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Who is the “Mother” of that unique aggregation of people that we know of as the nation of Barbados? Well, the term “Mother of the Nation” is an honorific title that is given to a woman who is considered to be the driving force behind the establishment of “her” nation, and who has made a monumental sacrifice (even a “blood sacrifice” of her very life) for her people.
And so it was and is with the nation of Barbados.
The title of “Mother” of the nation must be applied to that female historical personality who played a critical role in giving birth to the very possibility, the very seed or root, of the nation that we Barbadians possess today.
You see, over the first two centuries of the history of Barbados it was difficult to even conceive of the “possibility” of a Barbadian nation, simply because Barbados was a “slave society” in which a sizeable majority of its sons and daughters were denied the status of human beings and were held by their enslavers to be mere soul-less chattels or things.
Thus, if a majority of a people are not even considered to be human beings by the governmental and official structures of a society, how can one talk sensibly or meaningfully about being a nation? No! In order for a nation to be established in Barbados slavery first had to be abolished.
And therefore, those historical personalities who played the critical roles in striking the death blow to the evil system of slavery would have to be considered the seminal figures who planted the very seeds of Barbadian nationhood.
Our search for the “Mother” of the nation must therefore take us back to the great early 19th century slave rebellion that irretrievably set in train the processes that led ineluctably to the abolition of slavery in 1834— the 1816 Bussa Rebellion!
It is therefore relatively easy for us to identify the “Father” of our nation. Clearly, that title must go to the Right Excellent General Bussa, the Commander of the revolutionary forces of 1816, and an historical figure who has been conferred with the title of National Hero of Barbados.
But upon whom should the title of “Mother” of the nation be conferred? Well, in the 1818 historical document entitled “Report from a Select Committee of the House of Assembly appointed to inquire into the origin, causes and progress of the late Insurrection” — the Bussa Rebellion— we read the following testimony of “Robert”, an enslaved man attached to Simmons Plantation:
“………..some time the last year, he heard the negroes were all to be freed on New-year’s Day. That Nanny Grigg (a negro woman at Simmons, who said she could read) was the first person who told the Negroes at Simmons so: and she said she had read it in the Newspapers, and that her Master was very uneasy at it: that she was always talking about it to the negroes, and told them that they were all damned fools to work, for that she would not, as freedom they were sure to get.
That, about a fortnight after New-year’s Day, she said the Negroes were to be freed on Easter-Monday, and the only way to get it was to fight for it; and the way they were to do, was to set fire, as that was the way they did in Saint Domingo.”
Here then we see emerging from the historical record the figure of a mature literate enslaved Creole black woman who worked in the household of Simmons Plantation in the parish of St. Philip, and who was clearly the revolutionary ideologue of the rebel forces — a revolutionary ideologue who was committed to a military solution to terminating the evil system of slavery, and who was relentless in spreading that message to her fellow enslaved brothers and sisters.
The fact that she was called “Nanny” is not necessarily suggestive of an occupation as a nursemaid or a children’s caregiver, but could speak to her ethnic identity.
You see, in the case of the Jamaican “Nanny” – Nanny of the Maroons – the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History informs us that the name “Nanny” was derived from the Akan word “Nanani”, meaning “ancestress” or “mother”, and therefore is suggestive of an Akan ethnic ancestry.
Thus, our Nanny Grigg may well have been a Barbados-born “creole” woman of Akan (present day Ghana) ethnicity.
What we do know for a fact is that General Bussa’s revolutionary troops did faithfully adhere to Nanny Grigg’s admonition to commence a battle aimed at securing freedom for themselves on Easter- Monday of 1816 and to use arson as a primary methodology of insurrection!
Undoubtedly, as a literate, well informed and intelligent woman, Nanny Grigg would have known that the chances of success were slim, and that the possibility of defeat and death was very real.
After all, the revolutionary troops were not only facing a number of well armed local parish militias, but also the might of the British Imperial Army stationed at St Ann’s fort at the Garrison in St Michael.
It is extremely likely therefore that Nanny Grigg had her eyes set on a more distant and futuristic goal: that she was striking a blow against Slavery and making the ultimate sacrifice in order that future generations of black or African Barbadians would no longer have to live in a condition of enslavement.
And it is very likely that she did make the ultimate sacrifice, for not only was the Rebellion put down – largely through the efforts of the professional black soldiers of the British West India Regiment – but the racist white parish militias then proceeded to inflict a regime of terror on the black population, burning and otherwise destroying the houses and property of blacks and executing hundreds of black women, children and men.
We don’t know for sure, but it is likely that Nanny Grigg either perished in the fighting or was subsequently executed – perhaps hanged, beheaded and hung up on a post – in light of her role as a major leader of the Rebellion.
But whether or not she lost her life, who can doubt that her courage, activism and sacrifice played a major role in bringing down the evil system of slavery and hastening the day of the emergence of a genuine Barbadian nation? The reality is that the Bussa Rebellion sent such a forceful message of uncompromising hostility to Slavery that in 1819, a full three years after the Rebellion, the Governor of Barbados, Lord Combermere, was still writing to the English Colonial Office warning them that “the public mind (in white Barbados) is ever tremblingly alive to the dangers of insurrection.”
It is not surprising therefore that when – in 1833 – the British Secretary of State for the colonies introduced the Emancipation Act in the British Parliament, he expressed the view that “they were compelled to act; for they felt that take what course they might, it could not be attended with greater evil than any attempt to uphold the existing state of things.”
Thus, it was really the courageous military activism of the Bussas and Nanny Griggs that was ultimately responsible for the abolition of slavery.
And so, if Nanny Grigg is the “Mother of the Barbadian Nation”, then surely she must be entitled to be elevated to the status of National Hero of Barbados and permitted to take her rightful place beside Right Excellent Bussa, the “Father” of our nation.
Currently, Barbados possesses only one female National Hero to nine male National Heroes. It is therefore time for a greater gender balance, and there is none more deserving than Nanny Grigg to help us achieve that greater gender balance.
David Comissiong is Barbados’ Ambassador to Caricom.