Nanny was a Maroon leader and Obeah woman in Jamaica during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. She was also known as Granny Nanny, Grandy Nanny, and Queen Nanny. Enslaved Africans who escaped and established autonomous settlements in the Americas were known as maroons.
Nanny was a runaway slave from Western Africa who had been sold into slavery. It is usually assumed that she was born into the Ashanti tribe of modern-day Ghana.
Nanny and her four brothers (all of whom went on to become Maroon leaders) were sold into slavery and eventually escaped to the highlands and jungles that still make up much of Jamaica. Nanny and one of her brothers, Quao, established Nanny Town in the Blue Mountains on the Eastern (or Windward) side of Jamaica. Nanny has been described as a follower of Obeah, a Caribbean name for folk magic and religion influenced by West African origins.
Nanny Town thrived because of its remote location in the highlands, far from European villages, and difficult to attack. Nanny avoided attacking plantations and European towns, preferring instead to farm and trade with her neighbors in a civilized manner. She did, however, conduct multiple successful raids to free slaves trapped on plantations, and it is commonly acknowledged that her actions resulted in the emancipation of about 1,000 slaves during her lifetime.
Nanny Town and the Windward Maroons flourished and multiplied during Nanny’s lifetime. The triumph of the Maroons humiliated and threatened the British colonial authorities. Plantation owners demanded action from colonial officials after losing slaves and having their equipment and crops torched by Maroon raids. The Jamaican jungles were searched by hunting groups made up of British regular army soldiers, militias, and mercenaries.
Captain William Cuffee, often known as Captain Sambo, is said to have murdered Nanny in one of the war’s many brutal battles in 1733. The war lasted from 1720 to 1739, when a truce was declared; Cudjoe, one of Nanny’s brothers and a Maroon War leader, was the driving force behind the treaty.
For over 30 years it is said she fought and freed over 1,000 slaves on the island of Jamaica. There are many stories about her, it is said she was a queen in Ghana from the warrior Ashante tribe when she was captured and brought to Jamaica where she later escaped and led an armed revolt against the British Empire in the mountains and jungles of Jamaica for two decades.
It is said she used guerilla warfare to fight the British who suffered great loss. She was said to also be a powerful spiritual voodoo priestess who would use her powers to shield her fighters from the attacks of the British.
Following Nanny’s death, many Windward Maroons relocated to the more sparsely populated Western (or Leeward) part of the island. The British eventually seized Nanny Town and destroyed it in 1734.
Nanny’s life and achievements have been recognized by the Jamaican government, who have named her a National Hero and given her the title of “Right Excellent.” There are currently just seven such National Heroes, with Nanny standing out as the only woman. The Jamaican $500 note, the country’s largest denomination, has a modern image of Nanny based on her description.