Clothed in Mystery

The origins of Junkanoo – Part 1

By Christopher Davis, Alex Kwofie, Angelique McKay, and Michael P. Pateman

Junkanoo is the premier national cultural celebration in The Bahamas. It is primarily celebrated on Christmas/Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, with smaller celebrations on Labour Day, Independence Day, and Emancipation Day. Junkanoo is also used for the opening of major events and as a funeral procession for prominent Junkanoos (term used to describe a person who partakes in Junkanoo). Versions of Junkanoo are also celebrated in Jamaica (Jonkonnu), Belize (Jankunu), and North Carolina (John Kooner) among others.

In this image of Junkanoos on Grand Turk, the costumes bear similarities to those in the 1965 Junkanoo Parade in Nassau.

However, the true origins of Junkanoo have been shrouded in mystery with multiple prevailing theories and stories. According to oral tradition, Junkanoo was supposedly named after west-African chief John Canoe and began as a masquerade in The Bahamas around the 17th century. Enslaved Africans would cover their faces under a flour paste and celebrate on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas). Over time, the flour paste was replaced by masks and eventually face paint. 

The most popular legend about the origin of Junkanoo states that John Canoe, a former African tribal chief, requested permission from colonial powers for the enslaved to have a day off to celebrate. Another popular theory is that John Canoe was a powerful slave trader and Junkanoo originated as a celebration of the enslaved mimicking their slave masters.  

The story of Junkanoo in the Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI) is also shrouded in mystery and controversy. The TCI celebration of Masses or Massin’ is also a masquerade tradition of African roots, celebrated in islands around Christmas and New Year’s. David Bowen (“A Celebration of the Masses,” Times of the Island Spring 2008) states that Massin’ draws on a combination of West African ancestry roots and mimicry of former slave masters costume balls. The celebration of Massin’ is very similar to the historic accounts of Junkanoo in The Bahamas.

One of the earliest written accounts of this celebration was recorded in the journal of Methodist Reverend W. Dowson, who landed on Grand Turk on December 25, 1811. He wrote: “I have never before witnessed such a Christmas Day; the Negroes have been beating their tambourines and dancing the whole day and now between eight and nine o’clock they are pursuing their sport as hotly as ever.” He then goes on to say, “I mentioned the dissipation of the Negroes (to a Presbyterian clergyman) as a thing which greatly pained my mind; but he made light of it and apologized for them saying, ‘The week of Christmas is the only time in the whole year in which to be merry and I am pleased to see them enjoy themselves.’”

This vintage photo shows a Junkanoo Parade in Nassau circa 1965.

Despite the celebration of Massin’ in the TCI, Kitchener Penn was hired to organise the first Junkanoo festival in the TCI in the 1980s. However, the celebration that was organized was a Bahamian-styled festival. This is probably based on Penn’s time spent in The Bahamas and his membership in the Junkanoo group The Saxons. 

The origins of Junkanoo in The Bahamas, as well as all the commemorations throughout the Americas, have been a long-debated mystery and by the mid-19th century the namesake was lost in translation. Bahamian Researcher and founder of the Sankofa Flamingo Organization, Christopher Davis, says that most Bahamians never truly bought into the proverbial paternalistic and bigoted accounts of Junkanoo. Accounts on the origins of these inextricably connected commemorations around the African Diaspora are typically tainted by the overtly racist way of life and opinions of the authors. This ranges from recorded accounts in personal diaries like plantation owner Charles Farquharson’s account in 1832 on Watlings Island (today’s San Salvador), Bahamas, to genuine attempts of the documentation of African traditions as seen with 19th century accounts by Dr. James Sprunt in North Carolina. 

Prevailing theories on the origins of Junkanoo in The Bahamas are often credited to a European influence; Junk Enough as said in an 19th century Scottish dialect or I’cconnu, a French term for unknown people. Other accounts differ, like Ira B. Reid’s description of the crowning of a John Canoe, or Edward Long who stated in the 1740s that Jonkonnu in Jamaica was in commemoration of a great African king. Contemporary researchers have also opined the origin, or at least the namesake of the commemoration to have firm origins in Africa. Davis knew, that with the virtually endless pantheon of leaders in West Africa’s historiography, that if the parade was in fact named after an African figure, it would have had to have been one who was very profound and influential. 

