John Canoe Festival

John Canoe Festival (Jonkonnu Festival, Junkanoo Festival)

Type of Holiday: Folkloric
Date of Observation: December 26, January 1
Where Celebrated: Bahamas, Belize, Guatemala, Jamaica
Symbols and Customs: Goombay, John Canoe
Related Holidays: Carnival (Mardi Gras)


Held on various Caribbean islands, the John Canoe Festival represents a combination of Mardi Gras (CARNIVAL), mummers' parades, and ancient African tribal rituals. Perhaps the best-known celebration is the one held in Nassau on December 26, Boxing Day (ST. STEPHEN'S DAY), and on January 1, NEW YEAR'S DAY . Masqueraded marchers wearing colorful headpieces and costumes that have taken months to prepare dance to the beat of an Afro-Bahamian rhythm called GOOMBAY . The Jonkonnu parade, which begins at four o'clock in the morning and continues until sunrise, is followed by the judging of costumes and awarding of prizes. There are Jonkonnu parades in Freeport and elsewhere in the Bahamas as well.

When slaveholders in the American South observed holidays, their slaves would usually celebrate by holding their own parties and barbecues. In North Carolina, these celebrations always included the appearance of JOHN CANOE , dressed in a colorful costume made from many scraps of material and wearing a white mask that was frightening to children and adults alike. He would dance down the street with a jerking, gyrating motion, often accompanied by musicians. He sang songs, told stories, and accepted contributions from spectators. The procession would last all day, and the party that followed went on all night. It was a way for African-American slaves to have their own fun on holidays observed primarily by whites. The custom known as "Kunering" (John Canoe was sometimes known as John Kuner), which only took place between Christmas and the New Year, was outlawed by the North Carolina police around 1900 because educated blacks regarded it as degrading to members of their race.

Today, celebrations featuring John Canoe can be found primarily in the West Indies. In Belize and Guatemala, the John Canoe masqueraders dance from house to house, wearing wire-screen masks painted white or pink with staring eyes, red lips, black eyebrows, and thin mustaches. In Jamaica, the Jonkonnu procession includes a King and Queen with their courtiers; a Sailor Boy, who uses a whip to keep the audience in line; Babu, an East Indian cowboy with a long cattle prod; and Pitchy Patchy, another traditional figure. The Jonkonnu processions held in remote villages are even rowdier, featuring a Whore Girl who raises her skirts and a Belly Woman who shakes her belly in time with the music.



Historically, "goombay" referred to the drumbeats and rhythms of Africa, which were brought to the Bahamas by slaves. The term was used during jump-in dances, when the drummer would shout "Gimbey!" at the beginning of each dance. The Igbo tribes in West Africa have a drum they called Gamby, from which the name "goombay" probably derived.

Today, Goombay refers to all Bahamian secular music, although it is particularly associated with the John Canoe Festival. It is played by a variety of unusual native instruments, including goat-skin drums, lignum vitae sticks, pebble-filled "shikshaks," and steel drums.

John Canoe

There are a number of theories as to where the name "John Canoe" came from. Some believe he is a symbol for John Conny, the West African tribal chief who outwitted Dutch merchantmen and maintained control of the Prussian Fort Brandenburg (later known as "Conny's Castle"), which he commanded during the early eighteenth century at Prince's Town. John Conny, who lived from 1660 to 1732, promoted trade between the Ashanti and the Germans for more than a decade and was sometimes called the "Last Prussian Negro Prince."

In the United States, John Canoe was a precursor of the unofficial governor chosen by African-American slaves in New England on Election Day. For about 100 years, beginning in 1750, New England slaves would hold an election of their own, which would be followed by a parade featuring their newly elected governor. Thousands of slaves participated in such parades throughout Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Although the unofficial governor had no legal power, he was usually a very able man who exercised considerable authority over New England blacks.

Still another theory about the name John Canoe is that it came from the French gens inconnus, or "unknown people," referring to the masked dancers who appear at the John Canoe Festival. John Canoe Festival


Anyike, James C. African American Holidays. Revised and expanded edition. Chicago: Popular Truth Pub., 1997. Gay, Kathlyn. African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2007. Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin. The Folklore of American Holidays. 3rd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Shemanski, Frances. A Guide to World Fairs and Festivals. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.


Official Site of Junkanoo by Tajiz Ltd.
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
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