Nanny was born in Africa. She was brought to Jamaica as a slave. She was from the Ashanti tribe. Nanny is known to the Maroons of today as “Granny Nanny”. The Ashanti tribe was one of the powerful tribes in West Africa. They were well trained in fighting battles. Their women were greatly respected. Their women also knew about fighting battles. When Nanny arrived in Jamaica, rebellion against slavery was going on. Rebel towns (the towns of run-away slaves) were all over the island. The Maroon villages were the strongest of these rebel out. They were well organized and defended. It must be remembered that the first Maroons were those who had run away when the British captured Jamaica and took it from the Spaniards. The other free Africans escaped under British rule. It was because the Maroons were organized and knew the country, that many run-away slaves joined them. Soon, both the original Maroons and the run-away slaves were called Maroons Life on the plantations for the woman slave was very cruel. Women were no longer treated with respect. In Africa a woman was held in high respect, for without her great gift of children the tribe would die out. Now as a slave, the African woman was to be bred to provide slaves for the white masters. She often suffered from being raped by her master.
Her husband could be sold to another plantation. She would be lucky if she saw him again. Her children could also be taken away from her.
Nanny would not stand for this. Soon after arriving in Jamaica, Nanny and her five brothers escaped from slavery. Her brothers were Cudjoe, the great Maroon leader, Accompong, Johnny, Cuffy and Quao. This Ashanti family soon became leaders of the Maroons and of many other free Africans.
Nanny and her brothers decided that a movement should be started to drive away the British. Cudjoe went to St. James and built a village. This village was called Cudjoe Town. Accompong went to St. Elizabeth. Accompong in St. Elizabeth is named after him. Nanny and Quao went to Portland to organize the free Africans there. There were therefore two main groups of Maroons. There were those in the west of the island called the Leeward Maroons. Those in the east were called the Windward Maroons.
By 1720 Nanny had taken full control of the Blue Mountain Rebel Town. It was re-named Nanny Town. There Nanny, Quao and their people cleared over 600 acres of forest for cultivation. Their society was organized like the Ashanti society.
From these hills the Maroons would send traders to the city. They would exchange food for arms and cloth. Nanny’s Maroons would also raid plantations. Then they would burn the estates and carry off arms, food and slaves whom they set freeThese free Africans would increase their numbers at Nanny Town.
Nanny Town was well defended against British attack. The town was located on a ridge in the Blue Mountains. Part of the town overlooked Stony River. There is a 900ft. precipice somewhere in the area between Stony River and Nanny Town. Along the precipice there was a narrow track leading to the town.
Guards were put at look-out points. Warriors were called by the blowing of a horn. This horn was called the Abeng. It was impossible for the British to attack them by surprise.
Nanny can be described as a military genius. She led over 800 free Africans for over 50 years. She helped to plan ways for them to remain free. She and her people lived in mountains where there was very high rainfall. She had a very good knowledge of herbs. She was both a nurse and a spiritual leader.
Nanny and her soldiers were a ‘thorn in the side’ of the British. She found many ways of encouraging slaves to escape from the estates. This upset the British very much.
From 1728 to 1734, Nanny Town was defended against British attack. The Maroons were better than the British at fighting in the rainy mountains.
They would dress themselves to look like trees and bushes. In this way they could not be easily seen by the British soldiers. The Maroons had a few men who would show themselves to the British soldiers. These men would then run in the direction of their brothers who were dressed like trees. The British soldiers would run at them. Suddenly the Maroons who were dressed like trees would rise up against them and destroy them. The British soldiers were not as accustomed as the Maroons were, to the mountains and forest. Many died from ill-health.
Nanny had spies all around. Some were even on the slave plantations. In this way she got news of when the British would attack. Her warriors moved swiftly and quietly.
The Maroons tell us that Nanny kept a cauldron (a large pot) at the foot of Nanny Town. This huge pot kept boiling. But it had no fire under it. The British soldiers who were attacking would be shocked at this strange sight. As they peeped over to look into the large pot they became sleepy and fell over into. Then they would die from want of fresh air.
It was only by the use of cannon guns that the British captured Nanny Town. In 1734 Captain Stoddard bombed Nanny Town. The British said that all the Maroons were killed. The Maroons of today say that Nanny and some of her followers escaped. They made a new hideout near the Rio Grande.
We are told by the Maroons that at this time Nanny’s followers were very discouraged. They were wondering if they should give up. All their cultivations at Nanny Town were destroyed. They had to start life all over again. It is said that Nanny prayed night and day. She asked for guidance and strength.
