This article is Part 1 of a 5 part series that seeks to take a deeper look into the festival
that has Bahamians young and old passionately consumed every year.
Junkanoo is a Caribbean festival which was started by slaves who came to the islands during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The most controversial aspect of Junkanoo is its origin. The numerous spelling variations of the word Jon Canoe (Junkanoo) only serve to further emphasize the many possible origins of the festival itself.
However, most folklorists have asserted that the Junkanoo festival resembles the West African John Canoe, a festival also said to be celebrated by West African slaves.
In the pre-emancipation era the slaves were allowed a special holiday at Christmas time. During this time they were allowed to leave the plantation, visit relatives and the most exciting event was the holding of the grand dance.
This merry-making by the slaves took on a particular form, that of hero worship, a tribute to the memory of John Canoe. After emancipation the freed slaves continued their festival at Christmas time. In the early twentieth century John canoe as a festival took a more progressive turn as the costumes changed from cloth to a paper fringe and parading became more organized.
The 1930’s saw the introduction of sponge costumes, a typical expression of the booming sponge industry. The festival flourished until 1942, the year of the famous riots when the festivities were suspended. The spirit could not be killed, and John canoe was again revived in 1947.
During the 1950’s the John canoe parade became even more organized as prize money was increased, categories introduced and masqueraders paraded in distinct groups representing various districts.
In contrast to the other Caribbean islands where junkanoo has become obsolete except in Jamaica and Bermuda where it is still celebrated but not on a large scale. Junkanoo in the Bahamas has evolved into a national festival.
The groups are larger, costumes are skillfully designed and built with the most brightly colored fringe crepe paper. The passion the Junkanoo’ers exhibit is very evident, which perhaps accounts for the secrecy of the group themes up until performance time.
The largest Junkanoo parades are now held twice a year at 1am in the morning, with the 1st festival being held on Boxing Day and the 2nd festival being held on New Years Morning.
Stay tuned for part two as I continue to uncover how this festival has evolved. Part two will take a deeper look into the costume design and how the art has evolved. Here is a sneak peak of whats to come.
All historical information provided courtesy of the Bahamas Department of Archives