*For the month of February, our Out of Print column will reintroduce black women figures in North American history. The first installment is on Queen Nanny, war general and leader of the Jamaican Maroons.*
(1), Queen Nanny, the 17th-century rebel fighter called the Mother of All Jamaicans, is rendered deathly still. What we know of her life — a mix of documented history and ecstatic legend — tells the story of a woman who could not rest until she brought the enslaved on the island freedom.
Here’s what the history tells us. Born in Ghana around the year 1686, Queen Nanny was sold into slavery at a British plantation near Saint Thomas Parish, in southeastern Jamaica, along with a number of her brothers. When she was still quite young, Nanny, with her family, escaped into the Blue Mountains, the island’s highest point, where she established a Maroon settlement. Maroons — from the Spanish for “runaway” — were the architects of free black and Amerindian states in the Caribbean and South America. And Queen Nanny was their top general. She was a brilliant guerrilla tactician, fumbling British offense strategies for the better part of 30 years.
Up until her death, Queen Nanny lived as a fugitive and built Maroon settlements across the island. She also conducted dozens of successful raids on British sugarcane plantations, often destroying property as she bid the enslaved to come with her. She freed more than a thousand. Queen Nanny was killed by British Captain William Cuffee in 1733. Six years later, Queen Nanny’s brother Cudjoe signed a treaty with the British government, agreeing to cease the raids in exchange for five settlements, including Nanny Town in the Blue Mountains. In 1975, the Jamaican government declared Queen Nanny a national hero. A reproduction of her face first graced the $500 note in 1994.
Here’s what the legend, passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth, tells us about the Mother of All Jamaicans. They say she was actually Ghanaian royalty. This is why they call her Queen. They say she practiced Obeah, an animist spirituality created by West African slaves that Europeans feared and banned. They say she was a priestess. They say she killed many white men. They say West Africans came with rebellion naturally in their blood. Queen Nanny bore no biological children, but then she became the First Mother of all black nations in the Western Hemisphere. They say even her *batty* resisted; a favorite myth claims Queen Nanny often caught the bullets the British shot at her battalion in her ass cheeks, hurling them right back at quicker speeds.
Officially, Jamaica gained independence in 1962. Queen Nanny and the Maroons developed a strategy for active freedom centuries before. Her version denied institutional passivity — it was sourced from the sheer power of human will. Like Tubman and Truth after her, Queen Nanny is a foremother of resistance.
*Doreen St. Félix is the editor at large of Lenny.*