Nanny soon had a vision. She was told never to give up the fight for freedom. She was told in her vision to plant the pumpkin seeds which she had in her pocket. This she did in the fertile hills of the Blue Mountains. Soon the whole hill was covered with pumpkins. In time this hideout came to be known as Pumpkin Hill. This hill is located 6 miles from Port Antonio.
In 1734 a party of Nanny’s Maroons were sent to join those in the west of the island. Three hundred men, women and children set out on one of the longest marches in Jamaican history.
This march is known as the “ great trek.” They marched from Portland to St. James. They marched over the high mountains and wild forests of the Cockpit Country. At the same time they were being harassed by British soldiers. They eventually reached St. James.
They had wanted to unite with Cudjoe’s warriors. Cudjoe for some reason refused to unite with Nanny’s Maroons. It is believed that Nanny wanted unity to fight the British. On the other hand, Cudjoe wanted peace with the British. Nanny’s people had to journey back the long way they came. They went back to Portland.
The British wanted peace. Almost every settlement they made was burnt down by the Maroons. The British were very afraid when they heard of the “great trek”. They had already lost hundreds of soldiers and arms. It was costing them too much money and lives to fight the Maroons.
Nanny was one of the chief freedom fighters who refused to sign a treaty of peace. She believed in total freedom. She inspired her people to follow her. She inspired them to seek unity for all freedom fighters in Jamaica. In 1737 she took an oath on Pumpkin Hill. She and her people would continue to fight the British raiding parties to the end.
In 1739 Cudjoe signed a peace treaty with the British. This treaty gave the Maroons lands and rights as free men. But in return they promised the British to do three things. They promised not to war against the British. They were to help capture run-away slaves. Lastly, they were to help the Government put down revolts.
Nanny refused a similar offer. Instead she agreed to enter into a truce with the British. Nanny did this half-heartedly. She agreed to it mainly because she saw that her people were tired of war. They wanted peace.
The Maroons of today tell us that Nanny had supernatural powers. We are told that after the treaty was signed, Nanny decided to show the British soldiers some of her powers. She was said to have walked twenty paces away. She asked the leader of the British forces to order his men to fire their guns at her. At first he refused. He thought it was a trick by Nanny to start a new war. He was eventually convinced by Nanny’s people to do as she asked. Nanny turned her back and bent over. The shots were fired. When the smoke cleared, she went over to the British captain. She gave him the bullets which she had caught and said; “Take these good friend, there is peace. So now I am free to show that only one man’s bullet can harm Nanny.” As she spoke she pointed heavenwards. This is what we are told by the Maroons.
Nanny bargained for a land grant with the British. After the truce the Windward Maroons split into two groups. One went closer to Crawford Town with Quao their chief. Nanny and her people were given a land grant of 500 acres at Cottawood. Cottawood was called “New Nanny” Town. Today the Maroons of Moore Town have kept their history through songs and word of mouth. Nanny is regarded as a Priestess and Queen Mother by the Maroons.
Nanny died during the 1750’s.She lies buried at “Bump Grave” in Maroon Town.
Nanny and people like her helped to speed up the end of slavery. The slave rebellions that followed were inspired by Nanny and other freedom fighters. These rebellions made the British Government fear that Jamaica would become another Haiti. This fear of revolution was a major factor influencing the British to abolish slavery.
Sam Sharpe, before he was hanged said, “I would rather die on yonder gallows than live in slavery.” He was only following the noble footsteps of freedom fighters like Nanny.
Nanny's spirituality is evidenced by her faith in her Creator God, Nyankypon (Yankypon), and her capacity to receive messages from him has contributed to the Nanny legend. A case in point involves Nanny's prayer to Nyankypon when she and her followers were cut off from their main source of food and facing extinction. Nyankypon appeared to Nanny in a vision and suggested that she plant the pumpkin seeds she had in her pocket. Nanny was then able to feed her troops and reflect on her strategies as the seeds produced a bumper crop of pumpkins almost overnight.
Although Nanny has become the source of many legends, her spirit lives on as she is revered by all present-day Maroons. To the eastern Maroons in particular, she has been a constant source of pride and a living presence for the past two centuries. The Maroons exist as a clan and, in keeping with the Akan concept of lineage and the matrilineal society, Nanny is regarded as the primordial ancestor of present-day Maroons.
In 1977, she was proclaimed a Jamaican National Hero, being the only woman thus honored.