By Neil Armstrong
Beyond its natural beauty and places to visit, such as the Blue Lagoon, Reach Falls, the popular public Winnifred Beach and Boston Jerk Centre, the parish of Portland in Jamaica has a rich cultural history — and sons and daughters, within the island and in the Diaspora, who contribute to telling its story in their words and deeds.
Jamaica’s only national heroine, Nanny of the Maroons, was a freedom fighter in Portland and her grave — “Bump Grave” in Moore Town — is a monumental testament to her victorious feats there.
In 2003, UNESCO proclaimed the Maroon heritage of Moore Town as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” and inscribed it in 2008.
“Situated in the highlands of eastern Jamaica, Moore Town is home to the descendants of independent communities of former runaway slaves, known as Maroons. The African ancestors of the Moore Town Maroons were forcibly removed from their native lands to the Caribbean by Spanish slave traders in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The term Maroon, derived from the Spanish word cimarrón (wild), refers to those slaves, who fled the plantations in the early 1600s and established their own settlements in the Blue and John Crow Mountains of eastern Jamaica. By the early eighteenth century, the Maroon communities controlled much of the eastern part of the island,” cites the information on UNESCO’s website.
In 2015, Roy Anderson, a Jamaican-Canadian-American filmmaker, created a documentary about the country’s national heroine, titled “Queen Nanny: Legendary Maroon Chieftainess.”
Anderson is also the filmmaker of “Akwantu: The Journey” (2012) about the legendary Maroons of Jamaica and their gallant fight for freedom and “African Redemption: The Life and Legacy of Marcus Garvey” (2021).
“Queen Nanny” had a test screening at the University of Toronto in September 2015, before its world premiere at the United Nations one month later, and had its Canadian premiere screening at the 11th annual CaribbeanTales International Film Festival (CTFF) in Toronto.
It is written and directed by Roy, with his wife, Alison, a filmmaker and producer, being responsible for the technical side of the process. She edited and reviewed Roy’s notes, and made sure that when they were out filming that they got the shots they needed.
The documentary film unearths and examines the mysterious figure — Nanny of the Maroons — Jamaica’s sole female national hero and one of the most celebrated, but least recognized, heroines in the resistance history of the New World.
It documents the struggle for freedom by the Jamaican Maroons, led by the indomitable eighteenth-century military genius, Nanny.
This film also looks at Queen Nanny’s legacy and her impact on contemporary women in general, with appearances by Jamaica’s former Prime Minister, Portia Simpson-Miller; double Olympic sprint champion, Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce; the “Queen of Reggae”, Rita Marley; University of the West Indies professor, Verene Shepherd; and many others.
In 1969, seven years after Jamaica gained Independence on August 6, 1962, five Jamaicans – Marcus Garvey, Paul Bogle, George William Gordon, Norman Washington Manley and Sir Alexander Bustamante – were declared national heroes.
Sam Sharpe was named a national hero, and Queen Nanny, a national heroine, in 1975.
“I remember growing up in Jamaica and knowing Nanny and being very excited about who she was, because she was the only female hero. This process, this journey of finding out about the Maroons, making her story makes me even more excited and highlights stuff that I didn’t know growing up,” said Alison.
She imagined bringing this story to the global stage and showing young girls from the Caribbean, especially, that they have “a rich history, rich culture, that we need to celebrate what she did and who she was no matter where you are in the world.”
Alison hoped that viewers of the film would see the spirit of the enslaved people of that time.
“They weren’t just sitting down taking what was being dished out to them; that they fought back. And to show how the sexism was also there, because very little is written about Nanny; so they’re going to be finding out new information about this woman. Why don’t we know more about her and again, you’ll see in the film, why would you want to write about a woman beating your butt, kicking ass back in those days.”
She hopes that women, especially, will take away the strength of who Nanny was, and inspire them.