As we searched deeper for the origins of Junkanoo or John Canoe, we discover the name Jan Conny (Dutch), a former Chief of Pokesu—today’s Princess Town in Ahantaland, Ghana and the site of Fort Gross Fredericksburg. The Ahanta are an Akan people residing today in southwestern Ghana in a province known as Ahanta West. Princess Town sits near the southwestern extremity of Ghana, where empirical data and oral history places the man known to the British as John Canoe. In Princess Town, Sankofa Flamingo were graciously received by the resident chief, Abusuapanin Augustine Yaw, and the Traditional Council, where they were given preliminary information on the history of Pokesu. On Davis’ first research visit, they were amazed by a detailed presentation and tour by oral historian Alex Kwofie. 

Kwofie not only showed them John Canoe’s mansion, palace, and fort, but also revealed his real name in their language, Jan Kwaw. According to the oral history in Princess Town, Jan Kwaw was never a slave and was certainly not a slave trader and in fact, he and his warriors fought vigorously against the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, particularly the Dutch, the Danish and the British. Jan Kwaw was the catalyst of several military actions in defiance of slave trading since at least 1712, when he invaded the British stronghold of Fort Metal Cross on Christmas Day. Is the tradition of Junkanoo on and around Christmas Day an unconscious celebration of this victory by the descendants of the Ahanta in the New World? 

This “modern day” celebration of Junkanoo in Grand Turk bears elements of the new and old.

Additionally, in 1717 when the Prussians attempted to sell Fort Gross Fredericksburg to the Dutch, Jan Kwaw occupied the fort in defiance and used his political and military acumen to beat back European slave traders until 1725. John Atkins, a surgeon in the British Royal Navy, whose ship was anchored off Princess Town in 1721, notes that a dispute between the Dutch who claimed the fort as their own resulted in Jan Kwaw paving the entrance to his palace with their skulls. Also, sailors from Atkins’s ship who landed in search of fresh water received “cracked skulls” for refusing the tribute demands by Jan Kwaw. When they made payment, he provided them with water and hospitality. Empirical data not only shows that no slave ships left the fort while under his occupation, but also shows that the Ahanta people in general dedicated much of the resources and resolve to maintaining African autonomy in the region. From the late 1680s to 1725, there are consistent complaints and reports about Ahanta warriors invading European-held slave trading posts as far east as Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle. 

Many sources have relegated the Ahanta General to a Prussian ally and the lynchpin of Prussian business in what was then the western Gold Coast. He is often erroneously referred to as a so-called “Prussian Prince.” Many sources also claim him to be a slave trader, typically without tangible evidence like trading records or the names of the vessels he supplied with captive Africans.

What is interesting however, is the failure of Brandenburg Prussia to establish themselves in the Gold Coast as seen by some of their European counterparts. With so much military might and influence in the region, why did the Prussian’s slave trading operations fail? What the oral history of the Ahanta as well as their historical records shows is that they had a consistent run of anti-slavery leaders, with Jan Kwaw representing a quintessential example of an African hero, still ambiguously commemorated throughout the African Diaspora in the Western Hemisphere. If Jan Kwaw was indeed a Prussian ally, his efforts and unprecedented influence in the area would have established Prussia as a major slave trading force in the area. It is no coincidence that approximately 60 Prussian slave trading voyages took place on the opposite side on the eastern Gold Coast at the behest of their allies the Danish. The Ahanta Traditional Council identifies Jan Kwaw not only as a great and wealthy warrior, but the Minister of Defence for all Ahanta people and even later the early Ashanti Empire, settling at Kwadaso in the late 1720s after the Dutch were able to reclaim Fort Gross Fredericksburg. 

Part 2 will continue with how commemorations of Jan Kwaw came to the New World. To learn more about the research on Junkanoo and Jan Kwaw, follow Sankofa Flamingo on Facebook.

Christopher Davis is a historian and researcher at the Antiquities, Monuments and Museum Corporation (Bahamas) and founder of the Sankofa Flamingo Foundation; Alex Kwofie is an Oral Historian and Tour Guide from Pokesu (Princess Town), Ghana; Angelique McKay, also known as the Junkanoo Goddess, is the founder of the Junkanoo Commandos, a group who is dedicated to bringing the celebration of Junkanoo to the world by way of presentations, workshops, and performances; and Dr. Michael Pateman is former Director of the Turks & Caicos National Museum and currently Curator/Lab Director of the AEX Maritime Museum on Grand Bahama.

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