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Once upon a time, there was a girl who couldn’t be captured. Her name was Nanny. In the jungles of Jamaica, escaped slaves called maroons lived together in colonies, and “Queen Nanny,” as they called her, was one of their leaders. Helped along by her ancestors and the strength of her people, Nanny taught enslaved people to use the environment to their advantage and fight back. Queen Nanny’s legacy continues to inspire activists and rebels to this day.
Funmilola Fagbamila is a Nigerian American scholar, activist, playwright and artist. She currently serves as an adjunct professor of Pan African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles. As an original member of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Funmilola has been organizing with BLM since its inception in 2013. Her most recent theatrical production was featured in the 2018 Netflix Documentary, “Feminists.”
Once upon a time, there was a girl believed to have magic powers. Her name was Nanny.
She was born in the Ashanti Kingdom of West Africa. Some legends say that her family was royalty. But when Nanny was a child, even kings and queens could not escape the evil stalking west Africa. White people were capturing Africans and forcing them to board big, overcrowded ships; then, they took them to far away countries and sold them as slaves.
Nanny may have never been a slave. She might have been one of the very few who left West Africa as a free woman. But she did sail across the Atlantic to reach an island that became her new home, an island where she would become a legend for enslaved people suffering and longing for freedom.
When land finally came into view, after many weeks at sea, Nanny looked up as mountains rose out of the distant mists of her new home: Jamaica.
I’m Funmilola Fagbamila. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women that inspire us.
This week: Queen Nanny of the Maroons.
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Explorers from Spain arrived on the shores of Jamaica, hoping to find gold. Instead, they found fertile soil and native people. In a fever to conquer the land, the Spanish captured native Jamaicans and put them to work.
But violence and exploitation were not all the Spanish had brought to Jamaica. They had also exposed Jamaicans to lethal diseases, so when the native people started dying, the Spanish brought in more slaves, this time from Africa.
Slaves were forced to do the hardest, most dangerous jobs. They stalked the steaming forests in search of wild boar. They herded cattle over the lush hillsides. They grew crops from the rich soil and cut paths through brush so thick it raked at their skin and scratched their faces. It was horrible work—but their knowledge of the landscape would soon come in very handy.
In 1655, unidentified ships appeared on the turquoise blue horizon. When they neared the shore, thousands of soldiers spilled from the boats and charged up the beaches. They were white, too, but their uniforms looked different.These soldiers were British and they had come to claim the island for England.
Eventually, the Spanish fled to their ships and left Jamaica, while the English took command of the island.
But in the chaos, some of the enslaved people saw a chance for freedom. Together, they ran from the plantations. They swam up the river, masking their scents from the hounds that would surely follow, until they were deep into the mountains, where the mists and trees hid and protected them.
They were the Maroons, and they were free.
England sent a new governor to the island, a man named Robert Hunter. As he read the reports of the Maroons living free in the mountains, his eyes narrowed. Every person on the island should be under English control, he thought — especially black people.
“How hard could it be,” Hunter asked his lieutenants, “to bring a few rebels to heel?”
England had the strongest army in the world. They had thousands more soldiers than the Maroons did, plus a practically endless supply of guns, bullets, and food to keep their soldiers strong.
But the Maroons had something far more powerful on their side. They had Nanny.
She was a small woman, with eyes that looked so intensely upon people that it was as if they pierced the skin. And she was immensely powerful.
Since retreating into the mountains, the Maroons had used their survival skills to hunt, create villages, and organize themselves in battle when the English intruded on their territory. But none were as brilliant at military strategy as Nanny. When she offered advice, everyone listened, especially Quao, the top military commander of the Maroons in the eastern mountains.
Their village was at the top of a steep hill in the Blue Mountains. The Maroons named their town after the most important person living there – and so this settlement became known as Nanny Town.
LIVING BY ONE’S WITS
Nanny did all she could to make sure that her people were ready for war. She realized that the Maroons had tools that the British did not — the abeng and the art of camouflage.
In a time before telephones, the Maroons could communicate across far distances. They used an abeng, a cow horn with a hole drilled in one end. By combining long whistles and short staccato notes, Maroons could send word to each other even from half a mountain away.
Nanny ordered Quao to set up sentinels in the Blue Mountain hills, where her fighters could spot British soldiers and warn fellow Maroons right away. The British heard the abeng calling through the misty mountain air, without even knowing it was the sound of their defeat.
Nanny was also a master of camouflage.
“Stand still,” she would order her fighters.
As they followed her instruction, she showed them how to cover their bodies with leaves and branches so that they looked like trees. She taught them how to control their breathing so that not even a whisper would give them away as they stood along the narrow paths the British patrolled in single file. The Maroons picked them off easily, one by one.
British soldiers would return from their patrols terrified. They had seen a soldier hang his red coat on a tree—and then the tree swung a machete and cut off his head!
