I have been fascinated by Queen Nanny of the Jamaican Maroons for years. In fact, I have been trying to write about her since I graduated from college. The Maroons were communities of fugitive slaves and free Black people, some who, after the British took the island from the Spanish in 1655, fled to the mountains, and others who later escaped British plantations to join them. They resisted for eighty-four years. The Leeward Maroons, led by Cudjoe, and the Windward Maroons, led by Nanny, waged the first Maroon War from 1728 to 1739. Despite their small numbers and lack of military equipment, they raided plantations for supplies, liberated enslaved people to reinforce their ranks, and killed more white people than were able to kill them. The Maroons successfully prevented the British from expanding into Jamaica’s interior until they negotiated a peace treaty and land allotments to each of the different factions on the island. The free towns they established at the end of the First Maroon War still exist today.
Nanny was declared a national hero in 1976. Her face was put on the Jamaican $500 bill. I had a rudimentary understanding of her story growing up, but the first time I saw her depicted in fiction was in Michelle Cliff’s novel, Abeng, which I read as an undergrad. Nanny’s story is part of a buried history of Jamaica that the heroine, Clare Savage, a light-skinned and middle-class Jamaican, isn’t taught. As a consequence of that ignorance, Clare is raised to uphold a system of colorism and white supremacy. Cliff takes the beginning of Nanny’s story directly from Maroon legend: “In the beginning there had been two sisters, Nanny and Sekesu. Sekesu remained a slave. Some say this was the difference between sisters. It was believed that all the island’s children descended from one or the other.” Unlike Sekesu, Nanny “carried the secrets of magic into slavery,” which she used to free herself and others. Cliff confers a moral purity on Nanny that she denies Sekesu.
QUEEN NANNY AS SHE APPEARS ON JAMAICA’S $500 BILL
Cliff describes Nanny preparing for war, cowrie shells in her hair. Later, when Nanny meets with the leader of the Leeward Maroons, the “only decoration was a necklace fashioned from the teeth of white men.” Nanny was known for being a military strategist and though in legend she emerged from the kingdom of the Ashanti, in Cliff’s telling Nanny draws her knowledge of battle from the “Dahomey Amazons,” the Mino of Benin, an all-female army in the Kingdom of Dahomey. Nanny was known for being a powerful spiritual leader, an “obeah woman,” and Cliff describes her as a master of disguise who stuns soldiers with her spells. She even recounts a popular legend where Nanny is known to have stopped bullets with her ass.
But Cliff’s Nanny never speaks. She never becomes a fully realized character. So I thought, I could do that. And then later I thought, Who am I to think I can write this? Still, I’ve tried over the years, picking up the project and abandoning it. Nanny is a historical figure of huge proportions, but the written record about her is minimal. In Cliff’s version, after being betrayed by Cudjoe, who refuses to join forces, she is killed by William Cuffee, a “Black shot,” hired by the British to fight in Black militias against the Maroons. It is documented that Cuffee tried to claim a reward for her murder in 1733, but there is no other mention of her death in written texts. In fact, there are three more written references to Nanny in the seven years that follow and they demonstrate that she was still alive.
Though I haven’t lived in Jamaica since I was five, the allure of Nanny feels personal. Her story provides a reprieve from the nearly constant theater of Black pain and suffering that is the history of the Americas we’re taught. At a time when Black women on the island were seen as easy prey for white men (such as, for example, Thomas Thistlewood, a plantation manager and owner who recorded every slave woman he raped over a thirty-seven-year period in his diaries), Nanny was a woman who became famous for terrorizing white people.
Like Clare Savage in the novel, I’d been taught to react to acts of injustice with politeness. My mother would scold me if I spoke badly of my father, even behind his back, even though my anger was because I’d seen him beat her. What did it even look like for a woman to rebel with violence? Part of my interest in that question and in Nanny was stirred when I took a trip to Jamaica in college. I went to their rural town in the mountains to meet my paternal grandparents for the first time. Like the Maroons, they still lived as subsistence farmers. Their part of town had no streetlights. I had never experienced such suffocating darkness, but my grandparents could move around without even a flashlight. During the day, I saw my grandmother, who was rail thin and diabetic, disappear into areas of dense vegetation holding a cutlass and emerge with something for me, bananas or a piece of sugarcane. I had a vision, then, for Nanny. The drawings of Nanny I’d seen looked more like my grandmother, with her hair always tied with a plain white headwrap, than like Cliff’s Dahomey Amazon warriors.
On that same trip, I met a cousin whom I hadn’t seen since I was a child, but who had since been disfigured by a vat of acid thrown on him by his wife. He later forgave her; they’re still together to this day. I listened to adults talk about him as if he were mad and about her as if she were evil. Later, when I saw her in person, I noticed some relatives were polite to her face but whispered about her when she was out of earshot; others shunned her outright. I never found out what my cousin did to stir her anger, but I had witnessed men do unspeakable things. And I had been expected by the women around me to be quiet and forgive them for it. In Jamaica, I kept seeing glimpses of the matrilineal society in which Nanny lived, quickly obscured by misogyny. Sekesu was the victim; I knew her well. Nanny was the hero who I wanted to be. But I didn’t know how, so I started imaging her.
