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Nanny: hero or appeasement?

Published:Tuesday | October 16, 2012 | 12:00 AM


Orville Taylor, lecturer at the University of the West Indies, some weeks ago wrote that "Nanny was pushed in (to the Order of National Hero) because she was a woman, to appease the feminists". (Gleaner, August 5). Strangely, he offered no argument to support his claim. So how did Nanny become a national hero?

It was Opposition Senator C.L.G. Harris, colonel of the Windward Maroons, who in the 1974-5 House sittings reminded the Senate of Nanny's importance. The prime minister then ordered research to determine the validity of Harris' motion to accord the nation's highest honour on that renowned Maroon leader.

Kamau Brathwaite led the government-appointed research to determine the award of the Order of National Hero to Nanny of the Maroons and Sam Sharpe of the Great River Slave Revolt of 1832. His findings were accepted, and the award duly accorded to Grandy Nanny and Sam Sharpe in 1975 (see The Chieftainess: Glimpses of Grandy Nanny, 2009, by Harris).

Further evidence for the above process can be found in a quotation from the Senate sittings at the time:

Mr Harris: "... I specially would like ... to say a ... very special thank you to our prime minister for the fact that Nanny of the Maroons has been elevated to the Order of National Hero. The Maroons are truly pleased and theirs is the desire not to be parsimonious in their expressions of gratitude."

Moreover, what are Brathwaite's own words on the matter? Thirty-five years later, he wrote the preface for Harris' above-mentioned book containing the evidence for all of the above. In it, Brathwaite states: "... When the Government of Jamaica, in 1975, asked me to undertake the historical research that would confirm our intuition that Grandy Nanny should be accorded the most excellent honour and recognition of national hero (1976) - our first and, so far, only 'shero' - it was Colonel Harris, as leader of the Moore Town Maroons that time, who had persistently lobbied all along for this."

Dr Taylor has not been the first person to have erroneously thought Nanny's hero status a result of feminist appeasement. Thus, responding to one such claim at his book launch in 2009 attended by strong supporters of Maroon historical achievements, the author of The Chieftainess: Glimpses of Grandy Nanny famously replied, "Well, I am no feminist."


Some years ago, three geologists sadly went missing for several days in the John Crow Mountains. They had up-to-date maps, and, presumably, a compass. Yet, for them, this hostile, unforgiving territory remained unconquered (they were found by local trackers).

This writer himself has been among parties that climbed the summits of both the Blue Mountains and John Crow Mountains; there was little if any food (unless one risked poisonous berries, or was highly skilled in throwing a spear or junga to kill the rare wild boar), and intense physical discomfort all the way. These are the reasons the Maroons, who mastered this territory without chart or compass, now seem almost superhuman.

This leads to the value of place names, which can potently reveal past events. Seaman's Valley (a strange name, eight miles from the sea), West Retreat (British regression), Watch Hill (Nanny's sentry lookout), Nanny Town (part of more than 1,000 acres ceded to Nanny) - all shriek with pain and bloodshed - mostly of the British seamen soldiers who died in bitter struggles against Nanny's cunning, resilient guerrillas.

Elaborate graves

Phaorahs built their own tombs (the pyramids) largely through coercion. Nanny built no tomb. Yet Nanny's is at least a hundred times as large as any other grave in Jamaica (tons of earth were moved by hand), and history tells us that cultures which make selectively elaborate graves reserved them for eminent leaders. But Nanny's case transcended eminence, because Maroons have had no history of building gigantic tombs/graves, even for their great leaders.

Therefore, would the Maroon builders of that massive Nanny grave over two centuries ago have so voluntarily and prodigiously dispensed effort, with neither payment nor threat, to honour anyone except an unprecedentedly gifted high achiever of enormous influence?

No, Dr Taylor, the construction of Bump Grave, the giant earthen mound currently cradling the bones of the Chieftainess, was no trivial exercise. They did it because they knew what they had witnessed and what had kept them alive: the outstandingly brilliant exploits of a rare military genius.

Finally, let's not forget that it was Governor Edward Trelawny who initiated a peace treaty with the Windward Maroons led by Nanny, not the other way around. The Chieftainess needs elevation neither from feminists nor any other group.

Mark Harris, PhD, is professor of environmental science, NCU. Email feedback to and