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Last Updated: Friday, 23 March 2007, 06:47 GMT
Ms Dynamite and the Maroons
Jamaican Maroons wait to ambush an approaching British military column circa 1795 (image: The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities)

Niomi Daley, the British hip-hop star better known as Ms Dynamite, travelled to her ancestral land Jamaica to make a documentary about slaves who fought back, as part of the BBC's season marking Britain's abolition of the slave trade.

Here she speaks to the BBC News website about why the Maroons, and especially their revered woman leader Nanny, matter today.

That they could stand up and face death rather than be oppressed is a lesson for anyone, but particularly for black people.

A lot of the people I've learnt about in black history are African-Americans, like Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, whereas with Nanny, she was straight from Africa to the West Indies.

JAMAICA'S MAROON WARS
Historical name given to runaway slaves in the West Indies and Americas
Jamaican Maroons fought two wars against the British in the 18th Century
The 1730s Maroon War cost several hundred British casualties while Maroon losses are believed to have been light
Maroons were skilled guerrilla fighters, adept at using foliage as camouflage
Nanny was a leader active in the Blue Mountains in the 1730s

What I learnt in Jamaica made me feel really empowered as a woman. You can put the blackness aside - I think it is important for any woman to read or learn the story of this woman and leader.

If you go just a few years back, a woman's role in the war was to be a nurse or something nurturing as opposed to being on the front line and firing at people. That's something that Nanny took on herself and actually led men. I find that really, really overwhelming and empowering as a woman.

In the West Indian culture, the grandmother is the person you can always count on. She's hardworking and she will do whatever a man will do but she's still also got the loving, nurturing side as well. So I can only presume that that's originally where her name came from.

Painful journey

I went through such a rollercoaster of emotions in Jamaica. There'd be some days where I was really happy and felt quite proud of the things that I was learning but then I went to a museum and saw the shackles and things used on the slaves as forms of torture or punishment.

Ms Dynamite in a Jamaican jungle
Ms Dynamite visited the jungles where the Maroons found cover

There were some children's shackles there and that just cut me up. The fact that I'm now a mother just means that when I see anything to do with any child, instantly it gets related in my head to my own child and that was probably the most horrific experience for me.

We stayed the night on a plantation and it was a very weird experience. A working plantation. It's still there. I think it is used as a heritage site. That was really hard because it was really beautiful but I was there with my brother [Kingslee Daley, the rapper Akala] and we just found it really difficult to sleep at night, to even just feel at ease because we were obviously aware of the things that had taken place there.

Hundreds of people had been there, used as slaves, been tortured, killed - lived and died in that area and you could feel it. The landscape, the design of the place was beautiful but then the feeling and emotion was horrible.

There are black people that would rather forget about slavery and actually are in denial, especially the older generation like my grandparents' age.

I think personally there's nothing at all shameful about the fact that my ancestors were slaves. To know that we suffered that type of slavery for so long and to know that we are where we're at now, is a huge achievement.

Racism

When I went to school, all we were ever told about black history was "You were slaves, that's the end of it, it's over now".

Ms Dynamite looks up references to Nanny Maroon with the help of Jamaican historian Cecil Gutzmore
Many myths surround Nanny - but records show she did exist

We did maybe two lessons about black history throughout my entire secondary schooling and I don't think any in primary schools whereas I remember doing two terms on the Holocaust and learnt the ins and outs and every aspect of it.

Personally I don't really feel you can compare the Holocaust and slavery. I feel the Holocaust is the Holocaust and stands on its own but slavery also deserves its own place.

[Jamaican reggae singer] Bob Marley wrote about waiting "until the colour of a man's skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes" [a quotation from Haile Selassie used in the song War]. I feel that sentence is still as relevant as the day he wrote it.

I can only speak from a London point of view but basically I feel that although racism isn't as in your face as it definitely was, it's still very, very vibrant - it's still everywhere at all times. I feel in terms of the system and the institutions, it's as bad as it ever was.

I definitely think England should make some compensation for descendants of slaves. It's not amends but it's holding your hands up and saying, you totally acknowledge what took place.

I'm not making excuses but the fact that so many, or the majority, of black people in England are born straight into poverty, to me is a direct result of slavery and I do feel that something should be done.

If you look at London and all the amazing buildings, the banks, it's all built on slavery. We wouldn't have what we've got if it wasn't for this - so let's give a bit back.

Ms Dynamite in Search of Nanny Maroon will be shown on Sunday 25 March at 1900 BST on BBC2.

Interview taken by Patrick Jackson, BBC News


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