By LENNOX FARRELL
Then out spoke brave Horatius, the Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth, death cometh soon or late;
And how can man die better than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods?”
Horatius at the Bridge, by Lord Macaulay (1800-1859).
On the Jamaican 500 dollar bill, locally called the Nanny, is the picture of a Black woman. Today, she is a National Heroine to Jamaicans at home and abroad.
Nanny Town is named after her. As is Accompong Town and Cudjoe Town, respectively named after her brothers, all born from the Akan people in Ghana; captured and sold as slaves into the Caribbean. These former slaves were called “Maroons,” a term derived from the Spanish, “Cimarron” used to describe “runaway” slaves.
In Jamaica, these Maroons created the legends usually associated with ordinary peoples but who, faced with extraordinary circumstances of oppression, as servants to community, hoisted themselves above the parapets of history to inspire and revitalize humanity in general and Black humanity in particular. Without airbrushing their presence in history, they were people who didn’t consider themselves as being inferior to anybody.
How many of our youth are failing today where, in worse circumstances and with fewer resources we, their parents, triumphed?
Specifically regarding Nanny, it is easy and repetitive to the point of boredom to simply recite the exploits with which she is associated: being a leader, freeing and protecting other freed slaves and defeating on several occasions plantation and European forces sent against her which were stronger, better armed yet which didn’t match the spirit and determination of the ex-slaves to remain free. She and others did what many people are more familiar with from European history and myth.
One of these European vignettes of resistance history is memorialized in Horatio at the Gate, a poem commemorating the year 480 B.C. of a famous battle.
Then, 300 Spartans led by their king, Leonidas, held at bay within a narrow pass, Thermopylae, a Persian army estimated at more than 100,000. The stand to the death by this 300 prevented the Persians from destroying the nearby Greek fleet and assisted in the final defeat of the Persians.
Fast forward to the year 1671 A.D. to a Portuguese-colonized territory in northeast Brazil. Fast forward to the first independent republic in the Americas; preceding even the republics of Haiti and America. Here, too, dwelt a relatively small band of men and women, mostly former slaves numbering about 20,000 souls. They, like the Maroons, were also “runaways”.
Like a Harriet Tubman and a Frederick Douglass, these “runaways” did not only free themselves, but they also freed others, including Indians, mixed-race and others attempting to rid themselves of Portugal’s imperial control. These freed peoples, in the fertile lands they occupied for almost a century, were producing surplus food for trade with nearby sugar plantations.
Not surprisingly, as was a freed Haiti to the French, so was this decolonized territory to the Portuguese. It could not stand! That is because the first independent, democratic state to be founded in the “New World” was in fact the quilombo of Palmares. It was established in 1596 by African “runaway” slaves, Indians and mixed-race fugitives. Its success set a dangerous precedent. Its fame spread to plantations across Brazil, resulting in even more “runaways”.
European colonists and the Portuguese Crown were determined to destroy this success story by any means necessary.
The people of Palmares, in their century-long experiment with freedom, were effectively led, among others, by Ganga Zumba. He had established a territory in which there were judges, council houses, churches and traders. In fact, the Dutch, then competitors to the Portuguese, established trading links with Palmares.
What two things did these people, from Brazil to Jamaica to Greece have in common? One, referred to today by military analysts, is “force multipliers”. It is a combination of attributes which make forces relatively smaller than their foes, still prove more effective fighters than at the same size they would otherwise have been.
For example, among the force multipliers employed with so much success by Nanny, Accompong and Captain Cudjoe were the following: familiarity with the terrain – the rugged, winding terrain of the Blue Mountains in St. Thomas Parish – on which they forced their foes to fight; skilled at using their terrain, both as defences against surprise, and also as weaponry for attack and ambush; and their sheer physical superiority to outrun, outlast and outflank foes of superior numbers and superior weapons.
The Maroons – as did the Haitians – were able to turn what were tactical strengths of their foes into liabilities. British cannon, so effective at sea, was a liability on the Blue Mountains.
In today’s politics, an example of this “turning strength to liability” ploy is what U.S. President Barack Obama did to former Massachusetts Governor, Mitt Romney, in last month’s election.
Romney’s strength as a “venture capitalist” able to turn failing companies into successful ones was transformed into the liability of a “vulture capitalist” that fired employees for profit.
So, too, were the Maroons able, as the Spartans, to turn their enemies’ strengths into liabilities. As did the Maroons, the Spartans used the terrain within the narrow pass of Thermopylae. There, only 300 Spartans were able to prevent a Persian force of over 100,000 from reaching and destroying the Greek navy.
Finally, the most significant attribute which each of these peoples seeking freedom from oppression had on their side, was that their love for freedom exceeded their love of life.