Louise Bennett-Coverley, ‘Miss Lou’, Jamaica’s celebrated storyteller who died in Toronto on July 26, 2006, wrote a radio monologue, “Hero Nanny”, broadcast in October 1975, shortly after the government declared the Maroon leader a national hero.
In “Auntie Roachy Seh”, edited by Mervin Morris, Miss Lou, as Aunty Roachy, says: “Listen, no! We have one Jamaican proverb what seh “If breeze no blow, yuh no know seh dat fowl got skin.” An lawks, missis, from Authority go announce Nanny as National Hero, a dat time yuh get fi fine out omuch Jamaica smaddy still shame a dem slavery heritage! Mmmm. De gal Muches, she gi out, “Cho! Wha meck dem haffi go dig out dat-deh ole slave duppy fi tun National Hero?”
Aunty Roachy rebukes Muches and tells her that, “Not duppy Hero, a Warrior Oman!” and that, “Grandy Nanny couldn’t stomach slavery.”
“Queen Nanny: Legendary Maroon Chieftainess” was also made to introduce Jamaica and the Caribbean to other folks, to know that “we’re not only food and runners and reggae music, but a lot more, rich cultural diversity that’s the Caribbean,” said Alison.
The filmmaker and co-producer said, when they produced the film, “Akwantu: the Journey”, in 2012, which was the general history of the Maroons, they initially experienced difficulty in the research, corroborating the numbers, the dates, the time, and who they were.
That, however, changed when the Maroon communities saw how they presented “Akwantu”, she recalled.
“They were comfortable and happy with how we’re presenting them on the global stage, so they opened up with their oral histories about Nanny. They were more accommodating about that story and information, so “Nanny” was easier to get information than Akwantu.”
Alison said the hardest part of producing the film was trekking up to Nanny Town.
“It’s only a few miles up, but it was 13 hours. There were ravines, crevices; I don’t understand how the British is writing about going up there with canons and blowing it up. You should see the terrain. There is no way that they did what they said they did, so you’ll have to make that trek to really appreciate what Nanny did and how she did it.”
Authors, Philip Sherlock and Hazel Bennett, in the book, “The Story of the Jamaican People”, write that: “The dread her name inspired among the whites can be judged by the joy with which they greeted the news of her supposed death in 1733. A slave, called Cuffee, claimed to have killed her and was given a reward. The claim was false for Nanny was very much alive; she survived the end of the first maroon war in 1740 and received from the government of Jamaica 500 acres of land for herself and her people.”
“Jamaican Folk Tales and Oral Histories”, by Laura Tanna, references “Grandy Nanny” as being not just a military leader, but also a priestess.
“So many people ascribe magical powers to Nanny. I have done so and I think every Maroon, who has a right to call himself or herself so, believes so,” says Col. C.L.G. Harris, then leader of the Moore Town Maroons in an oral story collected and transcribed by Tanna in Moore Town, Portland in 1983.
Olive Senior, in the “Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage” notes that: “Although we know very little about the person called Nanny, she is nevertheless a genuine culture hero, the subject of a large body of legends and stories in the oral tradition, especially among the Maroons, for whom she is ‘Grandy Nanny’, their ancestral grandmother.”
She adds that the image of Nanny that appears on the $500 banknote is “an artist’s imaginative rendering, as we do not know what she looked like.”
The world premiere screening of the film at the United Nations Headquarters in New York in October 2015 was significant, because it was hosted by the Remember Slavery Program, in partnership with the Permanent Mission of Jamaica to the United Nations and the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago to the United Nations.
This event was part of a series of events, organized on the theme “Women and Slavery” by the United Nations Remember Slavery program, throughout 2015 to honour the struggle of enslaved women during the Transatlantic Slave Trade and their heroic efforts to resist the institution of slavery and pass on their rich cultural heritage to their children.
The program was established by the General Assembly in 2007 to honour the memory of the victims of slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and aims to provide an understanding of the causes, consequences and lessons of the slave trade, as well as raise awareness of the dangers of racism and prejudice today.
