From Freedom to Suppression: The Problem of Jamaica’s Maroon Heritage in “Queen Nanny”

By Gordon Barnes.

African Film Festival, New York

Queen Nanny: Legendary Maroon Chieftainess

Directed by Roy T. Anderson, Jamaica, 2015, 59m

Jamaican Patois and English with English Subtitles


Earlier this month, New York City was host to the African Film Festival, organized by the conjoined efforts of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The half-month long event, spanning from the May 1 to May 15, showcased myriad films relating to and engaging with African society, politics, and culture. In addition to films situated in the continental context, a variety of the selected works engaged with broader diasporic issues as well. On 5 May, I had the opportunity to view Queen Nanny: Legendary Maroon Chieftainess, directed by a descendant of the Jamaican Maroons, Roy T. Anderson. It was shown as the first half of a double feature alongside Donna C. Roberts’ and Donna Read’s Yemanjá: Wisdom from the African Heart of Brazil. Before proceeding any further, it must be noted that both films are worth seeing, particularly for those interested in Afro-American social and religious formations as well as the ways in which peoples of African descent contested elite, namely European, social structures both in regards to historical processes and in contemporary society. This review focuses solely on Anderson’s film and its portrayal of the Maroons as the arbiters of freedom in colonial Jamaica.

Queen Nanny is officially described as follows: “Nanny was a queen captured in her homeland and forcibly transported across the Atlantic Ocean in the belly of a slave ship. In the New World, she rose up to become the leader of a new nation — of free Africans. However, not many people outside of Jamaica know about the legendary warrior chieftainess of the Jamaican Maroons. She is the only female among Jamaica’s seven national heroes, and her likeness appears on the country’s $500 bill, yet little is known about her. This landmark documentary, conceived by award-winning Jamaican-born, New Jersey–based filmmaker Roy T. Anderson and history professor Harcourt T. Fuller, unearths and examines this mysterious figure, who led a band of former enslaved Africans in the rugged and remote interiors of Jamaica in their victory over the British army during the early to mid-18th century.”

The documentary has three central themes throughout. The first, as the title and above description indicate, revolves around “uncovering” the mysterious character of Nanny, her purported military and diplomatic successes against the British, and her central role amongst the Windward Maroons communities. The second thematic focus of the film is that of the contemporary relevance of Nanny in Jamaican society, and the third concerns the way the documentary deals with the broader impact the Maroon society had in Jamaica, both historically and in the present.

Anderson’s film begins with an interrogation of the various myths which shroud Nanny’s historical figure. The first issue for Anderson was establishing whether or not she actually existed. While some dispute has persisted on the matter, there is ample historical evidence that such a woman did exist, and at the very least was an integral part of the Windward Maroons in the early to mid-eighteenth century. This evidence comes not only in the form of popular oral histories but is buttressed and verified by archival documentation. After quickly dispelling any notion that Nanny was potentially a figment borne out of Jamaican folklore, Anderson’s film attempts to establish Nanny’s origins in Africa, a much more challenging task to accomplish. Anderson interviews various people (as he does throughout the film), including scholars, activists, politicians, and contemporary Maroons, in order to give the audience some semblance of “who Nanny was.” We hear that she was possibly a slave from the barracoons in what today is Ghana. Alternatively, we hear that she emigrated to Jamaica as a free woman, on the deck of a slave vessel rather than in its wretched holds, and that she was possibly a slave owner herself. The latter is a fairly dubious assertion, and Anderson’s film propagates the view that Nanny was likely an enslaved person as she journeyed across the Atlantic. The audience is led to believe, and quite convincingly too, that Nanny was a member of the Akan speaking peoples of Western Africa and a Coromantee (an Ashanti slave). This last bit is highly believable and likely true.

