Queen Nanny – Leader of the Maroons

This is the story of a woman who led the Jamaican Maroons in their fight against slavery and who had the British tremble in fear. This is the story of Queen Nanny.

There are few written accounts of her life and the ones existing were written by the British and thus are less than favourable. Fortunately stories have been passed down for generations, so her story is not lost to us. It is not always easy to separate fact from fiction, but I will try.

Nanny had not always lived in Jamaica. She was born around 1686 in Ghana, which was called the Gold Coast back then, presumably a child of the Ashanti tribe. At some point, her village must have been captured as she was sold and shipped to Jamaica alongside quite a few members of her family. Arriving on the island far from home, she was sold to a sugar plantation in Saint Thomas, near Port Royal. There are some accounts that state she was of African nobility emigrated willingly as a free woman and even married, although none of her children survived. In regards to her further life however, I find the story of her enslavement more likely, so I’m going to follow that narrative.

Life on the plantation was hard, they were treated harshly by their owners, but there were stories of other slaves who had managed to run away and a spark of hope lit up. It didn’t take long until Nanny and three other men who are often called her brothers, planned their escape – and succeeded. This happened around 1690. They made their way into the jungle of the Blue Mountains where they would be harder to find and eventually resolved to split up, so they could rally other maroons and organize the resistance. Nanny decided to remain in the Blue Mountains, where she would become the leader of the Windward Maroons of the East, while two of her brothers would head the Leeward Maroons in the West.

Word got out amongst the slaves that there was refuge in the mountains and her camp grew. By 1720 the area she controlled had become a small city which they named Nanny Town. The settlement was built strategically, overlooking the surrounding landscape while remaining hidden itself. It was only accessible via a small path that could only be walked by one person. When the British attacked, Nanny’s men were able to kill them one by one, so even a relatively small band of Maroons were able to eliminate a much larger and better equipped force. Even though the British did manage to capture the stronghold on several occasions, they never managed to hold it. Nanny and her people knew the surroundings perfectly and had adjusted their fighting style accordingly. Their precise guerilla attacks drove their adversaries home quickly. But they did not only defend, they also attacked. They raided plantations to free more slaves and thus add to their numbers, as well as to collect supplies and acquire new weaponry. Thanks to their efforts, about 1000 slaves were freed – by the Windward Maroons alone.

Nanny was a brilliant strategist and employed several decoys to ensure the safety of her people. She would have the British led into traps an ambushes and even when they retaliated, the dead amongst the Maroons were few, less than ten people. Queen Nanny was also an obeah woman, a spiritual healer, a status that earned her even more respect besides the obvious plus side of being able to care for her wounded warriors. She also encouraged her people to continue to honor their traditions and kept them alive herself by passing down the legends, songs and customs of her people. This could also be seen as a tactical maneuver, as this practice instilled a big sense of community and pride in the Windward Maroons.

These skirmishes went on for more than a decade until in 1739 the Maroon War was over. The Leeward Maroons had already agreed to a peace treaty that granted them a plot of land but had them promise not to free any more slaves and to assist in catching any new runaways. That last clause didn’t sit quite right with Nanny and she didn’t sign, preferring war over treason. Eventually however, succumbing to pressure from her brothers who had already signed, she agreed and accepted the land she and her people were granted.

So Nanny Town was abandoned and New Nanny Town was founded. Now they mainly focused on the cultivation of crops and livestock as well as hunting. They did produce their own food before as well, but now there were no attacks or raids getting in the way of a peaceful life. The community itself was organized much like the Ashanti communities of Ghana, with an economy based on trading produce for other necessities. Queen Nanny had made herself a new home away from home and she continued to live in this place until she passed away around 1755 as an old woman. Another story tells that she was killed around 1733 in one of the many battles with the British, although I find that unlikely, as the plot of land was allocated to “Nanny and the people now residing with her and their heirs” which indicates that she was still alive in 1740.

