by Karla Gottlieb
A Discussion with Elsa Lycias Joel
Over a perfectly simple and effortless chat, Karla Gottlieb discusses her book “The Mother of us all” with Elsa Lycias Joel. Impelled by Queen Nanny’s passion to oust the colonizers and free her people from slavery, bondage and cruelty, Ms. Gottlieb researched and published this book, a tribute and a lamp to light the way.
- Mother of Us All is definitely a good read. An amalgamation of facts and interpretations really pays off. Of all the colonized countries, what made you choose Jamaica?
So really, Jamaica chose me – I was taking a Women’s Studies class in grad school, and I came across Queen Nanny in an article I was reading. It was only one paragraph, but I was hooked. I said to myself, this woman who changed the world – there are definitely plenty of books written about this important person. And when I went to research her – there was nothing. Just one treatise by the amazing Edward Kamau Braithwaite, dedicated to her and another National Hero. And I found some dissertations, poems, a novel, articles and historical documents, from 1725-1739. Even today, mine is the only book dedicated to her based on historical facts.
It just so happens that Queen Nanny was from Jamaica. I would have written about her wherever she was from. But her greatness transcends her nationality. I love Jamaica, and am glad she is from there, and it’s exciting that Jamaica takes its rightful place in global history because of Queen Nanny.
Queen Nanny is the only woman and only Maroon who is a National Hero of Jamaica. After Kamau Braithwaite wrote his treatise, she was named a National Hero in 1976. This is huge.
2. Colonization is ruthless and unethical. Do you agree?
Yes, absolutely. Colonization – in the Indian subcontinent, Africa, Asia, the Americas, Australia and Ireland was brutal, and approximately 256 million people were killed in the name of “advanced societies” and Christianity. I believe this number is higher. Natural resources – including timber, oil, diamonds gold – were robbed, families torn apart, indigenous culture, language and religions were attempted to be eradicated. We have lost about 3,000 languages worldwide due to colonization.
There has been nothing else in our collective, global history that has been worse for people and the planet than colonization. It gave rise to slavery, genocide and countless brutal wars and environmental destruction.
3. Stories of slavery, plunder and discrimination confirms that whites owe “the debt” to people of African descent. Can you as an author, a sensitive global citizen, suggest reparations?
Absolutely. Reparations would go a long way but they are not enough. We need to re-educate our youth – offer true Black History in our schools – and make little-known heroes known. Queen Nanny changed the face of the world yet she is not widely known, the way she should be.
I would suggest reparations to anyone and any culture that has suffered at the hands of slavery, racism, genocide or discrimination in any form. Could be monetary, in the form of land, jobs, free education – Georgetown has made good strides in this direction, but all universities need to follow their lead. Georgetown has offered free education to descendants of the slaves the university sold to raise capital in the 1800s. But I believe it should be free to anyone whose ancestor was enslaved.
4. Maroon revolution under the leadership of an “ohemmaa” is a perfect example of women’s power even before feminism or female empowerment became the norm. Why shouldn’t all countries adopt Maroon history as part of curriculum to engrave the idea of women as leaders/ saviours in young minds? Your thoughts.
This is a fabulous question. Why isn’t this history taught in our schools?? I ask this question over and over in the book. Why? Because the ruling body doesn’t want us to know that a powerful woman led an army of 500 and defeated 5,000 troops of the largest empire on earth. This is dangerous information. A woman – an African woman – who defeated the empire upon which the sun never sets. It was an insult beyond measure, and they deliberately squashed this information, still do. It is a challenge to patriarchy, to hegemony, to white supremacy, it is the worst kind of insult possible to this group. Just now people are starting to teach more books like this. There are thousands of stories of powerful women, people of color and women of color doing incredible things – we just need to make them into books and get them taught to our young people. Imagine being a young black girl and being taught the story of Queen Nanny while in elementary school – it’s like changing, empowering, revolutionary.
5. Did you know of Mr. Shashi Tharoor who said: “I know why the sun never sets on the British Empire: God wouldn’t trust an Englishman in the dark. in his book “An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India.”
(Laughs out loud) On point. That is excellent! Oh yeah, I’ve heard a lot about him and his charisma as well. Now, this book gets into my ‘must read’ list.
