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Nanny’s Asafo Warriors

The Jamaican Maroons’ African Experience

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In 1975, Nanny was declared the first, and is so far the only female National Hero in Jamaica. This was seen as a breakthrough in acknowledging the historical dimension of her people, the Maroons, as freedom fighters. The Maroons are, to this day, viewed in some quarters as a self-styled military elite who abandoned their fellow Africans on the plantations once they had procured their own freedom through the signing of peace treaties with the British Crown. However, Nanny’s Asafo Warriors has documented that much of what is taken for granted concerning the Maroons’ history are mere reiterations of the enslavers’ constructions.

Werner Zips takes Nanny’s key role in the Maroon societies from the seventeenth century to the present as a point of departure to probe into the African political, legal, social and religious experiences throughout the periods of slavery, colonial rule and postcolonial nation building. Nanny’s Asafo Warriors may still inspire the resistance against all form of inequality in the African Diaspora.


Werner Zips is a Professor in the Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Vienna. He has written numerous articles and books on legal anthropology, political anthropology, ethnohistory, Caribbean and African studies. He is the author of Black Rebels, African-Caribbean Freedom Fighters in Jamaica and the editor of Rastafari: A Universal Philosophy in the third Millennium.

The Porcupine Fights for Justice
Everyone is crying out for peace, yes
None is crying out for justice
I don’t need no peace
I need equal rights and justice
– Peter Tosh, ‘Equal Rights’ 1977

Asante kotoko

A remote village in Jamaica’s mountainous interior is home to a small community that presumes its closest ancestors to originate from the West African coastal region. Some of the elders still greet each other with the words: ‘Asante kotoko.’ Moreover, the salutation still carries historic meaning for them, namely (roughly translated): ‘Asante, the porcupine’ (Harris 1994, 41). The greeting constitutes a double historical reference, one that provides the starting point for this book.

The porcupine is still the emblem of the Asante (or ‘Ashanti’) nation in Ghana to this day. Their history took a decisive turn with the foundation of an independent kingdom under the first Asantehene (king of kings of the Asante) Osei Tutu after the Denkyira kingdom had been defeated in 1701. At about the same time, the uprooted Africans in Jamaica, who equally identified with the animal symbol of the pugnacious porcupine, also intensified their collective fight against slavery. Nanny, Kojo, Kwao, Accompong and Gyani are the names of some of the first political leaders, who – just like the orally transmitted characteristics of the porcupine – opposed Great Britain as the leading military power of the day, armed themselves and steadfastly resisted the slaveholder militia.

At that point in time, organised opposition to slavery already looked back on a tradition of half a century since the first enslaved Africans fled the plantations and formed new social entities in the tropical rain forest despite risking draconian penalties.1 They were called Maroons by the Europeans and became the ‘quill’ in the side of the plantation economy which was flourishing on the backs of the enslaved (wo)manpower imported from Africa.2 Later on the strange notion ‘Maroon’ became accepted by those insubordinate transplanted Africans for the tremor of fear it rang in European ears, among other reasons.3
Even a child in the furthest-flung village of the Asante kingdom – according to Tufuo and Donkor (1989, 113ff.) in their monograph about Asante – considers him or herself to be kotoko, the porcupine – an animal that fights with quills which form a part of its own body. The metaphor of a porcupine using its natural weapons to defend itself against considerably larger aggressors holds equally true for those Africans referred to as Maroons, who have succeeded in defending their autonomy and independence, as officially acknowledged by the British with the conclusion of peace treaties with various Maroon communities in 1738/1739, to the present day. Thus they prevailed as political and social entities for the entire duration of British rule from 1655 right up to Jamaican independence in 1962.

In full accordance with the Asante motto ‘Fight prior to your death if death cannot be avoided,’ the Maroons in Jamaica left no doubt about the fact that giving up their freedom was out of the question. At the same time, the Asante national symbol of the porcupine also carries the notion of being peaceable and affable as long as the community as such is not under threat. Therein lies the implicit meaning of an Asante war song:

Ogya OO Kotoko Ogya o Fire, o the Porcupine, fire
oo Ogya o, oo Ogya o Yea, fire, yea, fire
Ogya oo, oo, oo Yea, it is fire4

This battle song is accompanied by talking drums, whose rhythm asks if any of those under attack wants to run away. It is a rhetorical question that among the Asante must necessarily be negated by each and every person: ‘The real meaning in “fire”, is a call to face any difficulty, like the destructive consuming fire; he will die but in the name of the nation whose sacred emblem is the Porcupine’ (Tufuo and Donkor 1989, 114).

When the Asantes’ ceremonial horns ring out, they always convey a message. In the presence of the Asantehene, it is one of their principal tasks to remind the entire population of the achievements of the ancestors, whose work in the past paved the way for the prosperity of the present. The proverb goes: Kotoko wo bekae me, which literally translated means something like: ‘Porcupine, you will remember me’ (cf. Sarpong 1990).

The Maroons in Jamaica have a ceremonial horn that is known by the Twi word aben(g). The term is still in use in present-day Ghana and the instrument is always played to facilitate communication with the ancestors. For the Maroons it clearly keeps the collective memory of their social history alive, underscores the importance of historical deeds for the present and cautions the living to handle the legacy of the African ancestors with care so as to protect the unborn. With the help of the abeng the porcupine’s successful struggle for freedom and justice is given meaning in the present. It reminds succeeding generations of Nanny’s Asafo warriors, of the neverending nature of this endeavour. Nanny as the founding ancestress of all Maroons – comparable to Queenmothers in the African contexts – is still credited for her command of military and social groups, called Asafo in the Akan languages of what today is Ghana.