While the original Nanny Town has since disappeared, New Nanny Town still exists, although it is now named Moore Town. Until this day many women there are being called by the honorific “Nanny” although there is only one Queen. In 1976 she was made a National Hero of Jamaica – the only woman amongst them – and her portrait can be found on the Jamaican 500 Dollar Bill, which is also commonly known as a “Nanny.” On top of that numerous streets and places are named after her and a statue has been erected in Moore Town. Still she continues to inspire Jamaicans to create art and there even is a movie about her life!

While often ignored by Western scholars, she remains alive in the hearts of her people, a symbol of their strength and unity.

image credits:

1: Nanny of the Maroons – Link
2 & 3: Renee Cox: Revisiting Queen Nanny Series – Link  – check out the full series here
4: Gloria Simms plays Queen Nanny – Link – check out the movie here
5: 500 Jamaican Dollars banknote (Nanny of the Maroons) – Link

Maria Quitéria – The Brazilian Joan of Arc

This week I’m taking you to Brazil where a brave woman joined the army in the War of Independence, dresses as a man. And although she was outed, her valor and skill in battle allowed her to continue fighting. She even was promoted and endorsed by the emperor! Let me tell you the story of Maria Quitéria, the Brazilian Joan of Arc.

On June 27, 1792 Maria Quitéria de Jesus Medeiros was born as the first child of a farming family in the state of Bahia on the country’s eastern coast. Two brothers would follow. Although she did not receive a formal education, she learned to ride, hunt and fish and even how to handle a weapon. Mother Dona Quitéria was queen of the home while father Gonçalo tended the cattle. And Maria took the best from both worlds. She loved to prepare dinner with her mother, but she also loved to run in the fields with her brothers.

This carefree time however ended when her mother died when Maria was only ten. Suddenly she had to take care of her younger brothers and fulfill a more important role in the household, although even that could not completely cure her of her independent ways. And only five months later, while Maria was still grieving, her father remarried. The marriage was short-lived however, as the woman was, but soon her father married a third time. Maria didn’t quite like this new women who tried to meddle with their family and who opposed her tomboyish lifestyle. She did however love her new sisters that came from this marriage.

This is where our story leaves off and doesn’t continue until more than a decade later, in 1822. The relationship between the colonizing power of Portugal and the people of Brazil had been tense for a while and in that year, war broke out. Partisan groups were travelling cross-country, recruiting volunteers and/or asking for funds, and before long they came by Maria’s home. Her father, by now a widower with his sons having moved out of the house, told them he didn’t have anything to offer and tried to shoo them off. To his surprise, Maria stepped forward, asking him for permission to join the fight. Of course he refused vehemently. Of course she paid him no heed. Instead she ran away to her sister’s house who had married a man in a neighboring village. Her sister cut her hair while her brother-in-law provided her with proper male clothing and allowed her to use his name. In this attire she went to the nearest Artillery Regiment to register – the first woman in the country to do so, albeit incognito.

Her battalion travelled her home region of Bahia, engaging in battle several times and each time Maria, or “Soldado Medeiros,” stood out for her valor and skill. After a few months however, in June 1823, her father caught up with her, revealing her true identity to her comrades. Surprisingly they didn’t really care. She was brave, she fought well, so who cares about her gender? The captain personally forbade her to leave and so her father had to return home empty-handed. Maria in the meantime dropped her male attire and embraced her female identity. She went on to be promoted cadet in July, allowing her to officially carry a sword, and one month later reached the rank of lieutenant, including royal honors and everything!