After college I worked at a public defender’s office doing fund-raising, but also paralegal tasks like answering letters from prisoners seeking a lawyer to handle their appeals. The letters were desperate and described a level of brutality that haunted me. One of the first letters was from a woman who said she was being raped by prison guards and punished for speaking out by being locked in a solitary housing unit. I started writing about Nanny as a way to counteract feelings of complete helplessness. I didn’t save any of my early drafts. I learned later that for me to connect to characters that I’m writing, I need to put a real piece of myself into each of them. But back then, I was writing about Nanny because she was everything that I wasn’t.
On my trip to Jamaica, the year before, I had read excerpts from Karla Gottlieb’s biography of Nanny, The Mother of Us All, in a bookstore in Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston while waiting for my flight home. I skimmed through and landed on the description of Nanny that Philip Thicknesse, a British captain who fought in campaigns against the Maroons, had written in his memoir. He called her the “Old Hagg,” and described her as wearing “a girdle around her waist … with nine or ten different knives hanging in sheaths.”
In my version I had her carry a cutlass for protection and foraging, but I didn’t believe the version of her that Thicknesse described. Gottlieb had deemed it an exemplary piece of “exotica,” a style of writing typically used by white men at the time to write about nonwhite people. Still, even the version I wrote of Nanny didn’t feel quite human. What I had learned about obeah growing up centered around fear, never liberation. My most superstitious aunt taught me to track the hair I shed, my nail clippings, even to count my underwear because all of it could be stolen and used by your enemies to work spells against you. But obeah was instrumental in resistance to slavery and its practice was outlawed on plantations. I didn’t understand Nanny’s version of obeah, but in my writing, it became Nanny’s tool for violence. I didn’t employ the kind of magical realism I would later use in my first novel. Nanny was just magical. Bullets were shot at her, as in legend, but they didn’t pierce her flesh. She could make trees shift and move, use magic to generate a kind of piercing noise that made only white men’s ears bleed. In reality, her power came from her knowledge of guerrilla warfare, tactics like forest camouflage. Her incantations were more likely blessings that fortified her people’s courage as they went into battle. In historical accounts, the Maroons reportedly used noise to disorient and intimidate British troops while attacking them—yelling, banging on drums, blowing horns like the abeng (made from a cow horn). But my version drew from legends about Nanny’s exceptional ability rather than from corroborated historical accounts and oral histories. My Nanny was flat, a representation of all the violent things I wanted to do in this world because I felt weak.
When the pandemic began, I found it hard to focus on the novel I’d been writing, set in a present day that no longer exists, so instead I tried to write about Nanny again. I ordered Karla Gottlieb’s The Mother of Us All and read it in its entirety. According to Gottlieb’s research, in 1740, the British granted Nanny and her people land. William Cuffee couldn’t have killed her in 1733. Cudjoe did sign a peace treaty on behalf of the Leeward Maroons, but so did Quao, a leader of the Windward Maroons who in some oral histories is Nanny’s brother and was described in Thicknesse’s memoir as having deferred to Nanny’s orders. Both treaties specify that the Maroons have to hunt down and return escaped slaves, as well as fight alongside the British in the case of a slave rebellion.
After the treaty, the Maroons became enforcers for white slave owners. Michelle Cliff includes this truth in her novel but absolves Nanny from blame by declaring her dead. But the land granted as a result of the treaty in 1740 was written to “Nanny a free Negroe and the people under command.” The real story blurred the line between the two sisters in the legend—Sekesu, who accepted her own slavery and the doctrine of white supremacy, and Nanny, who because of her exceptional abilities supposedly rejected it outright. I was no longer sure if I wanted to write a book about a figure like Nanny, who was inspiring but also deeply problematic. I thought that it was the end of my project.
I’ve lost the urge to put all my faith in a single hero. Throughout the uprisings this summer, I’ve watched a mass movement of people fight to dismantle white supremacy, together, as a collective force. In her book, Gottlieb suggests a possibility that there might have been more than one Nanny. The name is an anglicized version of the Ashanti word nana, a title of respect given to leaders and elders, and the word ni, meaning “first mother.” In British Jamaica, Nanani became Nanny. William Cuffee might have in fact killed one Nanny, only to have another rise up and become more powerful. In Thicknesse’s memoir, he described seeing the Windward Maroons’ “Obea women,” multiple women, wearing the teeth of dead British soldiers strung together as “ankle and wrist bracelets.”
I’ve decided to write about more than one Nanny; the one who died in 1733 and the one who lived. I’m writing about another woman, Akua, who in oral history was elected by other slaves as the “Queen of Kingston,” and was one of the architects of Tacky’s War, a slave rebellion in 1760 that the Maroons were instrumental in suppressing. What strikes me most about all of these women is not how exceptional they were, but how, together, they exposed how weak white supremacy was. British forces on their own weren’t strong enough to defeat the Maroons. They needed “Black shots,” like William Cuffee, and when they failed, they tried importing Miskito Indians from Central America. People from both companies kept deserting to join the Maroons, making their ranks even stronger. The planters and slave masters who encroached on Maroon territory lived in fear.
Nanny became our hero, but even when she failed, other women kept resisting. The idea that there is a beginning and an end, a single leader and a single traitor to a movement, is an illusion. Even Sekesu may have resisted. Female slaves resisted exploitation by men like Thomas Thistlewood by running away whenever they had the chance, when they couldn’t fight. “Nanny” could have acted like a protective cipher, a label for a moving target, while the many women who struggled to bring forth the empire’s collapse went about their work, unnoticed but no less powerful for it.
(Source: The Paris Review)