Queen Nanny, Queen Nanny!
January 17 - February 9, 2003
Conceived by Elisha Whittington
Co-directed by Djola Branner and Elisha Whittington
Sets by Ta-Coumba Aiken
Music by Aaron Barnell
Sitting next to a huge black pot on a hot summer night in Ghana, Queen Nanny calls upon the powers of the Obeah. Without heat or fire the pot begins to boil. The ancestors reply. She is summoned to Jamaica to free her brothers and sisters who are held in the bonds of slavery.
Through the use of puppetry, poetry, music and dance, we will bring to our stage the story of Queen Nanny, a leader of the Windward Maroons of Jamaica. See why she has been recognized as one of Jamaica’s National Heroes.
The Story of Grandy Nanny: The woman who became one of Jamaica's founding "fathers"! by David Meyler BEd MA (excerpted from "Jamaica's Freedom Fighters", by Earthwatch Project Results)
"The maroons are one of the many communities of people who had to fight to protect their identities and freedom in the New World. Because much of their history has been preserved in documents written and compiled by their principal oppressors, knowledge of their achievements has been largely limited to their activities as 'rebels', rogues', and' fugitives'." -Professor Dr. E. Kofi Agorsah, Portland State University
Societies of Maroons, or "runaways", make up the core of communities that have preserved their identities as the pioneer freedom fighters of the New World. The colonies of escaped slaves who inhabited Jamaica's interior 200-300 years ago (17th and 18th centuries) are for many Jamaicans a symbol of nationalism. In a new, harsh and mostly hostile environment, hunted down without mercy by colonial forces, these Maroons faced nothing less than a lifetime of fighting to retain freedom and a new society. Their experience is African as well as North American, and gives a good example for understanding New World history.
The Spanish were the first Europeans known to have settled Jamaica, following the arrival of Columbus in 1494. In 1655, England captured the island from Spain during a war. During the confusion, 1500 African slaves on the island escaped and hid out in the forests and mountains of the interior of Jamaica. For the next 150 years, according to an English officer, these ex-slave communities, "proved to be a thorn in the side of the British".
The word "maroon" comes from a Spanish word "cimarron,", which means wild or savage. The Maroon villages were well organized military strongholds, sometimes having to fight off attacks by the British army, sometimes making up treaties with the colonial government. In exchange for peace, Maroon villages would promise to help defend Jamaica from attack and to help put down other slave rebellions. Probably the most famous of the Maroon leaders was a woman, Grandy Nanny. She was an effective political organizer and military leader, defeating the British in many battles. Despite repeated attacks from the British soldiers on Jamaica, Grandy Nanny's settlement, called Nanny Town, remained under Maroon control for many years. One of her brothers was Cudjoe, leader of a slave rebellion in 1738. Grandy Nanny's history is mostly known from folk stories or history books written by her enemies, but a recent archeological dig at Nanny Town, is filling in some of the gaps of how she and her people survived day-to-day.
Nanny Town is located in one of the highest and most difficult to reach sites in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. The town was more easily defended than most other Maroon settlements.
According to Dr. Agorsah, "Possibly the most exciting discovery during the 1993 expedition was that Nanny Town had pre-African habitation". Although the Spanish thought they had wiped out the native Arawak people, these findings of pots, beads and flint artifacts show at least some Arawaks escaped enslavement and death and set up new villages in the remote mountains. Escaped African slaves later arrived and joined the Arawak to make a new and unique Maroon community.
Maroon artifacts recovered from Nanny Town include both military items and things used in everyday life. A list of items found so far include: imported porcelain from Holland, wine bottles, glass medicine jars, gun barrels and musket balls, nails, knives, spearheads, door hinges, clay pipes, grinding stones, coins, and many different kinds of beads and buttons.
Jamaica's National Hero
Nanny of the Maroons stands out in history as the only female among Jamaica's national heroes. She possessed that fierce fighting spirit generally associated with the courage of men.
In fact, Nanny is described as a fearless Asante warrior who used militarist techniques to fool and beguile the English.
Nanny was a leader of the Maroons at the beginning of the 18th Century. She was known by both the Maroons and British settlers as an outstanding military leader who became, in her lifetime and after, a symbol of unity and strength for her people during times of crisis.
She was particularly important to them in the fierce fight with the British during the First Maroon War from 1720 to 1739. Although she has been immortalized in songs and legends, certain facts about Nanny, (or Granny Nanny, as she was affectionately known) have also been documented.
Both legends and documents refer to her as having exceptional leadership qualities. She was a small wiry woman with piercing eyes. Her influence over the Maroons 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 organising [sic] the guerrilla warfare carried out by the Eastern Maroons to keep away the British troops who attempted to penetrate the mountains and overpower them.
Her cleverness in planning guerrilla warfare confused the British and their accounts of the fights reflect the surprise and fears which the Maroon traps caused among them. Beside inspiring her people to ward off troops, Nanny was also a type of chieftainess or wise woman of the village, who passed down legends and encouraged the continuation of customs, music and songs that had come with the people from Africa and that instilled in them confidence and pride.
Her spirit of freedom was so great that in 1739, when Quao signed the second Treaty (the first was signed by Cudjoe for the Leeward Maroons a few months earlier) with the British, it is reported that Nanny was very angry and in disagreement with the principle of peace with the British which she knew meant another form of subjugation.
There are many legends about Nanny among the Maroons. Some even claim that there were several women who were leaders of the Maroons during this period of history. But all the legends and documents refer to Nanny of the Maroon War as the most outstanding of them all, leading her people with courage and inspiring them to struggle to maintain that spirit of freedom, that life of independence, which was their rightful inheritance.
