps that barely scratch the surface of a destination’s culture or history, especially with places that are still advertised in typical ‘beach, sun, vacation!’ packages.

It is our responsibility as tourists to actively seek out authentic experiences of cultural heritage when travelling. To uncover the true stories, to look past and dismantle cultural biases and misrepresentations, though this is easier said than done. When researching Jamaica, I came across the Maroons and the legendary figure, Nanny of the Maroons, and it’s her story I’ll be exploring.

The Story of Nanny

Nanny is a remarkable figure in the cultural heritage of Jamaica, yet she is a mystery, elusive or unheard of. Most of what we know about her, or think we know, comes from oral tradition. This is a benefit because it has been diligently preserved by the Maroon people to the present day, but the ultimate flaws of oral culture are its susceptibility to tampering, disappearance, and its limited accessibility to people outside of that culture. We are further barred from the truths of her life because we must also get past the biases of racism and colonialism in written accounts. But, the traditional narrative of Nanny’s life goes something like this…

Nanny was born in the Akan region of western Africa – modern Ghana – around 1686 and was later brought to colonial Jamaica. She became a leader of the Windward Maroons, a group of people who had escaped enslavement by first the Spanish and then the British, and helped to free others while fighting back against oppressive British forces. By the 1720s, the Windward Maroons had established a strategically placed settlement known as Nanny Town in the eastern Blue Mountains. 

For over a decade, Nanny was an active agent in the fight against the British in a conflict known as the First Maroon War. Although the original Nanny Town was destroyed and abandoned in 1733, the British could not gain the upper hand and signed a treaty with the Leeward (western) Maroons in 1739 and the Windward (eastern) Maroons in 1740. This narrative is simplified, open to interpretation and much is unclear. 

Simply, and frustratingly, we don’t actually know all that much for certain. So, what can we discover about her story?

Colonial Historical Accounts

Nanny’s name appears extremely rarely in contemporary written sources. Our first written account of her comes from 1733, when a soldier is credited for having killed her. However, she’s named again a year later, describing her and other Windward Maroons fleeing westwards after the destruction of Nanny Town. She appears again in 1740 in a land patent granting her and her followers land in Portland Parish. While there are issues of reliability in these accounts, it is reasonable to conclude they refer to the same Nanny.

These accounts let us know that there was indeed a noteworthy woman called Nanny in the Windward Maroons at the time of the Maroon War and who retained influence after the signing of treaties with the British. After all, they don’t name a town or put out a bounty for just anyone. But who was she?

Perhaps the most detailed historical written account of Nanny comes from 1890, in the dull writings of Thomas Herbert, a pretentious and obtuse man more interested in the readings of his barometer than the immense cultural importance of the location of Nanny Town and Nanny herself. His account is littered with derogatory sentiments and painfully subverts the descriptions of Nanny and her role during the Maroon War.

He describes her as “notorious” and claims she was ten times more ferocious and bloodthirsty than any Maroon man because she was an “unsexed woman” who had “led a freebooter’s life”. This is how he chose to portray a woman who freed hundreds of people from enslavement, which Herbert was fully aware of, and retaliated against British oppression. He even proceeded to name a natural ridge and peak in honour of the man who led the massacre of Nanny Town. We learn far more about Herbert than we do about Nanny in this description.

“There are stories like Nanny’s all over the world. Hers illustrates the potential difficulties in understanding a country’s or a society’s authentic cultural heritage and how we cannot simply take things at face value when engaging with it.”

Maroon Spiritual Practices

His work does, however, note down some of the oral cultural heritage among the Maroons at the time, most notably the spirituality surrounding the figure of Nanny and their culture more broadly. Spirituality, a connection to spirits and ancestors, and spiritual practices were a core part of Maroon identity.

This is reflected in other contemporary accounts and modern day Maroon societies in Jamaica. The term used to describe these practices is ‘obeah’. In that first account of Nanny in 1733, she is described as the “rebel’s old obeah woman” and there are numerous folktales about her capabilities bordering on the supernatural. Herbert reiterates this, explicitly saying she possessed supernatural powers. We can separate the likely possibility that she was an obeah, or priestess, healer or spiritual practitioner, of high status in Maroon society from the tales of her humanly impossible exploits that will have been fabricated or embellished. We find another colonial description of an obeah in an account from 1739 in reference to the treaty.

The woman in question is described as a “horrid wretch”, more violent than her male counterparts, was armed with 9 or 10 knives and ordered the execution of a British man. This image aligns with that painted by Herbert, however, there is no conclusive proof that this obeah was Nanny and highlights the disdain towards the culture and position of the obeah in general felt by colonialists. What’s clear is that this woman, whether she was Nanny or not, had a position of great power in that she could order executions and overrule the recognised leader of the Maroons. This level of authority probably applied to all those who were obeah, including Nanny.

The Real Nanny?

So, by digging deeper, we can reasonably assess that Nanny was a highly capable woman who wielded great authority in Maroon society and used her power as an obeah or spiritual leader to resist British violence, perhaps with retaliating violence. She came from a rich spiritual culture and kept it alive long after being brought to Jamaica. She did not conform to traditional British ideals of femininity, leading to her vile descriptions, though these sentiments of gender nonconformity are not reflected in Maroon oral tradition. She was influential and inspired loyalty from not only her fellows but their descendants as well.

Jamaican oral tradition of Nanny and the Maroons was not taken seriously until Jamaica gained independence in 1962, after centuries of being deprived of cultural autonomy and over 200 years after the events of Nanny’s life. If we didn’t have that to counter the accounts of men like Herbert, the cultural heritage of Jamaica and the Maroons would appear very differently now. 

Some pieces of a country’s history will have been blamelessly lost over time; others have been vandalised and destroyed. Nanny is a victim of both. But she is just one drop in an ocean. Damage done to a country or society’s cultural heritage in the past is completely relevant today. If we don’t at least try to undo this then how can we have an authentic experience when travelling? Quite simply, we can’t. 

"So, what can we do?"

In my case with Nanny, it was a few hours of research and using my old university online library to find written papers on her. But there are absolutely loads of open access resources to be found on all topics, all it takes is a little digging. We can have meaningful conversations with the people we meet on our travels and ask questions that’ll broaden our perspectives and understanding. We can still enjoy cultural tourist attractions and use them as springboards that spark our curiosity. But, most importantly, we can be both open-minded and critical thinkers.

“Nanny of the Maroons, a woman I’d never even heard of until I stumbled upon her by chance while in eastern Jamaica. I was instantly intrigued and reminded of Harriet Tubman - a woman of colour defying white colonial power and risking life and limb to free those who had been enslaved. Her story reminded me that we, as travellers, need to do our best to engage meaningfully with a country’s cultural heritage and undo the damage done by colonial misinformation.”

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