Hidden in the mists of Jamaica’s rain forests, Queen Nanny/Grandy Nanny directed the defensive exploits of African survivors of the slave trade who escaped plantations and formed resistant communities in the most inaccessible areas of the island. Fusing with the dense vegetation of the rugged Blue Mountains, Nanny masterminded both practical and spiritual techniques to support her band of ‘Maroons’―a Spanish term meaning “fugitive or gone wild.” Not surprisingly, her feats were handed down almost entirely through oral tradition, raising questions as to the validity of the more supernatural aspects of her legend. Yet, her enduring word-of-mouth story propelled her across two centuries to allow her to take her place as one of Jamaica’s National Heroes.
Historically, the indigenous Caribbean Arawaks occupied and farmed Jamaica’s island. Then in 1494, Christopher Columbus sailed in and 150 years of Spanish colonization decimated the peaceable Arawaks through abuse and disease. As the Arawaks died out, the Spanish turned to trafficking African slaves to provide labor for their cattle plantations. In 1655 Great Britain invaded and forced out the Spanish. As the new colonizer, the British cleared land for sugar plantations and demanded more ships of enslaved Africans. Just enough chaos prevailed during the clash between Spain and Britain to allow hundreds of daring slaves to escape into the dense forests. Those fugitives formed two main groups of Maroons―the Windward on the east side of the island and the Leeward on the west.
For decades the British pursued these Maroons into the mountains. In 1728, when Nanny emerged as the Windward group’s military, spiritual, and cultural leader, the British army faced a new kind of foe. For the next 12 years Nanny rendered miracles that eventually helped broker land and freedom for her fighters. For her base, she carved out a primitive settlement located about 3000 feet up on the eastern slope of the Blue Mountains near the Stony River, which was concealed and accessible by an arduous single-track trail only. The Maroons called it Nanny Town in her honor.
Outside her legendary accomplishments in Nanny Town, little is known of Nanny’s life. Most scholars agree she was born sometime in the 1680s, in what is present day Ghana and of Akan ethnic origin. Some reports say she arrived in the New World enslaved and others say as a free person. However, once she emerged as the Windward Maroons’ queen, her enterprising use of obeah or ‘Science’―a Maroon word meaning possession of power over spirits—became known throughout the island.
Leading the defense of Nanny Town, she utilized both the natural environment and her Science. She taught her warriors the art of camouflage by totally concealing their bodies in a wrap of leaves, vines, and branches. To add protection, she performed a sacred Kromanti dance―an African term for a ceremony in which ancestors take possession of participants to offer aid. Blending into the foliage, the Maroons stood silently waiting on the steep narrow paths for the loud red coats in their black boots. Then seemingly out of nowhere, the rebels sprang, dispatching the soldiers singly―leaving one to return and report the death of his comrades by trees.
To allow ample time for camouflaging, Nanny positioned sentinels on three hills and trained them in the use of the abeng, a cow horn designed for producing sounds. A skilled signaler could provide up to six hours lead time by communicating the direction of the enemy’s approach, the regiment’s number, and the weaponry type.
From her mountain stronghold, Nanny strategized and commanded the warfare. One popular story tells of Nanny’s “boiling pot,” which reputedly contained a powerful brew that bubbled continuously, without a fire. British soldiers would peer into the mysterious caldron, become spell-bound, fall in, and eventually perish. A rationalization of the tale references a dangerous precipice at the confluence of two rivers near Nanny Town, where troops could be decoyed to their deaths. Perhaps Nanny utilized both.
Bullet-catching ranks as the most spectacular of the legends surrounding Nanny’s Science. Catching bullets was a skill of Kromanti masters and apparently practiced in parts of Africa. In Nanny’s case it is said she could catch bullets with her buttocks and fire them back at the British. This taunting image embodied the spirit of the resistance and its wide re-telling amplified panic among her enemies.
Exploiting Nanny’s supernatural reputation, the Maroons conducted surprise raids on sugar plantations. They made off with livestock, food, weapons, ammunition, and freed other Africans. The Maroons especially needed women to augment their population. To attend to this shortage, Nanny founded Woman Town, a separate refuge higher up on the mountain where babies and children could be raised in relative safety.