Like the heroes of the pre-independence era, Nanny too met her untimely death at the instigation of the English sometime around 1734.
Yet, the spirit of Nanny of the Maroons remains today as a symbol of that indomitable desire that will never yield to captivity.
Book Exerpt: The Mother of Us All: A History of Queen Nanny by Karla Gottlieb
Description: The Mother of Us All is an analysis of the history of Queen Nanny, the great 18th century leader of the Windward or Eastern Jamaican Maroons. The importance of this great leader's struggle against the British colonial empire and its institution of slavery on the island of Jamaica has previously been largely ignored. To correct this gap, oral histories, including myths, legends, songs, ceremonies and local language are analyzed, as well as written texts including legal documents, journals of the era, historical land grants and peace treaties, poems, novels, critical texts, historical texts and children's books.
The Maroons of Jamaica were ex-slaves who had escaped from slave ships and plantations to form viable communities in remote and inaccessible parts of the country. Queen Nanny, warrior, general, spiritual adviser and, some say, messiah to the Maroons, led her people from their base camp of Nanny Town in the rugged Blue Mountains of Eastern Jamaica, to repeated victories against the British at the height of their world domination, particularly from 1724 to 1739. Repeatedly, the Maroons were vastly outgunned and outnumbered, with often 500 half-starving Maroons fighting against 5,000 of the best-provisioned and best-armed soldiers of the British Empire. But warfare was only one of the talents. In the area of supernatural and religious interest, or "Science", to the Maroons, Queen Nanny was known as a great healer and extremely powerful obeah woman (holder of secret sacred African knowledge).
The author analyzes the importance of Queen Nanny from cultural, military, historical, and religious points of view. This book marks an attempt to integrate a key figure of New World history into her rightful place as the leader of a critical resistance movement in Jamaica in the first part of the 18th century.
Excerpt: Queen Nanny as Obeah Woman
Of all the things Queen Nanny is remembered for, her role as the spiritual leader of her people is the one that seems to be the most influential in the minds of the Jamaican Windward Maroons. Contrary to Western conceptualization, African cosmology tends to understand the world as a whole, not compartmentalizing religion separately from poetry, separately from medicine, etc. As such, it is necessary to understand Queen Nanny as a complete entity encompassing the roles of Queen Mother, warrior, priestess or obeah woman, chieftainess, herbal healer, and revolutionary. For the purposes of this analysis, Queen Nanny's roles have been dealt with individually. However, it is important to retain the African conceptualization of Queen Nanny as a summation of her various roles when dealing with each of them. Her personas overlap and intertwine, each one influencing the other. The Maroons conceive of her as a product of all of these aspects. Major Aarons, for example, states that she was a chieftainess, a priestess, a healer, and a military leader who was able to perform miracles, all of these things forming part of the legend of nanny. (Major Charles Aarons, lecture at Berkeley High School, Berkeley California, March 31, 1994.)
As an obeah woman, Queen Nanny was in close communication with the ancestors, the source from which her power was derived. Maroons believe that one's spiritual or supernatural abilities are a power inherited from the ancestors. (Thomas 1973, p. 165) Hence, Queen Nanny is said to have had a strong bond with her African ancestry. As would be expected, she and her people retained these aspects of traditional African religions and customs much more than their counterparts who remained slaves on the plantations. Queen Nanny and her people were more African than Jamaican or Creole: During the late eighteenth century, they spoke what has been described by the planter-turned-historian Bryan Edwards as "a Barbarous dissonance of the African dialects.*" (Edwards 1796, p. 240) Edwards goes on to enlighten the reader about the nature of the Maroons' religious practices. He notes, All of them attached to the gloomy superstitions of Africa (derived from their ancestors) with such enthusiastick [sic] zeal and reverential ardour, as I think can only be eradicated with their lives. (Edward 1796, p. 239)
The spiritual side of life was very important to the Maroons: it was not separated from the other parts of life, and religion itself was not allocated a certain day of the week for practice. It was incorporated into the military strategies, into the raising of children, and into the daily lives of the people. Edwards notes that the Maroons' "gloomy superstitions" (read: religious practices) were so ingrained that they could only be terminated by terminating the Maroons themselves, which he would have happily seen done.
The term "obeah" refers to a person who practices the traditional African religions in Jamaica. The practice itself is known as "obi". Edwards defined "obi" as, "a species of pretended magick [sic]." (Edwards 1796, p. 239) Thus, perhaps he would define Nanny as a "practitioner in pretended magick". His point of view is necessary to understand the attitudes of the British towards Nanny and her people, but it is not really relevant to a process of developing a general awareness of the religious practices of the Maroons. The first work to be examined in terms of its portrayal of Queen Nanny as a priestess is a children's book entitled Queen of the Mountain, by Jamaican writer Phyllis Cousins. Queen of the Mountain describes the struggles of the Maroons both on the east and west sides of the island and goes into some depth about Queen Nanny and her life. Published by the Jamaican Ministry of Education in 1967, the book provides valuable information to school children in a narrative form that is easily understandable. Not all the information given in the book can be backed up with historical evidence, so it is perhaps best to treat this work as fictional with some basis in reality. However, the stories are true to the legends and oral histories within the Maroon communities. Cousins describes Nanny in Queen of the Mountain as follows:
She was a warrior, and although a princess, she dealt in witchcraft. Nanny's mother had taught her some mysterious practices. The Maroons thought that Nanny's magical charms brought them victory. They believed in her magic and she used this to keep them completely obedient to her commands. They were in awe of her and were convinced that she could protect them from harm. (Cousins 1967, pp. 17-18)