The film proceeds to briefly discuss Nanny’s time as a slave and quickly shifts to exploring her role as a military and spiritual leader of the Windward Maroons. Mixing historical fact with myth and folklore, this portion of Queen Nanny seems a bit muddled. There is a lengthy segment dealing with the myth that Nanny was so feared by the British by virtue of her skills of catching bullets, often reportedly with her buttocks. While this mythology is interesting and at times amusing, there is no interrogation of the overtly sexualized representation of Nanny and much of her purported military skills are presented as some sort of quasi-magical prowess. Granted, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that Nanny was in fact not a military leader, but rather a spiritual and political leader within the Maroon polity. This is convincingly demonstrated in Michael Craton’s book Testing the Chains. Nanny’s alleged military role, while being lauded by the film, is incidentally downplayed when the film discusses the treaties signed with the British. It was not Nanny who was the signatory of the treaty but Quao, another Maroon leader (the military head of the Windward Maroons) who was the principal Maroon involved in the negotiations. However, the film portrays this fact not as evidence for Nanny’s non-participation in the direct military ventures the Maroons waged against the British but rather as a way to absolve her and her legacy from the detrimental terms of the treaty signed between the Windward Maroons and the British (I will discuss this more later in the review).

As mentioned above, the other themes in Queen Nanny are Nanny’s legacy to modern-day Jamaica and the wide-ranging legacy of the Maroons as they relate not only to contemporaneous Jamaican Maroon communities, but also to Jamaican society more broadly as well as beyond the circum-Anglo-Caribbean world. Anderson interviews a few women politicians, mostly from the center-left People’s Nationalist Party, including Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller, on how Nanny’s legacy has influenced their own politics and ascension in what is typically an “old boys club.” The film would have been better served if Anderson interviewed Jamaican women who have legitimately challenged the status quo, as Nanny did in her heyday. Instead, this portion of the film grotesquely valorizes the way certain lackeys of the Jamaican state deploy a caricature of Nanny in order to distort and appropriate her revolutionary legacy, as opposed to portraying radical individuals confronting issues of injustice and oppression at an everyday basis.

Anderson’s film also deals with the legacy of the larger history of the Maroons and how these histories have influenced contemporary Jamaica as well as their wide-ranging effects beyond the island. It is this portion of the film that one should find most problematic. While the cultural and social significance of the Maroons should not be understated, Queen Nanny, however, willfully and intentionally obfuscates and elides large portions of Maroon history in an effort to present a purely triumphalist narrative. Granted the diasporic linkages between Jamaica and West Africa (present-day Ghana specifically) are evidenced through the representations of Maroon culture throughout the film. Anderson is able to demonstrate this by examining the correlations between language, food consumption and cooking techniques, religious practices, as well as cosmological understandings which resonate within both the Maroon communities of Jamaica and present day Akan-speaking communities in Ghana.

Furthermore, interwoven through the film’s historical documentation, Anderson follows a group of contemporary Maroons, historical researchers, and people otherwise invested in the legacy of Nanny, as they traverse the rugged terrain of Jamaica’s Blue Mountains in search of her grave at the site of one of the original Maroon villages. This section, in all it parts, also helps the audience understand the Maroon legacy in Jamaica in general and Nanny’s revered role in particular. The sections on the film dealing with the cultural legacy of Nanny or the Maroons is not what causes consternation, rather it is the political significance of the Maroons and how their history is mobilized over the course of the film.

To be clear, my criticisms which follow are concerned more with how Queen Nanny portrays Maroon history in a highly selective manner rather than with the representation of Nanny herself. As it regards Nanny, the historical errors and the occasional presentation of myth as verifiable fact notwithstanding, Anderson’s film does a superb job of uncovering a vast amount of information about a fairly enigmatic and mysterious figure in Jamaican and British imperial histories. But notwithstanding Nanny’s portrayal in Queen Nanny as nearly copacetic, his broader representation of Maroon history and significance leaves much to be desired. Anderson quite accurately presents the Maroons as stalwart freedom fighters. As a group of ex-slaves, liberated not by royal decree or the beneficence of the master class, their flight from bondage was self-manumission. And the Maroons in Jamaica, both the Leeward and Windward Maroons, continually harassed the British planters and military, often drafting other slaves into their ranks. And as Anderson tells the audience, the Maroons went to war with the British Empire, who arguably possessed the most powerful and technologically advanced fighting forces on the globe at the time. All of this is presented in a manner which envisages the Maroons as a righteous and morally sound group combating the ills of chattel slavery and colonial empire. And this is a fairly valid interpretation and rendering of this portion of Maroon history. However, the problem with the film is the disconnect between this period of Maroon socio-political progressiveness and the subsequent history of betrayal, which implicates the Maroons as integral to the continuation not only of chattel slavery but of the very imperial avarice which they had previously struggled against.