In 1824 the Portuguese garrison in Montevideo surrendered and the war was won. Maria returned home a decorated soldier. She reconciled with her father and rekindled the relationship with her former boyfriend Gabriel Pereira Brito. Soon the pair was married and not much later their daughter Luísa was born. This is where her story gets a little foggy. It is known that she was widowed about ten years later and that her father died not soon after. Maria claimed her inheritance and moved near Salvador with her daughter. There she died in August 2853, aged 61, poor and almost blind. It wasn’t until decades later that her achievements were recognized. Today she is revered as the Brazilian Joan of Arc, a comparison to another woman who actively participated in battle, defending her country and its independence as well as their personal ones.

image credits:

1: “Maria Quitéria” by Domenico Failutti (1920) – Link
2: Monument to Maria Quitéria – A Verdade

Yaa Asantewaa – Defender of the Golden Stool

This is the story of a woman who defended her country against the British, refusing to stand down. Called “Africa’s Joan of Arc” by Western scholars, she commanded the entirety of the Ashanti forces in their final war against the colonialists. This is the story of Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa.

First, let me take you to the place and time where all of this happened: the Ashanti Kingdom in what is now Ghana. Unifying the individual village-states into a confederacy in 1701, its first king laid the foundation for what became one of the most sophisticated kingdoms in Africa. And of course there was some mythology behind it too. It was told that the Golden Stool, the symbol of the Ashanti throne, fell from the sky into the King’s lap, blessing his reign. Thus the Golden Stool became much more than just a throne – it became a symbol of the undying Ashanti spirit.

And now for the story of the woman who defended it. And it’s not just a myth!

Around 1840, Yaa Asantewaa was born as the oldest of the two royal children in the outskirts of Kumasi, the Ashanti capital, in a town that used to be called Edweso but today is named Ejisu. She grew to become a reputed farmer and cultivated crops on her own land until at one point she married a man from the capital. Following tradition she was but the first wife in a polygamous marriage, giving birth to one daughter. Meanwhile her brother ascended to the throne sometime in the 1880s, making her Queen Mother. You see, that title was inherited just as the royal ones were – and it held just as much influence. During his reign, Yaa witnessed the Ashanti confederacy go through crisis after crisis, war after war, and saw its stability waning. In the 1870s Kumasi was burned and ransacked, a tax was imposed by the British and a civil war was raging. And in the middle of all that her brother died. Making use of her position, Yaa nominated her grandson for the vacant position of chief and he was crowned in 1888.

He wasn’t able to enjoy his position for too long as in 1896 he was sent into exile to the Seychelles and the British demanded the utter surrender of his kingdom. Plus the Golden Stool would be nice. Four years they discussed and negotiated, hoping to a least get their king back for it. And just as the Ashanti chiefs were about to give in, Yaa’s thread of patience finally snapped. Refusing to pay her share of the taxes she gave a rallying speech about pride and courage and bravery. Still the chiefs were hesitant but she won them over quickly by announcing that, if the men are to scared to fight, the women will. And so in March 1900 a rebellion began.

Yaa became the first woman to lead and command the Ashanti forces and her leadership was so a skillful that the following war bears her name. Her first move was to turn her hometown into their base. With many of the men still hesitant to join the army, scared of the British military, she once again turned to the women. After convincing them to refuse to have sex with their husbands unless they fought for their country, most men were quick to join the war effort. For further encouragement, the women were to circle the city everyday, performing victory rituals and thus keeping morality high. For the first time in the Anglo-Ashanti wars, walls and palisades were built around cities and villages, successfully keeping the enemy at bay for the time being. She regained control of the capital by besieging the British fort within it, completely incapacitating its occupants and their allies on the outside. She proceeded to secure the city, deploying generals to monitor and protect strategic points. Yaa also employed psychological warfare against her adversaries, using the traditional talking drums to strike fear in their hearts whenever they heard the drums sing of battles won by the Ashanti.

In the end however the brave warriors were driven back by the British. Village by village, their strongholds were captured and finally Yaa herself was forced to surrender and followed her brother into exile to the Seychelles, accompanied by her generals. Their battle had lasted half a year. Her exile was set to last for 25 years, but Yaa would not see her home again. She died 21 years later.

