Investigating the Clues

The origins of Junkanoo — Part 2

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

In the Summer 2022 issue of the Astrolabe, the authors detailed various legends of the origins of Junkanoo from European influences and mimicry to the Ahanta General, Jan Kwaw from Pokesu (today’s Princess Town) in Southwestern Ghana. However, the question remains of how Jan Kwaw became the namesake of Junkanoo in The Bahamas.

The history of The Bahamas has been very white-washed and conservative. This has been exacerbated in modern times in tandem with a belief of watering down aspects of history to make visitors more comfortable — pandering to guests and painting a story that separates us from our history. The true origins of Junkanoo do not fit this narrative and this has contributed to this hero of the Diaspora being lost in translation.

Bahamian artist Rasheed Demeritte painted this re-creation of Jan Kwaw based on descriptions of Brandenburg Prussians.

When making a closer analysis of data from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade to The Bahamas, information surrounding the first documented Trans-Atlantic slaving vessel in 1721, the Bahama Galley, gives credence to some of the more popular theories to arise over the past several generations. One of these theories is that John Canoe was a slave who came to The Bahamas, and somehow petitioned the colonial government to take a day off, “allowing” Africans to celebrate. The slave ship Bahama Galley was owned by the governor of The Bahamas George Phenney and took African captives from present-day Southwest Ghana.

Could John Canoe (Jan Kwaw) have come to The Bahamas as a slave onboard on this vessel? While this would make sense for the previously mentioned narrative, empirical data shows that he remained at Fort Gross Friedrichsburg until 1724 when the Dutch were finally able to expel him and his army. Additionally, in an anonymous message sent to the editor of the London Journal newspaper, we learn that the voyage took captives from Cape Three Points, most likely from the British-held Fort Metal Cross at Dixcove.

This region in Ghana is exactly where John Canoe was operating as there are numerous Dutch and British accounts detailing the problems (for the Europeans) caused by Jan Kwaw and his warriors. The article was also published in the Christmas issue of the Boston Gazette, months after the ship arrived in 1721. Crucially, this provides a definitive presence of an early Ahanta presence in The Bahamas, with 295 captives arriving exclusively from that area. The year before their arrival (1720), there were only approximately 250 blacks living permanently in The Bahamas. The new arrivals on the Bahama Galley would have more than doubled the black population and brought with them their culture, traditions, religion, politics, and knowledge of Jan Kwaw. 

Additionally, the first three slave ships to arrive to The Bahamas (inclusive of the Bahama Galley) from the African continent all came from the Ahanta region of Ghana. This set the base cultural expression and what caused “Junkanoo” to stick — to this day still the predominant celebration among Bahamians of African descent. During the same period, from 1721 to 1755, 24 Intra-American slaving voyages were made to The Bahamas; 7 from Jamaica and the remainder from the 13 colonies (later the USA) totalling just under 200 enslaved people.

Additionally, the 1721 newspaper report mentions the bleak military and economic situation for the Dutch in Cape Three Points. The Dutch lingered in the area, with the help of other nations, to “bombard the Brandenburgers Factory.” The anonymous observer goes on to say that despite their efforts “tis believed they will not be able to take it.” Unbeknownst to the author of the short passage, he was speaking about Jan Kwaw’s occupation of Gross Fredericksburg in Princess Town.

Another question about Junkanoo is why it is celebrated around Christmas? Returning to the slave narrative, tradition states that John Canoe requested permission for the celebration in commemoration of the Christmas holiday. However, if we evaluate historical records, Jan Kwaw was the catalyst of several military actions in defiance of slave trading since at least 1712, when he invaded Fort Metal Cross which was the British stronghold on the Gold Coast, interestingly on Christmas Day. Is the celebration of Junkanoo on and around Christmas Day an unconscious celebration of this victory by the descendants of the Ahanta in the New World?

King of the Ahanta Otumfo Baidoo Bonsoe XV, Ahantahene is currently the longest reigning African monarch.

As a result of the research uncovering the true origins of Junkanoo and linking it to the Ahanta people and the wider diaspora, along with the community outreach and service in Princess Town, the Ahanta traditional council and the Chief of Princess town gave titles to the Sankofa Flamingo team. The titles and honours are:

• Christopher Davis — Nana Asafohene Jan Kwaw II (John Canoe II);

• Angelique McKay — Asafokyerba (warrior Queen of Junkanoo);

• Tamara Scavella-Davis — Nkosuohema (development and progress); and

• Dr. Michael Pateman, Robin Lightbourne, and Oswald White — Okufo (warriors of Junkanoo)

Further, the King of the Ahanta, who is currently the longest reigning African monarch, Otumfo Baidoo Bonsoe XV, Ahantahene, officially coronated and enstooled Christopher Davis as Jan Kwaw II and a member of the Ahanta Traditional council.

This research is due to be published in a book, The Black Rinse: Spirit of Junkanoo by Christopher Davis. It changes the historical narrative of Junkanoo and the transatlantic slave trade in The Bahamas and the wider African Diaspora. It not only challenges the conservative narrative of Bahamian historiography but confronts the global rhetoric of Africans’ so-called “role” in the Transatlantic slave trade. Africans are the only ones blamed for their own genocide from the halls and theatres of academia, entering the global consciousness where blame is placed on an entire diverse group of people. A documentary “Pilgrimage to Pokesu” based on the research and journey for the team to becoming Ahanta is being produced by Dr. Michael Pateman. To learn more about the research on Junkanoo, Jan Kwaw, and the Ahanta, follow Sankofa Flamingo on Facebook.

Christopher Davis (Nana Jan Kwaw II) 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 P. Pateman is a former director of the Turks & Caicos National Museum and currently curator/lab director of the Bahamas Maritime Museum on Grand Bahama.

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