6. The act of serving, nurturing and nourishing their ancestors and spirits is practiced by several cultures across the globe. Do the Maroons of today invoke Queen Nanny?
Absolutely!! Maroons of today pour rum on the ground to honor, celebrate and invoke Queen Nanny. She is a living ancestor. She is a source of power, not a dead hero. She and other ancestors are still with us in the Maroon towns. I attend a Maroon festival in Charles Town in June every year I can – people gather to give talks, dance, celebrate Maroon history. There is a lot of Nanny love going around at this festival. I love the way you say “serving, nurturing and nourishing the ancestors and spirits” – you couldn’t have described it better. You can speak to any Maroon – especially on the eastern side of the island – and they can tell you how Nanny is commemorated with white rum on the ground, through song, through dance, through stories…. So many ways
7. Are reparations politically feasible? What’s the most impressive thing about Georgetown that deserves global attention?
Yes. If we have money to fly to Mars, and to fund trillions for a military, we have money for reparations. In terms of being politically feasible – I don’t care. It’s economically feasible so just do it. But I would say talk to the descendants of the formerly enslaved, and ask them what form they would like the reparations in. Also include Chinese, Japanese and of course Native Americans. That is the worst travesty, what we have done attempting to take away their language, culture, religion, land, resources, lives.
As I said, Georgetown is a good start, but it’s only for descendants of enslaved people. It needs to be for anyone who is a descendant of any oppressed group. What Georgetown did is fantastic. But every college needs to follow suit. Either that or Biden passes a law and dedicates money so that people of any race and ethnicity can go to school for free. Money or land or jobs would be another good start too.
8. With a master strategist endowed with all powers to guide and guard them, why did the Maroons tolerate the wicked colonizers for 83 years?
Well…. Nanny, the master strategist, was active from approximately 1720 to 1739. Before that, the Maroons were not as organized. They never tolerated the wicked colonizers – not for a minute. They were fighting back, throughout. The first Maroons on the island were enslaved people who had free reign under Spanish rule – and when Britain invaded and kicked the Spanish out in 1655, the white Spaniards left and the Africans stayed, and became the nucleus for the Maroons. Their descendants, plus the Maroons who escaped plantations in droves from 1655-1739, made up the Maroons. There were two major Maroon settlements, one on the leeward (western) side of the island, the Cockpit country, and one on the windward (eastern) side. Queen Nanny came to rule the windward side, and Quao the leeward. They fought back always, raiding plantations and freeing enslaved people, tormenting and harassing the British to such a degree that they were “thorns in the side” of the British. It was so intense that the governor wrote to the King of England, saying that if the Maroons were not defeated, the British would lose the entire island to them. It was a drastic situation for the British at that time.
Although the Maroons came from many countries in Africa, it was the Akan people (from modern day Ghana) who most always assumed leadership roles to oust the imperialists.
9. “Traitors are more dangerous than enemies”. The history of colonialism talks about colonizers being able to pick and choose traitors by offering them goodies, jobs, and positions. Discuss Maroon traitors, before and during Nanny’s time.
Juan Lubola, a traitor, was active around 1655 and a few years after. Queen Nanny was born around 1685, most believe in Africa, and came over around 1695. So they didn’t overlap. But there were traitors in Nanny’s time who were dealt with harshly. After the Maroons gained their independence in 1739, there was a terrible clause in their peace treaty – that they would return any escaped enslaved people back to their “owners”. I have not fully researched this, but it seems entirely at odds with them and their ways. Many Maroons gained their freedom by escaping the plantations, either slipping out quietly in 1s and 2s, or in full rebellion, 200-300 at a time, greatly increasing the Maroon numbers. Yes, traitors were offered goodies and jobs. During the Maroon wars, there were “Black Shots” who fought on the side of the British, against the Maroons. However, many of these people eventually became Maroons themselves, enticed by the words of the Maroons.
10. Does your work include information from hearsay too? I ask this because I understand you have visited Jamaica while researching Queen Nanny and interacted a lot with Maroons. Just in case you’ve watched Akwantu: the Journey, does it inspire you to further prove her life, walk the mountains, meet her “pickibo” (children) and maybe spot evidences of Nanny’s Pot and so on only to prove that the powers of Queen Nanny is the irrefutable truth.
