Sketch of Nanny from the National Library of Jamaica
Bouda Nini is an expression that means tall tale. The expression is descriptive of something that just cannot be true. The roots of this expression takes us all the way back to the early 1700's and to Jamaica, an island off the southwest of Haiti. There, in Jamaica, Nanny, a women maroon leader became famous for taking over a portion of Jamaica which she ruled, earning her the name Queen Nanny, ~1685-~1755,. She is believed to be from the Akan people of Ghana and her ethnic group is known in Haiti and in Jamaica as Nanchon Kowomanten. She battled and defeated the British for control of one area of Jamaica, known as Nanny Town. Her reputation as a heroic leader became legendary. One story told about her is that she was impermeable to British bullets which she would catch with her buttocks. Fantastic stories about her grew as those enslaved in Jamaica fantasized about their own freedom.
For many, that freedom would never come as it became customary to ship rebellious enslaved people out of Jamaica into Haiti. According to oral tradition in my own family, one of my great grandmothers, Manko, arrived to Haiti from Jamaica as a rebellious enslaved person. In Haiti, she became a victim of Jean Bernard, a wealthy French slaver, for whom she had to bear children. The Haitian Revolution brought this abuse to an end. Jean Bernard was killed after the island became independent of France. Stories of enslaved Africans arriving to Haiti from Jamaica are common. Boukmann is said to have been from Jamaica, although no proof has ever been shown of this. One Vodou song refers to an African arriving to Haiti from Jamaica: “Jan Pòl Nago, li soti Jamayik o, ago, ago...” The movement of Africans from Jamaica to Haiti brought to the island stories of the Jamaican people. It is likely that the story of Nanny, pronounced as Nini, arrived to Haiti along with British commerce with the South of Haiti.
Africans enslaved in Jamaica, were often taken to Haiti because the British had extensive off-the-books commercial ties with the South of Haiti. As the landowners in the South of Haiti were poorer than those of the north, instead of accepting cash payments only, the British often traded enslaved people in the south for agricultural goods. This trade occurred despite French efforts to limit the island's agricultural products for exportation to France alone. Strong English interest in the South of Haiti and its proximity to Jamaica paved the way for the eventual brief British occupation of the south. Although the more formal British occupation lasted for 5 years (1793-1798), British influence in the South occurred over a longer period and had a more lasting influence. To this day, there is a city in the south called Les Anglais, meaning the British. Other English influences in the southern penninsula include a mountain called Mòn Zanglè and a fortress called, Fort Olivier which is likely named for Oliver Cromwell, a former ruler of England who financed an unsuccessful British take over of Haiti in 1655, the same year that they took over Jamaica. Additional British influence in the region include the southern bays called England's Bay (Baie des Anglais), and Baie Anglaise (English Bay). There is also a beach named for the British called English Coconuts, Kokoye Anglad.
Certainly, the Bristish and the Africans who came to Haiti from Jamaica, brought with them the story of the valiant Nanny. In fact, during the time of the British occupation of Haiti, Toussaint Louverture likened his struggle to that of the maroons of the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, the place that Nanny ruled (Dubois, Avengers of the New World). Her story had even reached the U.S. where President Thomas Jefferson encouraged Napoleon to sign a treaty with Toussaint Louverture based on the one the British signed with Nanny. Surely, she was courageous in battle, however, it is definitely not true, as legend states, that she was able to stop bullets with her buttocks.
Her success at war was more likely due to the traps she laid and her use of camouflage. Bouda Nini meaning Nini's buttocks is used to mean tall tale and for that reason it appears to be based on the legend of Nanny's buttocks. Bouda is the Creole word for buttocks and it is derived from the Kikongo word Bunda for the same. If indeed this is so, it remains to be explained how Nanny became Nini in Haiti. One possible reason as reported by some authors is that Nanny was not the queen warrior's name, but rather her title as there are no surviving historical text with her name. Nanny is the Nanchon Kowomanten name for chairperson. Nini from the Kowomanten word onini, means distinguished person. Nini may have been substituted for Nanny, because it describes her well and is phonetically similar to Nani.
The expression, Bouda Nini, appears to be derived from the popular historical legend of Queen Nanny catching bullets with her buttocks. The legend sheds light on the origin of the Haitian expression for tall tale, Bouda Nini. The British exportation of Africans from Jamaica to Haiti would explain how this story migrated to Haiti to become a traditional Haitian expression.