A LITTLE BIT OF MAGIC / NANNY’S POT
Some say that Nanny also had a little bit of magic.
Soldiers whispered to each other about “Nanny’s pot,” a big cauldron on a mountain path near a steep precipice. It was magic, they said – a giant pot of water boiled constantly, though there was no fire underneath.
“Did you see that?” the soldiers would whisper to one another.
Time and time again, a young soldier would creep to the edge to look down, and the sight of the swirling, bubbling cauldron would so overwhelm him that he would faint, plunging into Nanny’s Pot—and die.
The pot wasn’t truly boiling. It was an optical illusion—a hollowed out stone where the rushing rivers ran together far below, making the water look as if it were boiling. But that was part of Nanny’s magic. She understood the land so well that it was as if she could command it to do her very bidding.
Despite Nanny’s brilliant techniques, the British did not stop pursuing the Maroons: they feared that surrender would inspire the slaves to revolt or escape.
After one long, hard battle, the Maroons were forced to retreat high into the mountains, away from their town and crops. The women soothed crying, hungry children. The men’s faces were drawn and tired. Everyone was exhausted and close to starving.
Nanny looked at her people, fighting for their freedom with everything they had, and her heart was heavy. What good would freedom be if none of them were alive to see it?
Nanny lay down under the stars and closed her eyes, willing sleep to carry her away.
And that’s when she heard a voice. “Don’t give up just yet,” it said.
Nanny opened her eyes into the darkness. She knew that voice. It belonged to one of her ancestors. The voice spoke to her as it always did, from a place she could feel but not see. And when her ancestor spoke, Nanny always listened.
“Food is at hand,” the voice said. And, at that, Nanny fell asleep.
She opened her eyes the next morning and sat up. She slipped a hand into her pocket where she felt three smooth, flat objects that hadn’t been there before. She looked down and began to laugh. They were seeds—seeds that would grow into fat pumpkins native to the hills of Jamaica.
Nanny scooped out a handful of soil and planted the seeds.
Legend has it that, the very next morning, whole ripe fruits blossomed from the earth, enough to feed every Maroon, and no sooner had one been picked than another grew in its place.
No matter how many soldiers the British sent into the forest to fight the Maroons, no matter how many times they loaded and reloaded their guns, they could not defeat them completely. Under Nanny’s brilliant command, Quao and the Maroon fighters outsmarted and outfought the British at every turn.
Until one day, in 1734, a new Governor named John Ayscough came up with a plan.
He gathered two hundred men and ordered them to beat back the wild jungle plants covering the mountains. After seven days, they had cut a path wide enough to fit a small cannon. At nightfall, the British militia stood at the edge of Nanny Town. The best soldiers were tasked with scaling the narrow passage, handing cannon pieces forward man to man until they could be reassembled and positioned just before daybreak.
The Maroons awoke to the thunder of cannon blasts. There was no way they could defend their settlement. So, they set it on fire. They didn’t want the British to make camp there or to use any of their abandoned food stores.
In just a few hours, Nanny Town had been reduced to a heap of rubble.
At first glance, the destruction of Nanny Town seemed a complete victory for the Colonizers. But, according to Jamaican history, days before the battle, Nanny had suspected the attack and she had sent the most vulnerable of her community up the mountainside to safety.
The British believed themselves victors, and Nanny Town had been sacrificed. But the Maroons were still alive, and free.
Several years later, the British sent a group to forge a peace treaty with the Maroons fighting in the western part of the mountains. And then they asked Nanny to sign for the east.
Quao, wanted to sign. It would guarantee their freedom, he said. But Nanny refused. She did not trust the British. On the day of the signing, she watched as Quao and the British commander sliced their fingers and mixed their blood together in a wooden bowl—a sign of each side’s promise of peace.
Nanny and Quao parted ways after that. But her suspicion was right. The British did not hold up their end of the treaty. It would take many more years, and many more battles before the Maroons were truly free.
Like her birth, little is known about how Queen Nanny died. Still, her legacy of leading a long hard and successful struggle against all the might and resources of the British empire inspired many.
England ruled Jamaica as a colony for another 250 years. As the decades passed, other Jamaicans followed Nanny’s courageous example and challenged England’s oppression—not with the abeng and camouflage, but with speeches and protest marches.
And when the country finally gained independence in 1962, Jamaica named seven people whose courage and bravery had helped the country and its people in their long journey towards freedom: six men and one woman—Queen Nanny of the Maroons.
Today, descendants of the original Maroons still live near the place once called New Nanny Town.
Nanny is still buried there, protecting the soil which has never again been broken or built upon. It is said that two glasses of water are always placed at her grave, so that she can have a drink if she’s thirsty. Even after Nanny died, her spirit remained with her people, leading, guiding, and offering counsel. In that way, Nanny has never left Jamaica—just as the people of Jamaica will never forget her.