To celebrate Jamaica’s 60th anniversary of independence, the Kiwanis Club of Toronto Caribbean will screen Roy T. Anderson’s new documentary, “African Redemption: The Life and Legacy of Marcus Garvey” in Brampton and Toronto. The screenings will be on August 13, 6:30 p.m. at St. Paul’s United Church in Brampton, and on August 14 at 6:00 p.m. at the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto.
Denise Jones: A Proud Native Daughter of Portland
Jamaicans in the Diaspora have contributed tremendously to the education sector in the island, especially through the building of Basic Schools/early childhood institutions and donations of alumni associations of schools to their alma maters.
Many have done so through organizations, such as the Alliance of Jamaican Alumni Associations (AJAA) organized in 1988; P.A.C.E. Canada, which was started in 1987 by educator Dr. Mavis Burke; Helping Hands Jamaica Foundation founded in 2005, and Food For The Poor Canada founded in 1991. Some have even flown to the island to volunteer in the building of some of these schools in collaboration with local communities.
Denise Jones, co-founder of Jones & Jones Productions, who passed away of brain cancer in December 2020, in Brampton, Ontario in Canada, was influential in making a major mark with her contribution to the education of early childhood education in her homeland.
Shortly after her passing, Helping Hands Jamaica Foundation (HHJF) decided to dedicate the funds, raised during its Lend a Helping Hand capital campaign, to build the Goodwill Early Childhood Learning Centre in Portland, where Jones grew up, in her memory.
“Denise was one of the founding members of Helping Hands and it was very important to us to honour her in her home parish, that she raved about and loved so much, in Portland,” says Karl Hale, HHJF founder and co-chair, noting that the learning centre was in need, and is one of three schools it has built in the parish within the last five years.
The others are Mount Pleasant Basic School in St. Margaret’s Bay and Disciples of Christ in Hope Bat. The Foundation has built schools in almost every parish in Jamaica.
This is in keeping with its desire to build schools that facilitate better learning and a better experience for children “to give them a helping hand up for a better life.”
“You can’t say enough things about Denise, not just what she did for Helping Hands in helping found this charity that’s done so much, but just her passion for Jamaica and the Caribbean community, here in Toronto. We’re very lucky to have her plant the seed of Helping Hands and help all these children in Jamaica and in Toronto,” Hale continued, noting that the organization has built 26 schools since its inception.
Helping Hands Jamaica Foundation was established in the office of Anne-Marie Bonner, then consul general at Toronto, in June of 2005, where Hale brought forward a concept of supporting his native Jamaica.
HHJF seeks to improve the lives of the next generation of Jamaicans and their communities by creating a world-class education system through investment in infrastructure, resource materials and expertise.
To date, the Foundation has raised more than $1.5 million dollars that has been directed to provide access to education all over Jamaica thanks to its generous sponsors and donors.
Food For The Poor Canada collaborated with Helping Hands Jamaica Foundation to make the learning centre a reality. The new school, a significant upgrade from the existing one, was the 24th school built from their partnership.
“Food For The Poor and Jamaica’s Ministry of Education recognized the need to renovate Goodwill to address the immediate needs of Port Antonio’s children, between the ages of 3 and 6. The finished building includes 4 classrooms complete with desks and chairs; an office area; an infirmary; bathrooms; and a kitchen. The school includes a playground for the children to play in a safe environment.”
The Goodwill Early Childhood Learning Centre was established in September 2016, in Port Antonio, when veteran teacher, principal and founder of Goodwill, Tanisha Smith-Thompson, started the school with 10 students. It quickly expanded to accommodate twenty-five 3-6-year-old toddlers.
The school was initially housed in one of the units of a plaza, but it was not conducive to student learning. So it was subsequently relocated to the Port Antonio Open Bible Church, but the space was still inadequate.
The new building opened its doors to Port Antonio’s young children in 2022.