The British however never got hold of the Golden Stool. It was hidden deep in the forests and only recovered by accident, when a group of labourers happened upon it in 1920. By then, even though they were technically annexed into the British Empire, the Ashanti still basically governed themselves and were not required to report to colonial authorities. And finally in 1957, their indepencence became official – the first African nation to achieve this. So despite her defeat in the end, Yaa Asantewaa’s resilience paved the way for her people’s de facto independence and succeeded in keeping the Golden Stool out of British hands.

image credits:

1: Asante. Stool (Dwa) – Museum Expedition 1922, Robert B. Woodward Memorial Fund – Brooklyn Museum (22.1695)
2: undated portrait of Yaa Asantewaa – Link
3: Yaa Asantewaa Museum – User Noahalorwu in Wikimedia Commons – Link

The Yaa Asantewaa Museum fell victim to a fire in 2004 and unfortunately has not been restored since. – Link

Osh-Tisch and The-Other-Magpie – The Women Who Fought at the Rosebud

I would like to introduce you to two badass ladies of the Crow Tribe: Osh-Tisch and The-Other-Magpie who fought at the Battle of the Rosebud!

A little preface: Osh-Tisch was baté (also badé or boté), which is the Crow word for Two Spirit. This term describes the third gender, recognized in most Native American societies. Two Spirits fulfill the duties of the opposite gender they are assigned, or often the duties of both genders. Baté specifically refers to male-bodied people, that live as women. This is why I will be using female pronouns referring to Osh-Tisch, as the members of her tribe do.

So let’s get started: Enter Osh-Tisch, baté of the Crow Nation. And not just any baté, but one of their leaders, described as a regal personality. In this highly regarded role, she lived separate from the main area and took on a number of roles including artist, medicine woman and shaman. As a skilled craftswoman who made intricate leather goods and large tipis, she earned the right to construct the buffalo-skin lodge of the tribe’s Chief Iron Bull. However, on the day she earned her name, translating to “Finds Them And Kills Them,” she showed what a ferocious warrior she was as well.

The sources on The-Other-Magpie are a little less extensive. It is known that she was an unmarried woman, pretty and wild. Her brother had been killed by the Lakota not long ago and she wanted revenge.

At the Battle of the Rosebud, the Crow fought in a coalition led by the US Army against the Lakota and Cheyenne.

During the battle, Bull-Snake, a Crow warrior was wounded and fell off his horse. In a second, Osh-Tisch lept from her horse and faced the charging Lakota (who did of course notice their advantage). Hefting her rifle, she fired shot after shot at the approaching enemy, reloading as fast as her fingers allowed it, defending her fallen comrade.

Meanwhile, The-Other-Magpie decided it was on her to help and began to ride towards the Lakota, screaming from the top of her lungs. She did not have a gun. Or bow and arrows. The-Other-Magpie had a stick. A coup stick to be precise.

What is a coup stick you ask? There was this tradition among Native warriors to ride into battle unarmed but with a decorative stick. The goal was, to hit as many people as possible with it without dying – so, kind of the most dangerous game of tag ever. The more people you hit, the more you were allowed to decorate your stick and it would become quite fancy indeed.

The-Other-Magpie’s stick was not fancy. It had a single tiny feather on it.

So, there was The-Other-Magpie, charging the Lakota, wildly waving her coup stick, spitting at them while screaming “My spit is my arrows!” – and there was Osh-Tisch, standing over the fallen warrior, shooting bullet after bullet at their enemies.

Believe it or not, The-Other-Magpie did land a hit on a (presumably pretty confused) Lakota warrior and a second later he fell down dead, hit by one of Osh-Tisch’s bullets. Horrified by this mad but seemingly supernatural warrior woman, the Lakota scattered and The-Other-Magpie took the fallen’s scalp. Riding into the village, she cut it up and distributed it amongst the men so they would have more scalps to dance with in the post-battle ceremonies. It was one of 10 scalps taken by the Crow that day.

