Sunday, May 29, 2016

Nanny of the Maroons

“We're the survivors, yes: the Black survivors!”
Bob Marley, Survival

I’ve thought for a while about the angle I would take to this story of Jamaica’s only heroine, Nanny of the Maroons as she’s officially called, even while the Maroons of Jamaica often refer to her as  “Grandy Nanny” or “Queen Nanny”.  As to why she is called “Nanny”, some have indicated that it could be an Anglicization of the Asante title “Nana”, accorded to elders as an indication of respect.

Source: National Library of Jamaica

There are hardly any new facts I can bring to Nanny’s legendary story, but nevertheless I believe her story has some significance for us in this time.  At this point in our history we are called upon to continue the African struggles in the Caribbean and the Americas for not only our survival but also our prosperity as African peoples.  The story of Nanny of the Maroons is one of survival and this should be one of the key lessons we take away as we encounter her story; her triumphs and her losses.
The accounts surrounding her are somewhat a mix of myth and fact that seek to give us insight into why she did what she did, but there can be little doubt around the fact that her struggles were about survival.  That is, her survival and that of her community who found themselves marooned in Jamaica, victims of the European slave trade, for the most part, if not explorers in their own right, as professor Ivan Van Sertima has revealed to us in his own writings of the African presence in the Caribbean and the Americas before Christopher Columbus.
Nanny, who was likely an ethnic Akan/Asante woman, was named a national hero in Jamaica in 1975, a period when the post-colonial Caribbean nation was fighting to establish its own independent identity.  This was all part of a movement to reorient the young nation to the brave action of some of its past freedom fighters, and to establish a pantheon of its own to challenge the heroes and the values European enslavement and colonialism had left with its people.  The success of these efforts may still be debated.  But, very few can argue against the fact that Jamaican ideas about the modern world that were crystallized in the movements of Marcus Garvey, Rastafari and some radical activists, have, through Jamaican music, given the nation a distinctly international African diaspora identity.  Maybe this was not what Nanny envisioned, but we know for sure that her struggles to survive helped in making this reality possible.

According to the Jamaica Information Service’s website, the official Jamaica government news agency, it declares that, “Nanny was a leader of the Maroons at the beginning of the 18th century. Both the Maroons and the British settlers knew her 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.”

Nanny, is described in this account as having “exceptional leadership qualities” and was physically a “wiry woman with piercing eyes.”  It documents that, “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 organizing the guerilla warfare carried out by the Eastern Maroons to keep away the British troops who attempted to penetrate the mountains to overpower them.”

Further, Grandy Nanny was also presented as “a type of chieftain 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 which instilled in them confidence and pride.”  Her militancy has been noted by her disagreement, “when Quao signed the second Treaty (the first was signed by Cudjoe for the Leeward Maroons a few months earlier) with the British, ” as Nanny saw this move as a form of subjugation.  What seems very clear from all the accounts is that Nanny was relentless in her struggle to maintain freedom and independence from British domination.

Source: Bank of Jamaica

It is therefore quite understandable the reasons for making Nanny a national hero at the time when the young Jamaican nation needed to make a bold statement about breaking away from colonial domination and economic oppression.  Having achieved political independence in 1962, the nation still needed to make bold strides to show that it had its sovereign right to also determine its own socio-cultural and economic destiny.  I have argued elsewhere, that this sovereign self-determination was more that the traditional resistance to enslavement and white domination, but more of a struggle of survival and cultural projection to be themselves on their own African terms, which, in reality, was the only terms they knew. 

Resistance theory has got a lot of traction on this account, but I’ve been skeptical of its ability to fully explain the entire African experience in the Caribbean.  Particularly, since I believe that there were many Africans in the West who were busy structuring their fractured lives in ways that they had been familiar, and less so concerned about resistance.  In other words, their lives in the West, rather than being totally consumed by resistance to European oppression, were first continuations of their African experiences, overlaid with new Caribbean and American experiences.  The irony this position reveals is that in that state of being the Africans knew, their position emerged as the greatest heights of resistance that could be achieved.  This brings to mind one of dub poet Mutabaruka’s timeless quotes: “the best way to preserve your culture is to live your culture”.  There is hardly an argument there against that in my view.

Much may be made of the fact that Nanny happened to be a woman.  And, there is little doubt that an analysis of her impact may be pursued along gendered lines.  Influential matriarchs are not unusual figures in many West African societies and the influence of the matriarch in modern Jamaican society continues to the present day, and sociological studies of the day will attest.  Therefore, it is only fitting that Nanny be included in Jamaica’s list of heroes, and the truth be told, if power were balanced Nanny would likely not be the sole female in the list.

As we pause to consider the legacy of Nanny among the Maroons, the wider Jamaican society, and our international brothers and sisters in the struggle to assert and live their African identity, we can truly find empowerment in the legacy of Grandy Nanny.  She recognized that it was important to fight and to stay alive for the good of herself and her community.

True to form, Nanny has proven herself to be a leader of the black survivors.  And maybe if Nanny were to say it her way, dispensing her motherly advice, she would probably have expressed it like the writer Chinua Achebe in his book A Man of the People:
The important thing then is to stay alive;
If you do you will outlive your present annoyance…
Besides, if you survive, who knows?
It may be your turn to eat tomorrow.
Your son may bring home your share. 

Whatever the manner in which it is expressed, the message is clear.  Stay alive, because our prosperity will come tomorrow.  Yes, we're the survivors.

* First published in Irie Mag magazine in February 2014.

“Nanny of the Maroons” JIS,
“Nanny of the Maroons:  History, Memory, and Imagery” by Kimberly Juanita Brown, Yale University
“Nanny – Maroon or Man Royal”

Bookmark and Share