Food For The Poor Canada (FFPC) empowers communities in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) through five areas of investment: food, health, housing, education, and income-generating projects.
“Since Jamaica 50, when we set out to build 50 schools in 50 months, Food For The Poor Jamaica has built 120 schools; so, in the last 10 years, 120 schools,” says Samantha Mahfood, executive director of FFPC.
The organization meets urgent needs, while building community and social infrastructure by utilizing the pre-existing networks of local affiliated organizations to provide effective and accountable distribution and project management, and to sustain and grow the communities they serve. Through trusted partners, FFPC has strengthened its emergency preparedness and is able to respond to emergencies with impact and immediacy.
On July 31, Denise Jones will be honoured at the festival she co-founded — JAMBANA One World Festival — in Brampton, Ontario, where she lived for many years.
“She spent a lifetime championing Afro-Caribbean culture in Canada and around the world through her company, Jones & Jones Productions. In 2020, Denise passed away after a battle with brain cancer. The 2022 edition of JAMBANA will pay tribute to her as the community gathers to celebrate a live well lived,” notes a message on JAMBANA’s website.
In May, the JUNOS Awards of the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences honoured Jones, posthumously, with the Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award.
The award recognizes individuals, whose work has significantly impacted the growth and development of the Canadian music industry.
Some Places to Check Out in Portland While Visiting Jamaica
Piggy’s Jerk Centre is a small jerk centre located along the picturesque Foreshore Road along the Port Antonio coastline. Piggy’s was the popular eating spot for British actor Daniel Craig, who plays Bond, and other cast and crew members while they were in the island for the filming of ‘No Time to Die’, the 25th film in the popular movie franchise.
Blue Lagoon and Monkey Islands Boat Tour and Swim Experience
A natural favourite for swimmers as the mix of fresh and salt water offers an unusual bathing experience. They say the lagoon is bottomless, but in reality Blue Lagoon is an enchanting spot with deep blue water fed by a fresh water mineral spring. Made famous by a certain Brooke Shields movie and the site of a well-publicised Jacques Cousteau dive, the 52m-deep (170.6ft) ‘Blue Hole’ (as locals call it) opens to the sea through a narrow funnel, but is fed by freshwater springs that come in at about 40m (131ft) deep.
Popular boater, Norman ‘Boxer’ Livingston, has many stories to share about the waterfront guest houses in the area, the films shot in the area, and meeting celebrities like Beyoncé and Rihanna who gave him a gift.
Portland Art Gallery
On July 2 this year, a fire destroyed the old Jamaica Railway Corporation building housing the Portland Art Gallery, a tourist attraction and a place renowned for honing the skills of students in the artistic world.
Paul Thompson, mayor of Port Antonio, said it was a huge loss and the entire culture would be impacted as the facility also served artists from other parishes.
“The gallery produced some of the most distinct paintings, which reflected and depicted Jamaica’s rich heritage and culture. It was a facility that assisted greatly with the nurturing and tutoring of high school students, who developed the desire for art,” he said, in a report in the Jamaica Gleaner.
The building also housed the Portland Youth Centre, Portland AIDS Committee, and the headquarters for the Port Antonio Marching Band.
This is an opportunity for anyone in the Diaspora, who wants to help these creative, emerging artists, and health advocates, to reach out to them or to support any efforts developed to rebuild the once important hub of arts and culture, and the AIDS committee.
These are only a few of the many places, personalities, projects, and histories that Portland offers its many visitors. Go visit and explore.
Editor’s note: From May 26-30, the Jamaica Tourist Board organized a Canadian Diaspora Press Trip for journalists to visit different attractions in the island to share stories with Jamaicans and friends of Jamaica living in the diaspora and entice them to visit as the country gets set to celebrate its 60th anniversary of Independence (on August 6). Krishna Maharaj of Burton’s Transportation, Cheree Morris of JTB and Indira Tarachandra of Fever Pitch Marketing Communications Inc. were involved in making the trip possible.