If I asked you to name a famous Jamaican you wouldn’t have to try very hard. You could easily name Bob Marley or Usain Bolt. But, what if I asked you to name a famous Jamaican woman? That’s where it gets challenging—doesn’t it? Those of you who keep up with sports might be able to name Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, and many baby boomers remember the face of Grace Jones quite well. But, who else?
Unfortunately, when it comes to international fame, the world often recognises Jamaican men long before they notice the women. Thankfully, this does not ring true on the island of Jamaica. Ask any Jamaican to name not just a famous Jamaican woman, but a few who have shaped the culture of our island, and we won’t need two seconds to start rattling off names.
Many of still beam with pride at how well Tessanne Chin represented us on The Voice. And, we will never forget when the eloquent Lisa Hanna strut across the stage in 1993 to be crowned Miss World. But, as amazing as these women are—and as beautiful—there are others who had an even more profound effect upon Jamaican culture. This article will detail my personal top four choices, as a proper closeout to my Black History Month celebration.
1. Nanny of the Maroons (c. 1600s to c. 1740s)
If you’ve never heard of the Jamaican Maroons, you’re missing out on an important chapter of slave history. You may already know about the Haitian Revolution and the price present-day Haiti is still paying for freeing themselves. However, Haitians weren’t the only ones who waged a constant war against the White plantocracy for freedom.
In fact, Jamaican slaves were largely considered the absolute worst in the West Indies for a number of reasons. We were disobedient and rebellious, but most importantly, we had a knack for freeing ourselves. The freed slaves would then escape to established communities in the hills and mountains.
These were first established when, during the British invasion of Jamaica in 1655—which caused Jamaica to change hands from Spanish to English—the slaves took the opportunity to flee the plantations. Who was going to fight for Massa? Certainly not us!
When the British took control of the island, they were now faced with the problem of fighting off the Maroons. These free Blacks did not sit idly by and enjoy their paradise in the hills. They raided plantations, set fields on fire, and helped as many slaves to escape as they could.
Naturally, they were a nuisance to the poor, unfortunate planters who just wanted to enjoy slavery in peace and quiet. Consequently, the British waged many wars against the Maroons; they won none. The first of these wars, known as the First Maroon War, was led by Nanny of the Maroons from 1720 to 1739.
Nanny was well-known as an exceptional military leader by both the British and the Maroons. She held such a strong sway over her people, that many believe it was supernatural. According to the Jamaican Information Service (JIS):
She was particularly skilled in organising the guerilla warfare carried out by the Eastern Maroons to keep away the British troops who attempted to penetrate the mountains to overpower them. Her cleverness in planning guerilla warfare confused the British and their accounts of the fights reflect the surprise and fear which the Maroon traps caused among them.
Besides inspiring her people to ward off the troops, Nanny was also a type of chieftainess or wise woman of the village, who passed down legends and encouraged the continuation of customs, music and songs, that had come with the people from Africa, and which instilled in them confidence and pride.
Though she is affectionately referred to as Granny Nanny, her rightful title is now Right Excellent Nanny of the Maroons. In 1982, Nanny was dubbed a National Hero, a title held by only seven Jamaicans, all the rest of whom are men. She also holds the honoured position as the face of the $500 Jamaican bill.
2. Louise Bennett (1919 to 2007)
If you have ever spent any great deal of time with a Jamaican, you may have noticed the British cords with which we tie our own culture together. From our obsession with tea to the extra consonants in your spelling, our parliamentary politics to our curriculum, we are truly a Commonwealth nation—and by God, we are proud of it!
Unfortunately, for many years, the “properness” of British culture often meant that Jamaicans felt the need to set aside elements of the cultural identity we had forged in times of strife. One defining aspect of this was our language. Jamaican Patois was often thought of as the language of the lower class and the uneducated, while the educated and the wealthy spoke English.
Louise Bennett despised this relegation of such an important aspect of our culture to the backseat, so she made it her goal to bring Jamaican Patois to the forefront through comedy and poetry. The more people laughed and enjoyed her work, the more Jamaican Patois became acceptable in Jamaican society.
Her poems are taught in schools, usually as a part of English Literature classes. Whether you personally enjoy her work or not, no one can dispute the effect her work had on making Jamaicans of all colours, creeds and classes once again proud of the language we forged as Blacks, Indians, Chinese, Irish and Germans working together on sugar plantations. Here are two of her most famous poems:
Today, the wealthy and the educated still do speak a more Anglicised version of Jamaican Patois. For instance, many of you who have seen or heard my videos, or who know me in person, know that I do not and have never had an easily discernible Jamaican accent.
Funny enough, however, the longer I have been in America, the more that has changed. When I returned to Jamaica last November for the first time in more than three years, my aunt joked, “Girl, you sound more Jamaican now than before you lef’!” I know Miss Lou would be proud!
She lectured extensively in the United States and the United Kingdom on Jamaican folklore and music and represented Jamaica all over the world.
…On Jamaica’s independence day 2001, Bennett-Coverley was appointed as a Member of the Order of Merit for her distinguished contribution to the development of the Arts and Culture.