I did visit Jamaica while researching Queen Nanny and later too. Interacting with Maroons helped me a lot to validate the information I already had with me. So, my work is highly accurate. I thoroughly researched all written records and oral histories.
I’m yet to watch Akwantu. (Smiles). I will (nods)
The power of Queen Nanny is the irrefutable truth. I have seen and experienced so much magic living with and working with and interviewing so many Maroons, that I believe her spirit is still alive and influencing me and so many people who believe in her. I dream about her and the Maroons all the time – and I believe she allowed me to write this book so her story could be known. I know I am not Jamaican – I am not a Maroon – I am not even of African descent. But I tried to approach this incredible story of Nanny humbly, with great respect and with great accuracy to her legacy. I want her story to be known in Jamaica and throughout the world. There is a novel written about Nanny that I have read several times and is brilliant. It’s called Nanny Town by Vic Reid. That book is a novel, but it feels like he is channeling Queen Nanny. There is a gorgeous poem entitled Nanny – A Poem for Voices – that is in the book. I had a chance – to meet the author. She went to Nanny Town (Moore Town) and was put into a trance and the poem is the result of that experience.
11. The queen who never wore a crown or sat on a throne but delivered her nation and people from plunderers and tyrants aka colonizers ought to be revered globally. What’s your take? Any plans for a sequel that would contain more information/facts?
She is a warrior queen. True she never sat on a throne or wore a crown (shrugs). But she was most likely a descendant of royalty from the Akan people in modern day Ghana. She did indeed deliver her people from the monsters who killed, starved, enslaved and attempted to wipe out African people, just for their monetary gain.
Yes, she ought to be revered globally! She sent her warriors to Haiti and trained them for 50 years – and helped them overthrow the French and take control of the island. This bankrupted Napoleon, and he sold the United States a huge amount of land in the Louisiana Purchase for pennies on the dollar so he could raise money to fight the Maroons in Haiti – he lost and the Haitians established the first free African republic in the New World.
This book contains only facts – and oral history which is based on fact with a little bit of exaggeration, told to me by Maroon leadership in modern times. But the rest is well documented. As for a sequel, sure! One for young children, one for older children, a screenplay that could be made into a film. I have written about Grandy Nanny only a little in 20 years, but every time I go to Jamaica I get asked to write more. Which I would love to do. If I could quit my job and dedicate myself again to this magical, powerful, brilliant woman who changed the world as we know it, I would do it in a heartbeat.
12. After reading your work I feel drawn towards the Blue and John Crow mountains, just to soak in the aura of the brave Maroons. Has anybody else told you the same?
Absolutely. Many people. And some have actually gone and done it! Although the Maroons are still protective of their secrets, they are very warm and welcoming. There are several festivals on the Windward and Leeward sides of the island that celebrate Maroon history – on the Windward side they have had these annual celebrations for more than 380 years. It’s a great time to go and breathe in the air and share in this incredible history. More people need to know about Maroon history and share it. At the Charlestown Maroon festival, people come from Surinam, Australia, the States and other places all over the world to participate in marronage that exist in so many countries.
13. Isn’t it time for the maroons to shed the colonial names, rename their towns and cities with pomp and fanfare and tell the world they take great pride in nothing but their heroes! Because toponyms are an integral component of the cultural identity of the natives and not of ferocious raiders…
I love it! Great idea. You know the Maroons speak Kromantie, an ancient form of Twi, the language of the Akan or Ashanti people of Ghana. It’s 400 years old, so a little different. But as you said, renaming is important – see how many countries in Africa have done it. I would be very interested in what the Maroons would have to say about this very interesting topic.
My purpose in writing this book is to share knowledge and empower people. I thank you for asking these great questions, and allowing me to share some information. There is much more to be learned.
14. One line on Queen Nanny!
Queen Nanny is complex – and in many ways, a dichotomy – a nurturing mother figure, a ferocious freedom fighter, an incredible military strategist whose tactics were studied for the Vietnam war, and a role model and shining light for anyone who fights for justice.