Much of what is known about Nanny, or Granny Nanny as she’s also called, has been gained from oral history. One thing, however, is clear: Nanny was an outstanding military leader who was a thorn in the side of the British in their battles with the Maroons, communities of defiant slaves who escaped plantation life for the nearly impenetrable hills in the interior of Jamaica. She outsmarted, out-planned and out-manouvered the British at every turn.
Nanny, an Ashanti, was a small, wiry woman with piercing eyes. She was born in Ghana around 1686. Nanny was brought to Jamaica as a slave. She and her brothers, Accompong, Johnny, Quao, and Cudjoe ran away from their plantation and hid in the mountains. Later, they separated to organize more Maroon communities – Cudjoe to St. James (Cudjoe Town), Accompong to St. Elizabeth (Accompong), Nanny and Quao to Portland, where they controlled an area known as Nanny Town.
Nanny’s 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.
Her cleverness in planning guerilla warfare confused the British and their accounts of the fights reflect the surprise and fear that the Maroon traps caused among them.
Besides inspiring her people to ward off the troops, Nanny was also a village elder, a wise woman, who passed down legends. She encouraged the continuation of customs, music and songs, that had come with them from Africa, and which 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.
In 1976, Nanny was named National Heroine, the only woman to be so honored. Her likeness graces the face of the Jamaican $500 note, the “Nanny.” Her portrait is also used as the logo of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Abolition and Resistance at Yale University. The Center sponsors research and conferences on slavery and resistance in the Americas.