Growing up as an 'island boy' and sent away to an English boarding school I always yearned to return to Bay Street in the islands capitol of New Providence each Christmas holiday, feeling once again the whole street come alive throbbing with hundreds of amazing costumes in each sponsored group competing for prizes. (*NB: if you see a photo you admire, by all means click on to see an enlarged version to be dragged on to your desktop to keep!)
The origin of the word junkanoo is widely disputed but theories include that it is named after a folk hero named John Canoe or that it is derives from masked characters in similar style to jonkonnu masks. Canoe was in fact an existing king and hero that ruled Axim, Ghana before 1720, the same year the John Canoe festival was created in the Caribbean.
The festival may well have originated centuries ago when slaves on plantations in The Bahamas celebrated holidays granted around Christmas time with dance, music, and costumes. After the emancipation the tradition continued and junkanoo evolved from simple origins to a formal, organised parade with ever increasing intricate costumes of Akan origin?
“'De John Coonahs comin'!' And there come, sure enough!” The Ladies' Home Journal, December 1891, Vol. IX, No. 1, p. 5
The Akan people are believed to have migrated to their current location from the Sahara desert and regions of West Africa. Akans tell their history started in the forested region of West Africa known today as Ghana. From the 15th century to the 19th century the Akan people dominated gold mining and trading in the region becoming the most powerful groups in west Africa attracting European traders. Initially, Portuguese, soon joined by the Dutch and British in their quest for Akan gold. Akan states waged wars on neighboring states in their geographic area to capture people and sell them as slaves to Europeans (Portuguese) who subsequently sold the enslaved people.
The Akans went from buyers of slaves to selling slaves as the dynamics in the Gold Coast changed. It is the Akan people who played a role in supplying Europeans with indentured servants, who were later enslaved for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Ghana later apologized to the descendants of slaves for the role some of its people may have played in the trade.
The jonkonnu masks used in the original festivities all were derived from the origins of West Africa.