This story would most likely have been forgotten, if not for Pretty-Shield, medicine woman of the Crow who, while recounting details from this battle, told of her. You can find her original account here, if you are interested.

Now the story starts to get a little sad, so feel free to just stop reading here if you want (I’d totally understand that.)

In the following years, the Crow were confined to reservations and government agents and missionaries began to visit, starting the oppression of Two Spirits and anything apart from the very screwed morals of the time. In the late 1890s, Osh-Tisch and the other baté were imprisoned, forced to cut their hair and wear men’s clothing by an agent named Briskow. The Crow however were not okay with this at all and their protests had Briskow fired. Sadly however, the gender oppression was not over at all and many Two Spirits assimilated to society and dressed like their assigned gender. Those who could not bear it, committed suicide or were driven into substance abuse. Unfortunately the numbers are high.

Osh-Tisch did not give up though, and continued to try and educate her contemporaries. When asked why she wore women’s clothes, she’d answer she was “inclined to be a woman, never a man.” When asked what work she did, she’d reply “All woman’s work” and proudly present an ornate dress she had made.

Besides trying to normalize who she was, she started an intertribal network of Two Spirits. They worked together, secretly communicating with each other, coordinating their efforts to make people understand and providing a support net for one another.

Sadly her efforts were not rewarded and she remains one of the few Two Spirits whose name and story has survived until today. When she died in 1929, the ancient knowledge of the baté died with her.

There is a modern movement to revive the idea and tradition of Two Spirits among the tribes, but it has been met with great resistance, even from within the tribes. Two Spirits today still face persecution and suffer from hate crimes. While it is commonly accepted that Two Spirits have existed, their role in society and especially their acceptance has been lost. It is important to remember them.

So remember Osh-Tisch, baté of the Crow, a bridge between genders, a bridge between tribes.

The picture shows her (on the left) with her wife.

image credits: found at Indian Country Media Network

Julie d’Aubigny – The Most Badass Lady Ever

This total badass won at least ten duels, performed on the world’s biggest opera stage, burned down a convent and had to be pardoned by the king twice. May I present to you: Julie d’Aubigny, better known by her stage name La Maupin.

It’s actually not even 100% certain that her name was Julie, but oh well. (And the girl in the picture isn’t her either, it’s “The Fencer” by Jean Béraud (ca. 1890s) – but I think it captures her spirit very well)

Born into a quite wealthy family in 17th century France, she could have just spent her life idly enjoying the country and not moving a single finger. But that wasn’t really her thing. Or her father’s. His name was Gaston (heh) and he was the Master of the Horse for King Louis XIV (the Sun King), responsible for the training of the pages. The sword-training, mainly. So from early on she learned all the important things: fencing, riding, reading and, thanks to her mostly male environment (I couldn’t find out where her mother was – or who for that matter), also the even more important things like drinking, gambling, fistfighting and more stabbing. All of which she did in men’s clothing, a habit she would continue throughout her life.

So, her dad was a pretty hot headed guy and usually disposed of her would-be suitors by cutting them up with his sword. Julie found a loophole though, getting it on with the one guy her father couldn’t duel: his boss (not the king though). She was however far too much for him and he married her off to some calm, dull guy to calm her down a bit. That’s how she became La Maupin for short. It was her husband’s name. But oh boy, did she do the opposite of calming down.

Quite soon after the marriage she had taken a sword master as her lover. It just so happened that he was on the run for murdering his opponent in an illegal duel and she decided to leave the city with him. They made their living with fencing shows and he further trained her in the art, but soon she had surpassed him and ditched his ass, continuing her travels without him. Now her fencing shows looked somewhat like this: Julie brandishes her sword and starts singing a few songs, then challenges anyone in the audience for a duel. Whoever steps up gets to hear a humiliating song about his very person and beaten like he had never held a sword before. Sometimes the audience would even question her womanhood (as she wore men’s clothing like she had always done and of course because “a woman can’t fight like that”). To this she usually responded by tearing her shirt off. It worked.

