Nanny: A mixture of history, legend and mythology

Arts On Sunday

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Nanny
My womb was sealed
with molten wax
of killer bees
for nothing should enter
nothing should leave
the state of perpetual siege
the condition of the warrior.

From then my whole body would quicken
at the birth of everyone of my people’s children.
I was schooled in the green-giving ways
of  the roots and vines
made accomplice to the healing acts
of Chainey root, fever grass and vervain.

My breasts flattened
settled unmoving against my chest
my movements ran equal
to the rhythms of the forest.

I could sense and sift
the footfall of men
from the animals
and smell danger
death’s odour
in the wind’s shift.

When my eyes rendered
light from the dark
my battle song opened
into a solitaire’s moan
I became most knowing
and forever alone.

And when my training was over
they circled my waist with pumpkin seeds
and dried okra, a traveller’s jigida
and sold me to the traders
all my weapons within me
I was sent, tell that to history.

When your sorrow obscures the skies
other women like me will rise.

This poem is about history.  But it is also about myth, legend, traditions, symbol, image, and poetry.  It makes a statement about womanhood, but also about androgyny and gender, because it is about strength, warfare, leadership; about a community, but about personal sacrifice and triumph.  The triumph is in battle, it is that of a people over a particular curse in the history of a people, yet the victory in the poem is a woman’s triumph.  We have given a number of contrasts and opposites because the poem uses them among its main techniques in the treatment that it is giving to both history and gender.

20130203lornaNanny is the work of Lorna Goodison, one of the leading poets of Jamaica and the Caribbean.  She is also a writer of short fiction and she has several interests and artistic preoccupations.  Her work draws on history, which informs and is the subject of many of her poems. Still within the theme of history, she often focuses on slavery  and the concept of ancestry.  Goodison has a mixed white and African ancestry which is often a theme in her work, but she is an Africanist, and the African heritage is prominent in this poem Nanny, as in many others.  Still connected to that, are the many African or African-derived traditions that the poem reflects.  In this poem we are going to find a treatment of both tradition – for example a tradition of patriarchy – and traditions:  a number of folk and cultural traditions on which the poet draws.  Also related to these are the myths, mythology, folklore and customs that appear.

Yet, one of Goodison’s major preoccupations is her great focus on the treatment of women, which lends her work to feminist readings.  In this poem Nanny, there is a strong focus on the woman, and feminism will be satisfied by the way the poem celebrates the woman as a leader within a tradition of patriarchy – a leader of a community, a leader of men, and the triumph of womanhood not over men, but over slavery and over history.

Although there are no direct, overt historical references, it is clear that the poem is about a real person who existed in the history of Jamaica.  She is known as Nanny Queen of the Maroons, and is a heroine, a folk hero who featured somewhere in the First or Second Maroon War between the runaway Africans and the British between 1731 and 1739.

Although historians have confessed to a certain cloud of mystery surrounding the facts about her, evidence of her heroism, leadership and influence are clear, and further emphasized by the historical fact of a town in one of the Maroon ‘republics’ which was named after her.  Nanny Town in the Cockpit Country of Jamaica was one of the citadels and fortresses of the Windward Maroons in the eighteenth century.

Here we can make a direct reference to the patriarchal setting of Goodison’s poem.  Historian Mavis Campbell (1988) makes reference to the highly patriarchal nature of Maroon society, yet one of their towns was named after a woman.  According to Campbell, that is evidence of her power and influence in the communities.

Among the different accounts, the scarcity of records and the uncertainty of some historical facts, what seems to be consistent is the power and reputation of the woman.

All the versions agree that she was fierce, very influential and feared.  She commanded the same respect from Maroons and English alike, and this is reflected in the written accounts of those who claimed to have met her.

In fact, even in conflicting accounts, she was described as having great influence over Maroon military captain Quao and other leaders who dared not act against her wishes and never failed to consult her.

The Nanny of Goodison’s poem is the Nanny who comes closest to the consensus about who she was and what she was like.
The poem is consistent with her great reputation as a powerful obeah woman and a warrior.  The poem links her to Africa and describes her as having gone through severe rituals and training which gave her certain powers, because the image of Nanny has not only survived in history, but in legend and myth.

We may first look at the historical part.  Historians Franklin McKnight and Verene Shepherd make reference to the importance of obeah to the African slaves, and to the Maroons.  There are references in different histories to “the obias” (rather than ‘obeah’ as a single noun as we know it today), and this simply means ‘the deities’ or spirits.  Supernatural power was a very useful asset for Maroon military leaders.  Shelby Givens (1984) researching the Aluku Maroons of French Guiana and Suriname, describes warrior spirits (feti obia) from Africa coming over to protect a Maroon warrior leader fighting against the Europeans.

He was able to catch enemy bullets with his mouth and then send them back to kill his attackers.  The historical records show that these beliefs existed.  About Nanny there is a mixture of history, legend and mythology.  This combination of sources presents her as having led the Maroons in combat against the British.  She was a powerful obeah woman who used her skills to defeat the enemy and protect her soldiers.   In battle she was able to catch British bullets and shoot them back at the enemy. According to historian Carey Robinson (1993) after attracting all the bullets to her body she shot them back at the foe “in an obscene fashion.” Consistent with that delicate terminology, the legend goes that she caught the bullets and fired them back from her vagina.

In the poem we note Goodison’s reference to Nanny’s sexual and reproductive organs in her picture of Nanny the priestess whose body must be kept pure. She has undergone rites of ascetism and abstinence and in so doing has made personal sacrifices, exchanging her sexuality for the power that she is to use on behalf of her people. There is reference to the herbs used in ritual and healing some of which are recognisable in folk medicine and ethnobotany.

She has become one with the forest and in battle is able to detect the movement and presence of enemy soldiers.  Her personal sacrifices are emphasized as she has become “forever alone.” But Goodison also steeps the poem in references to the woman. The matter of gender comes in because Nanny takes on powers and duties traditionally held by men.

Goodison chooses to have the poem narrated by Nanny who tells us all the secrets in her own voice, and we recall the mystery and limited information that surrounded her in her lifetime and in history. This is in keeping with the supernatural spiritual context of her existence – she alone can tell the story since no one else had the knowledge.  It is also in keeping with her aloneness.

Womanhood remains strong in Nanny’s narrative and identity.  In spite of her sealed womb, flattened breast and the deprivation of sexuality, there remains an image of motherhood.  She cannot have children, but she exchanges that for a higher role as mother of the whole nation, even to the point of giving birth to every child born to her people: “my whole body would quicken.”

Nanny then goes on to suggest that her state, her training and her leadership in Jamaica was pre-ordained and a plan worked out from her earlier existence in Africa.  She was deliberately planted among those bought and transported to be enslaved.  She came over with “all my weapons within me” to fight against slavery as the Maroons did.  She says “I was sent” but this was unknown to versions of history.

Then Goodison ends the poem with this strong woman’s presence.  Women were illtreated in slavery, they were often victims in the wars against the Maroons, but according to the poem they were built in to the resistance. The poem gives women the ascendancy;  they triumph over slavery – “other women like me will rise.” Nanny was that powerhouse in Maroon rebellion against the system.  The de-feminising of her physical properties, deprivation of femininity and function to remain spiritually pure is also a comment on patriarchy, on gender roles.  But just as the woman was prepared in Africa and sent over as a weapon, this image of Nanny in the poem celebrates the rise of women.

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