Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Obeah and Rebellion - Nanny of Nanny Town

Nowadays, few Caribbean people know about the role Obeah played in slave rebellions throughout the region.  Those who may know about Nanny, one of the few female Maroon leaders, may not know about her reputation as an Obeah practitioner but a note made in Jamaica’s Assembly papers for 1733, records the citation of one William Cuffee for “having killed Nanny, the rebels’ old obeah woman.”

In his 1950 travel book, The Traveler’s Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean Islands, Patrick Leigh Fermor relates his discovery of an old book containing this note on:  “‘The notorious Nanny…[who] was possessed of supernatural powers, and spirited away the best and finest of the slaves from the outlying estates.  She never went into battle armed like the rest, but received the bullets of the enemy that were aimed at her and returned them with fatal effect in a manner of which decency forbids a nearer description.’”
            In fact, the Maroons, themselves, continued to maintain the tradition of Nanny’s magical powers long after she, herself, had died.  Col. C. L. G. Harris of the Moore Town Maroons told folklorist, Laura Tanna, that “many people ascribe magical powers to Nanny.  I [do] so and I think every Maroon who has a right to call himself or herself so, believes so.”  According to him:  “Nanny at one time in her career decided to defeat a whole British battalion single-handedly and so she placed her pot in a particular spot, [on a narrow] pathway [where] the English could march only in single file and so when the British came, each man peeped into the pot because it was boiling, boiling, but no fire was underneath it.”  Each man who looked into the pot fell down and rolled off the cliff and the “army was completely decimated and then Nanny stopped the last one before he could look in” and showed him what had happened to the others and sent him back to tell his commander of their defeat.  Harris added that “it was this great Nanny, who after the signing of the Treaty caught the bullets.  Of course, so many people know the method that she used and she caught them and returned them whence they came.”  Tanna recorded that Harris gestured like a woman lifting her skirts when speaking about how Nanny caught the bullets.  (Legend has it that she caught them in her bottom.
            How much planters of the day knew about Nanny’s reputed supernatural skills is open to speculation.  It is quite probable that they attributed her success in battle to the guerilla tactics employed by the Maroons and to the difficulty they found in fighting over terrain as challenging as that of Jamaica’s Blue Mountains and, to the west, of the Cockpit Country, wooded and pitted as it was.  Her reputation in Obeah was something at which they would have scoffed and which they would have dismissed as laughable.  Europe’s own witches had led no uprisings and been involved in no wars.  Any participation in war by people with assumed supernatural powers had died out with the Celts so the planters had little understanding of the psychological power Obeah practitioners wielded over adherents.

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