Characters (real-life) in Tread Carefully on the Sea – Queen Nanny

Queen Nanny was a true-life hero of Jamaica. Here’s an excerpt from “Tread Carefully on the Sea” which features Queen Nanny, followed by an article on her, which I have received kind permission to reproduce from


Excerpt from “Tread Carefully on the Sea”

From what Libby said, Queen Nanny was the Boadicea of Jamaica. Nanny had originated in the Ashanti tribe in Ghana. She had been brought to Jamaica as a slave but soon escaped with her five brothers. By 1720, the year Libby was born, Nanny was the head of a band of runaway slaves known as the Windward Maroons who had established a settlement in the Blue Mountains. It was given the name Nanny Town in recognition of her leadership. In addition to her skills as a commander, Nanny was known as an excellent nurse and was an expert on herbs, using them both in cooking and for medicine.

In 1728 the settlement came under attack from the British army but Nanny united her Windward Maroons with the Leeward Maroons from the other side of the island. Over six years their joint forces, better suited to mountain fighting, carried out a war of attrition against the British, who were constantly driven back and eventually gave up. “The excuse the British came up with,” explained Libby, “was that the Maroons used magic against them.”

“And your connection to Queen Nanny?” asked Townsend.

“She was my aunt,” said Libby, “and she taught me so much, mostly ‘never give up’ – like I told you before and like we mustn’t do now.”  

Article on Queen Nanny from

Queen Nanny as Pictured on a Jamaican Bank Note


Nanny, known as Granny Nanny, Grandy Nanny, and Queen Nanny was a Maroon leader and Obeah woman in Jamaica during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Maroons were a cultural mix of African slaves and the native Arawak Indian tribes that predated European colonisation. Nanny herself was an escaped slave who had been shipped from Western Africa. It has been widely accepted that she came from the Ashanti tribe of present-day Ghana.

Nanny and her four brothers (all of whom became Maroon leaders) were sold into slavery and later escaped from their plantations into the mountains and jungles that still make up a large proportion of Jamaica. Nanny and one brother, Quao, founded a village in the Blue Mountains, on the Eastern (or Windward) side of Jamaica, which became known as Nanny Town. Nanny has been described as a practitioner of Obeah, a term used in the Caribbean to describe folk magic and religion based on West African influences.

Nanny Town, placed as it was in the mountains away from European settlements and difficult to assault, thrived. Nanny limited her attacks on plantations and European settlements and preferred instead to farm and trade peacefully with her neighbours. She did however make numerous successful raids to free slaves held on plantations and it has been widely accepted that her efforts contributed to the escape of almost 1,000 slaves over her lifetime.

While Nanny lived, Nanny Town and the Windward Maroons thrived and multiplied. The British colonial administration became embarrassed and threatened by the successes of the Maroons. Plantation owners who were losing slaves and having equipment and crops burned by Maroon raiders demanded that colonial authorities act. Hunting parties, made up of British regular army soldiers, militiamen, and mercenaries (many from the free black community), scoured the Jamaican jungles.Captain William Cuffee, known as Captain Sambo, is credited as having killed Nanny in 1733 during one of the many and bloody engagements of the war.  The war itself lasted from 1720 until a truce was declared in 1739; Cudjoe, one of Nanny’s brothers and a leader during the Maroon War, was the driving force behind the treaty.
After Nanny’s death, many of the Windward Maroons moved across the island to the more sparsely inhabited Western (or Leeward) side of Jamaica. Nanny Town was eventually captured by the British and destroyed in 1734.
Nanny’s life and accomplishments have been recognised by the Government of Jamaica and she has been honoured as a National Hero and awarded the title of “Right Excellent”. Currently, there are only seven such National Heroes and Nanny is conspicuous as the only woman. A modern portrait of Nanny, based on her description, appears on the Jamaican $500 note, the largest banknote in circulation in Jamaica.

Mavis Campbell, The Maroons of Jamaica, 1655-1796 (Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1990); Edward Long, The History of Jamaica, Volume II (T. Lowndes, Fleet Street, London 1774); Karla Gottlieb, The mother of us all: A history of Queen Nanny, leader of the Windward Jamaican Maroons (Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 2000).


Bernard, Ian, Independent Historian

– See more at: is the Online Reference Guide to African American History. This 13,000 page reference center is dedicated to providing information to the general public on African American history and on the history of the more than one billion people of African ancestry around the world.

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