While there is little clear physical evidence about Grandy Nanny and she is only mentioned four times in historical texts, Grandy Nanny is a Jamaican cultural hero who lived in the eighteenth century. She is revered in Jamaica for her role in Jamaican independence. Her image adorns the $500 bill. Much of what is known about Grandy Nanny has come down through oral tradition passed along by her descendants and she is as much a myth as a historical figure.
Grandy Nanny began her life as a royal member of the Ashanti tribe. She was trained in the religion of Obeah to be a priestess and medicine woman. Kidnapped in western Africa in an intertribal conflict, she and her brothers were sold into slavery. Once they were in Jamaica, they quickly escaped and went into the hills. Grandy Nanny created a community of free men, women, and children in what would become Nanny Town. Her brothers created other settlements and her brother Captain Cudjoe was the leader of the Leeward Maroons and founded Cudjoe Town.
As the leader of the Windward Maroons, Grandy Nanny was only one leader of several groups of escaped slaves who formed independent tribal groups around the Caribbean and ran their communities in a similar way to tribal villages in Africa. Many of the the members of the Maroons were from the Akan region of Western Africa, but slaves from other areas also joined their ranks. The former slaves also inter-married with the indigenous Arawaks. Archeological evidence of some of these various communities suggests that the different Maroon groups traded with Spanish and later British plantations or settlements, exchanging produce and livestock for cloth, weapons, and other items. In addition the Maroons obtained necessities by leading raids against the plantations and settlements to free more slaves and to drive the British out of Jamaica.
Around 1720, Nanny and her husband settled in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. Between 1728 and 1734, the Maroon communities were frequently attacked by the British who saw the settlements of escaped slaves as lost wealth and property. Grandy Nanny chose her location for its strategic importance. It overlooked the Stony River from atop a 900 foot ridge, making a surprise attack by the British practically impossible. The Windward Maroons also organized look-outs to watch for an attack and used a horn called an abeng to call their warriors to battle if the British turned up.
Several times Grandy Nanny personally lead attacks on the British. The British were flabbergasted that an old sorcerer woman had organized and was leading the attacks. It was rumored that Grandy Nanny’s spiritual powers assisted her in resisting the British. They began a manhunt specifically for Grandy Nanny to stop the rebellion. She retreated into the highest mountains of Jamaica and continued her strategy of guerilla warfare against the Redcoats who she called “red ants.” Over the course of 30 years, Grandy Nanny freed more than 800 slaves in her raids on plantations.
In March 1733, there is a written citation in the Journal for the Assembly of Jamaica that notes Grandy Nanny’s death. It reads:
“for ‘resolution, bravery and fidelity’ awarded to ‘loyal slaves . . . under the command of Captain Sambo’, namely William Cuffee, who was rewarded for having fought the Maroons in the First Maroon War and who is called ‘a very good party Negro, having killed Nanny, the rebels old obeah woman.'”
Most likely Cuffee was a type of hired soldier known as a “Black Shot” and he was motivated by a reward to fight against the Maroons. The use of these “Black Shots” was a common practice by plantation owners to discourage slaves from escaping. Grandy Nanny is buried at “Bump Grave” in Moore Town which is another settlement that was established by the Windward Maroons.
In 1739 the British governor in Jamaica signed a peace treaty with the Windward and Leeward Maroons. A land grant promising 2500 acres in two locations was issued. The Maroons were to remain in their five main towns, namely Accompong, Trelawny Town, Mountain Top, Scots Hall, and Nanny Town. It was negotiated that they would live under their own chief, with a British supervisor. In exchange, the Maroons agreed not to liberate or hide new runaway slaves. Further, they would help to help catch the runaways and be paid for any runaway slaves that were caught. In addition, the fierce Maroons would be paid to fight for the British in the case of an attack from the French or Spanish.
Grandy Nanny was a very dangerous woman.