In addition to winning warfare tactics, survival entailed acquiring adequate food and shelter, and maintaining health. Wild hogs rooted through the forests and with Nanny’s special powers to call them, pork became a diet staple. Preparing the meat with a dry rub mixed from local plants, they cooked it slowly with minimal fire―jerk pork. During favorable conditions, the Maroons cultivated maize and other edibles. Nevertheless, food scarcity remained an ever-present threat and during one period of near starvation, Nanny reputedly went to Pumpkin Hill where she prayed and called on the ancestors. Following her invocations, she discovered pumpkin seeds in her pockets, which she planted and harvested in less than a week.
With every plant considered sacrosanct, the fugitives relied on native palm fronds to construct dry shelters. But still the pervasive dampness and lack of nutritious food often contributed to ill health. To address this, Nanny combined her mastery of herbs with the Kromanti ceremony, wherein she called upon the ancestors to drive out the foul spirits lodged within the sick person.
At its height, Nanny Town consisted of approximately 400-500 individuals holding out against the 18th century’s best army while incurring few casualties of their own. Then in 1734, the red coats finally took Nanny Town. Although the Maroons suffered more casualties than usual, their abeng warning system allowed them to abandon the town before the soldiers arrived and establish a New Nanny Town several miles away. Bolstered by capturing the infamous town, the colonial forces made overtures for peace, hoping to put an end to their losses from both skirmishes and escaped slaves. The Maroons rebuked the offer.
A few years later in 1739, a situation arose that pressured Nanny’s group to reconsider. The Leeward Maroons, from the western side of the island, had entered into a peace treaty with the British that obliged the Leewards to now pursue and attempt to capture the Windwards. Knowing that would be detrimental to their survival, Nanny’s people reluctantly agreed to an accord for peace and their independence. Some sources say Nanny never assented―not trusting the whites and believing she already had her freedom―and others say she eventually came around believing it in the best interests of her people. In any event, she did not sign the document.
In a remarkable move―and perhaps fearing her powerful Science― the British Crown granted “Nanny and the people residing with her and other heirs . . . a certain parcel of land containing five hundred acres.” They granted her land as they did white settlers. The document attests to Nanny’s existence and the location where the Windward Maroons built their community, called Moore Town. To this the colonizers added another 500 acres for the Windward Maroons, free of government interference and taxation per the terms of the settlement. In exchange the British exacted the Maroons’ services in suppressing slave rebellions. By signing, the Maroons agreed to capture and return runaway slaves―perhaps another reason Nanny refused to sign.
After her land grant, Nanny disappeared from the public eye for the next 200 years, until 1976, when Jamaica named her one of its National Heroes. Although there is no record of what she actually looked like, Jamaica introduced an image of her on its 500-dollar bill.
It is believed Nanny was approximately 75 years old when she died sometime around 1755―some 250 years after the imperialist countries first began enslaving Africans in Jamaica. It took another 80 years after Nanny’s death, or until 1834, for slavery to be abolished in Jamaica, with full emancipation in 1838. This defiant mystical woman, who listened and spoke to spirits both past and present, along with her brave and devoted Windward Maroons, played an important part in the long journey toward the eventual ending of the shameful and brutal subjugation of African-Jamaican people.
Bilby, Kenneth M., True-Born Maroons, University Press of Florida (2005).
Gottlieb, Karla, The Mother of Us All, A History of Queen Nanny, Leader of the Windward Jamaican Maroons, Africa World Press (2000).
Brown, DeNeen L., Kamala Harris’s dad was from Jamaica, where a fierce woman warrior once fought slavery, The Washington Post (Aug. 19, 2020).
Anderson, Roy T., Queen Nanny – Legendary Maroon Chieftain, Producer: Fuller, Harcourt T., Action 4 Reel Filmworks, LLC (2015).
4 thoughts on “JAMAICA’S BLUE MOUNTAIN QUEEN – GRANDY NANNY (ca. 1680-1755)”
Good intro, and an amazing, wild story. Thank you for writing about Grandy Nanny!
as always i am truely inspired that such tales exist and women are honored. keep digging them out justine! we need heroes
always so well written and always fascinating. thank you!
I love this…so interesting. Thanks Justine!
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