Although we hear the history of Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution of the 1790s, Jamaica’s Maroons (or Windward Maroons) were actually the first enslaved African people to take back their freedom in the New World and their most famous leader was the legendary Queen Nanny of the Maroons.
Born circa 1685 in Ghana, she was one of the millions of Black people forced upon the grueling months-long Middle Passage journey from Africa to the Americas. By the time she arrived in Jamaica, the Maroons were already an established culture. They had escaped bondage in 1655 when Spanish and British colonizers battled for control of the country and fled to hard-to-reach mountainous areas that made it all but impossible for their former masters to capture them.
When Nanny and her siblings escaped slavery in Jamaica, they joined the Maroons in the mountains and formed free Black communities. The towns thrived as independent entities operating outside of British colonization and enslavement. By that time, the British were shipping in a high volume of Africans to cultivate the vast, lucrative sugar cane fields.
While still tending to successful Maroon life in the mountains, Nanny was the mastermind behind expeditions into enemy territory to strategically attack plantations and free enslaved people. Historians estimate that she freed almost 1,000 enslaved people in her lifetime. She and her well-trained warriors proved to be formidable opponents for the better equipped British. Some speculate that Nanny was an obeah woman or someone with supernatural powers and that is what gave the Maroons the upper hand. Many mythical stories have been told about her abilities, but what historians do know is that she successfully fought tremendous odds to help Blacks escape slavery.
In her book “The Mother of Us All: A History of Queen Nanny,” author Karla Gottleib underscores the distinctiveness of the Maroons:
“The story of the Maroons is unique in history. How several hundred escaped slaves with no uniforms, no supply of guns and ammunition except those that they were able to steal or obtain covertly, no steady supply of food, and no secure living place, could fend off the best soldiers of an empire that had an almost endless supply of sophisticated heavy artillery including portable swivel guns, a seemingly endless supply of new soldiers, as well as a wealth of material resources, is a historical feat that probably could never be duplicated.”
Escalating violence between the Maroons and the British typified the 1730s. Nanny Town, named after Queen Nanny, suffered heavy losses in one particularly bloody encounter in 1734 when the British ambushed the Maroons while many were asleep. However, several Maroons survived because a new Nanny Town (also called Moore Town) was already inhabited and people were migrating there.
Queen Nanny herself is said to have been killed by the British in the 1730s, but the exact date of her passing is unclear. The Maroons carried on after her death and her brother Cudjoe was an integral part of signing a treaty with Britain in 1738/1739.
Queen Nanny is buried at Bump Grave in Moore Town where people still regularly visit her final resting place. No one knows precisely what she looked like, but an artist’s rendering of her is on Jamaica’s $500 bank note. She is also the only woman out of seven people that Jamaica recognizes as an official National Hero.