So, after she had ditched her swordmaster lover, she became involved with a merchant’s daughter. Well, the girl’s father was not too happy about that, so he sent her off to a convent, hoping to separate the two. Yeah, right. Julie took the holy orders and joined the convent – to continue her love affair there. Soon after an elderly nun happened to die (no, Julie didn’t kill her …it seems) and La Maupin did the only logical thing: putting the body into her lover’s room, setting fire to the building, grabbing her girl and getting the fuck out of there. Three months later our heroine delivered the girl back to her parents’ doorstep – she had gotten bored again. In these three months she was charged for this lovely little adventure of convent-arson and kidnapping and actually sentenced to burn at the stake. But smart as she was, she rang up (not literally, mind you) her old paramour, her father’s boss (remember him?) who used his influence to have King Louis XIV pardon her.

(There is actually a book about her adventures and that’s where the picture on the left is from: “Mademoiselle de Maupin” by Theophile Gautier, from 1898, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley)

With her newfound freedom, she made for Paris, singing to earn her living. Once in a tavern after one of her songs, she was insulted by a drunkard and challenged him to a duel outside. Do I need to say it? She cut him up pretty good, but they survived. The next day she felt kinda bad about it, so she visited the poor chap to see how he was doing and ended up becoming involved with him. You gotta hand it to her, getting a guy you stabbed to be your lover is not a small feat. And remarkably the two remained lifelong friends even after their romance subsided.

And all this before she was 20! What a lady! And it’s not like her wild life ended then. Nooo.

Julie made it to Paris and after being initially rejected, she became a member of the Paris Opéra, the world’s most respected opera at that time. And damn, did she cause a stir. After all, opera singers were the rock stars of the time. Her beautiful voice and androgynous beauty captivated the audience and her passionate character brought with it many admirers. That character did mean of course that she either slept or fought with most of her colleagues at one point. At one point for example, another actor was making disrespectful remarks about his female colleagues. After he had dismissed her complaint – rudely – she awaited him in a dark alley on his way home, challenging him to a duel. When he refused (on the grounds of being a coward), she beat him up with a wooden cane and stole his pocket watch and snuffbox. The next day at work she caught him complaining about a gang of thieves assaulting him and swiftly pulled out his watch and box, proving him to be a liar and a coward in front of all his coworkers.

Her opera career was interrupted when she fled to Brussels for a while, following an incident at a royal ball. She had attended dressed in her men’s attire and spent the evening courting a young woman and finally French kissing her (hehe) right there in front of everyone. Three gentlemen were particularly unhappy about that and challenged her to discuss matters outside. In the following duel she defeated all of them and returned to the party, leaving her opponents bleeding. At that time however, anti-duelling laws grew increasingly harsh, and although King Louis XIV was so amused by the whole situation that he pardoned her (for the second time), she decided to spend some time abroad until the heat had calmed down.

She did return to Paris and the opera though and for the first time entertained a lover for some longer time: the Madame la Marquise de Florensac (see picture: An anonymous print from ca. 1700 called “Mademoiselle Maupin de l’Opéra”). After her beloved’s death, Julie’s trail gets a little fuzzy. It is known that she died around 1707 from unknown causes aged about 37. As far as I could find out about her later life, her husband and her were reunited and lived together fairly peacefully in Paris. Yes, she was technically still married throughout this whole tale. Did you forget about this too? From what it seems, she sure did.

image credits:

1: “L’Escrimeuse” (The Swordswoman) by Jean Béraud, date unknown – via Wikimedia Commons
2: from “A Second Book of Fifty Drawings” by Aubrey Beardsley – via Wikimedia Commons
3: Bibliothèque nationale de France (FOL-QB-201 | FRBNF41505463)