Visible Women

The true story of Queen Nanny, rebel leader and Jamaican National Hero

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Marai Larasi
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Throughout Black History Month 2018, black women have been discussing the female figures who inspire them on stylist.co.uk. Here, activist and Imkaan executive director Marai Larasi pays tribute to Nanny of the Maroons, who led a revolt against the British in 18th century Jamaica. 

“If you know your history / Then you would know where you coming from / Then you wouldn’t have to ask me / Who the heck do I think I am.” Bob Marley, from Buffalo Soldier

Much of black women’s herstory is buried in the wasteland where patriarchy, racism, and other oppressions intersect. As we reclaim spaces for ourselves in the present, many of us feel an almost urgent pull to excavate these herstories. We do this in an effort to understand more about our journeys, while also celebrating all that we have been.

This is especially important as the idea that feminism and women’s resistance were born in Eurocentric consciousness continues to dominate much of our feminist narratives. We know that black women have long, autonomous traditions of sisterhood, resistance and leadership. So as we celebrate Black Herstory Month, we also write and right narratives as contributions to our own living archives, and as a counter-position to distortions and absences.

For me, a Londoner with roots that stretch across the Atlantic into the Caribbean island of Jamaica, and to the African continent, this means that I am always minded to begin with one woman that lived centuries ago, one who epitomises the warrior woman spirit that I see in so many Caribbean women today: Queen Nanny. 

Imkaan executive director Marai Larasi 

Queen Nanny, or as she is also known, Nanny of the Maroons, is Jamaica’s only recognised National (s)Hero, and she is perhaps most visible on the country’s $500 note. She lived in Jamaica in the early 18th century, and was a member of a community of resistors, the Windward/Eastern Maroons, who had escaped the brutality of enslavement on British owned sugarcane plantations.

At the height of Empire, while women from the British aristocracy enjoyed the sweetness that had been produced through slave labour, a small, African-Jamaican woman was leading her people in bitter guerrilla warfare against the ‘redcoats’. She was in a fight for her people’s lives, and the fight was not abstract.

In escaping slavery, Maroons were a major threat to the island’s colonial power structures. Capture would result in severe punishment, and almost certain death. This was the world in which Queen Nanny lived.

Jamaican oral histories describe Queen Nanny as a woman who used a range of intellectual and physical means to stave off, and attack the enemy. She is reputed to have been an expert military strategist, causing much confusion amongst the ‘redcoats’, who were often surprised when the trees came alive and they found themselves under attack from her warriors. Much of the success of the Windward Maroons during the First Maroon War has been attributed to her leadership. 

Queen Nanny is also said to have had mystical abilities that strengthened her power. However, some caution against these reports. Written historical records do not offer a great deal of information about Queen Nanny, but we do know that the British hated her, and it is believed that some accounts of her supernatural powers were deliberately designed to be derogatory.

In reality, history is always presented from someone’s point of view, and in many ways the source of Queen Nanny’s power is not our primary concern. That she existed, struggled, resisted, led, organised, survived and defeated her oppressors time and time again makes her iconic. That she continues to be recognised – in Jamaica’s memory, and beyond – is critical.

It is said that Queen Nanny was not only a warrior, she was also a wise woman who encouraged her community to remember those customs and traditions that had travelled across the Atlantic in the bellies of slave ships. In that spirit, Queen Nanny: we remember you.

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Getty Images / Michelle Beatty

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Marai Larasi

Marai Larasi is a black feminist activist, the joint chair of the End Violence Against Woman Coalition, and the executive director of Imkaan, a UK-based organisation dedicated to addressing violence against Black and ‘Minority Ethnic’ (BME) women and girls.

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