Her full title is now the Right Honourable Louise Bennett-Coverley.
3. Edna Manley (1900 to 1987)
Edna Manley was born to a Jamaican mother and English father in Yorkshire. She received an extensive education in the arts, both through attending art schools and via private tutoring. In 1921, she married Norman Manley and moved with him to Jamaica in 1922.
Norman Manley is another of our seven national heroes. He founded the People’s National Party, which is one of Jamaica’s major political camps and is the 1st Premier of Jamaica. He was succeeded by our first Prime Minister, Alexander Bustamante, yet another Jamaican National Hero.
However, Edna Manley is known for far more than being the wife of a legend. She is considered the Mother of Art in Jamaica. When Edna arrived on the island, visual arts didn’t rank very high on our list of priorities. Art was virtually nonexistent. However, the island life greatly inspired Edna to change her own artwork for the better, which also stirred a movement among Jamaicans.
Mrs. Manley has played a major pioneering role in the history of 20th century Jamaican art. Her works are in private collections, galleries and public buildings worldwide. Since 1924 she exhibited in many one woman and group exhibitions mainly in London, the United States, the Caribbean and in Jamaica.
In 1929 she wa[s] awarded the Institute of Jamaica’s Silver Musgrave Medal. In 1943 she became the first recipient of the gold Musgrave Medal for her outstanding contribution and leadership in the arts in Jamaica. Edna was co-founder of the Jamaica School of Art in 1950.
One of Edna Manley’s most well-known pieces of work is Negro Aroused. Contrary to the images the title might evoke, the piece is a tribute to people of African heritage awakening to a new consciousness.
4. Merlene Ottey (1960 to Present)
Long before Usain Bolt, there was Merlene Ottey. When I was growing up, this lady’s name was synonymous with speed. This is because for a long time, she was the fastest woman in the world. Even today, she is still Jamaica’s most decorated female athlete.
You will find her name in songs and poetry, though not so much in everyday speech anymore. The reason for that is obvious. How many Fastest Man and Fastest Woman titles have Jamaicans held at this point? We’ve firmly settled on Bolt for the time being.
Ottey competed on behalf of Jamaica from 1978 to 2002. She then continued to compete until 2012, but for Slovenia. Believe it or not, this did not dampen the warm feelings Jamaicans have had for her over the years, both in pop culture and politics.
In fact, she was honoured with an eight-foot statue in thanks for her contributions to Jamaica. According to JIS, at the ceremony, our then Prime Minister Percival James Patterson, said the following words:
Your life is one of legendary endurance. From Moscow to Sydney, you showed the world that Jamaica is a force to be reckoned with, in athletics. You have always displayed determination and grit. Your success in track and field is unparalleled.
…We know we can’t take the Jamaican out of you. No matter where you roam this will always be your home. We love you and we shall always cherish everything that you achieved while emblazoned in the black, green and gold.
Now that you’ve come to the end of my article, you probably have some choice words for me. This was supposed to be a Black History Month celebration, and yet, many of the women I have mentioned and written about are not Black. Tessanne Chin is of Asian ancestry and Lisa Hanna is Indian.
But, that’s the thing about Jamaican culture. We don’t use polarising labels like Chinese-Jamaican or Indian-Jamaican, because in our books, being Jamaican trumps everything else. Once you’re one of us, even if you are not of African Heritage, you’ve earned a few black stripes and we absorb whatever colour and culture you have to offer into our own.
As our motto goes, out of many, one people. I have told you before that this is not an ideal, but a Jamaican reality. Perhaps it is ethnocentric of me, but I truly do wish that one day, more countries will follow suit.
I would like to take the time to offer a special thank you to Cynthia Walker, who suggested that I blog about strong Jamaican women this month. Cynthia has been reading my blog since around 2016, when I decided to write more posts about race relations and African heritage. If you love to follow the stories of a woman who is genuine, hilariously unapologetic, and who will leave you the most encouraging and insightful comments, you are doing yourself a disservice by not following her. Take it from me. We’ve been at this for a while!
I’ve spent the month sharing posts about Black heritage, Jamaican culture, and racism. I hope you found them either uplifting or thought-provoking. Those of you who follow my blog know that while this was the focus for this month, more will follow, as it is also one of the central overall themes in both my fictional and non-fictional pieces. If you missed any of my Black History Month celebration posts, you can find the rest of them below.
And 2 bonuses:
Thanks for reading!
About the Author
Alexis Chateau is a Jamaican entrepreneur, avid traveller and author of mystery, paranormal, and crime fiction novels. Her interest in Jamaican history began in high school, was shaped by her liberal arts studies in college, and deepened after becoming an expatriate in Georgia, USA. To see her West Indian characters in action, read her historical novel, The Moreau Witches.
Praise for The Moreau Witches from the National Library of Jamaica
This book catapulted me into reading so many others, looking for that good feeling I got from reading yours. It was so well written! I absolutely love it. You are a genius.
—Monique Fergie-Scott, National Library of Jamaica