The First Maroon War, which had been a low-intensity conflict since the British seized Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, reached its zenith in 1731, after which treaties were signed in 1740 and 1741 with the Leeward and Windward Maroons respectively. While the treaties provided for Maroon autonomy and offered certain Maroon leaders extensive plots of land (including Nanny, who received a rather extensive parcel), one of the provisos was that the Maroons would be obligated to be slave catchers and enforcers of plantation justice meted out to any runaway slaves they would happen to come across. Furthermore, the Maroons were obligated to assist the British military and the colonial militia in times of foreign invasion as well as during episodes of internal social unrest.

Queen Nanny briefly mentions that one of the provisions of the treaty between the British and the Windward Maroons was that the latter would serve as slave catchers and help quell rebellion or invasion. A cursory reference in the film to this effect is not sufficient and helps in maintaining Anderson’s vision of the Maroons as a homogenously progressive polity. This omission is even more of an issue when one considers the film’s insistence that the Jamaican Maroons were the flag bearers of freedom. It is true that they indeed were at one point in time, but Anderson’s film makes it seem as though this moral position was maintained throughout Maroon history well into the present. Anderson’s failure to demonstrate the nuanced and complicated version of Maroon history in Jamaica is in the service of perpetuating the tradition of revering Maroons as righteous warriors against injustice. Again, while this is true and accurate for a certain period of Maroon history, such a representation ignores the disastrous socio-political consequences of Maroon collusion with the British. And while Queen Nanny focuses its historical narrative on the period of Maroon resistance, the linkage of Maroon struggles of the past to present day Maroon communities (and Jamaican society more broadly) without attending to the later periods of their political degeneration results in a myopic history. If we consider that the Jamaican Maroons were integral to the suppression of the Baptist War and the Morant Bay Rebellion, then one cannot simply posit that the Maroons were and are historically exemplary freedom fighters. On the contrary, their role in quashing the Baptist War, a 30,000 plus slave rebellion from 1831-1832, arguably prevented immediate emancipation (as opposed to gradual emancipation via “apprenticeship” which the British enacted soon afterwards), and their subsequent complicity in catching and executing the principal organizers of the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion (a labor revolt in eastern Jamaica) only served the interests of the British colonial elite.

It may be taboo for one to call the Jamaican Maroons reactionary, but they certainly were for a certain period of their history. This is particularly important for people of color to understand. Very much in the same vein that it is taboo in some circles to argue that it was African elites and not European merchants who sold slaves along the African littoral to eager captains awaiting to turn a profit on their cargoes in the new world, this aspect of Maroon history is not readily reckoned with or examined. Anderson’s film, therefore, plays into the clap trap of identity politics which is currently en vogue. History, no matter how seemingly contradictory or unsavory to popular conceptions of morality, must still be accurately represented. Despite this glaring issue, however, Anderson’s Queen Nanny is a film which rebuilds a once mythical figure of the African diaspora, demonstrating her socio-political power and how it helped in shaping Jamaica. While its deficiencies must be recognized and addressed, they do not indict the film or make it unworthy of a wide viewership. On the contrary, Queen Nanny should be seen by all who have a concerted interest in Afro-American history, the African diaspora, or Jamaican culture.

, ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 OpenCUNY » login | join | terms | activity 

 Supported by the CUNY Doctoral Students Council.