Every Christmas, residents of the Bahamas head outdoors, crowding the streets of Nassau in celebration of Junkanoo, the country’s national festival. Tourists and locals alike applaud dancers parading in green and gold costumes to the otherworldly beat of drums, horns and bells.

Junkanoo marches not just at Christmas, but for funerals, museum openings and even to honor the arrival of Prince William during the late British queen’s Platinum Jubilee. Junkanoo is everywhere, on stamps, coins and five-dollar bills. A local beer, Kalik, is named after the sound of the cowbells rung during the festival.

Celebrated from Jamaica to North Carolina, Junkanoo is to many just a tourist commodity. Like Mardi Gras, groups compete to win prizes for the best costumes, music and performances. Crews of up to 700 people seek sponsorships from local businesses.

Behind the commercialized holiday, though, hides an epic foundation myth that traces Junkanoo to the Ahanta people of the resource-rich Gold Coast, in what is now western Ghana, and John Canoe, a mysterious African king who took on the might of colonial Europe and won.

Dancers and musicians celebrate Junkanoo in the Bahamas
Dancers and musicians celebrate Junkanoo in the Bahamas. © Sean Kingsley

Junk enough and John Canoe

“The spirit of Junkanoo has been lost in translation,” says historian Christopher Davis, sitting next to archaeologist Michael Pateman on the veranda of the Cricket Club in downtown Nassau. Behind them loom the guns of Fort Charlotte, built by colonial Britain in 1787. A stone’s throw away are the alluring sands of Junkanoo Beach. Nearby, cruise ships drop off passengers to explore the shore from which Blackbeard and Anne Bonny launched raids during the golden age of piracy.

Davis, founder of the nonprofit Sankofa Flamingo Foundation, and Pateman, director of the newly opened Bahamas Maritime Museum, are on a mission to uncover the truth behind Junkanoo. The earliest written records of a “John Canoe” festival date to 1769 in the Caribbean and 1801 in the Bahamas. But the exact circumstances of the celebration’s emergence are shrouded in layers of myth and confusion.

The most common theory paints Junkanoo’s namesake, Canoe, as a faceless victim of the transatlantic slave trade—a captive trafficked to the Bahamas, where he persuaded the English to gift enslaved Africans Christmas Day off. (Canoe is often described as a former slave trader in his own right.) The enslavers misunderstood the cultural meaning of John Canoe, instead hearing “Junkanoo.” When the holiday became a disruptive bother to the English colonial government, it dubbed them “junk anew” or “junk enough.”

Cannon guarding the shore below the British Fort Charlotte in New Providence, the Bahamas
Cannon guarding the shore below the British Fort Charlotte in New Providence, the Bahamas © Sean Kingsley

Davis and Pateman’s research contradicts this backstory. Based on long-overlooked written and oral histories, they tie the festival’s origins to Gold Coast hero Canoe, a warrior king of the Ahanta who was born around 1670. At a time when the slave trade and plantations in the Americas were the biggest moneymakers on earth, Canoe stood up to the Europeans exploiting his people. The scholars argue that enslaved Africans who heard about Canoe’s defiance kept his story alive upon their arrival in the Caribbean, basing their own John Canoe festivals on celebrations held in their homeland. On December 26, 1849, for instance, the Nassau Guardian reported that “several prize oxen, decked out in ribbons, were led over the town, previous to falling a sacrifice, and ‘John Canoe’ came forth on stilts in style, much to the gratification of his numerous train of followers.”

The actual Canoe allied himself with Prussia (now Germany) against the Dutch and the English, making his fortune first as chief broker of the Prussian Brandenburg African Company and then by trading gold on his own account. Crucially, Canoe controlled Cape Three Points, the only local source of fresh water.

The West feared Canoe, or Jan Kwaw as the Ahanta knew him, as a “strong-made man, about 50, of a sullen look,” who terrorized slave traders in the early 18th century with his army of 15,000 men. In January 1712, Canoe defeated Dutch forces at Elmina Castle, the largest fort on the Gold Coast; some 30,000 enslaved Africans passed through its Door of No Return each year. Later in 1712, on Christmas Day, Canoe blew up the gunpowder room in the Royal African Company’s slave trading base at Fort Metal Cross.

Formed in 1683, the Ahanta-Prussian alliance proved short-lived, with the Prussians selling their African holdings to the Dutch for 6,000 ducats on January 17, 1718. When the Dutch sent ships to pick up the keys to the former Prussian fort that April, Canoe turned them away. According to a French memorandum, he reportedly said, “If the king of Prussia was not intentioned to come and live in his fort, he was not entitled anymore to dispose of it in favor of any person, considering that he did not possess the land.” As king of the Ahanta and the owner of the soil in question, Canoe declared himself “master of the country.”

Though the Dutch attempted to fight back against Canoe, his army killed most of the 120 European soldiers, supposedly paving the entrance of an Ahanta palace with their skulls. Canoe presided over the fort for another seven years, until a Dutch army forced him to flee into exile in Kumasi, among the Ashanti of southern Ghana. The king’s fate following his defeat is unknown.

Dancer celebrating Junkanoo in the Bahamas.
Dancer celebrating Junkanoo in the Bahamas © Antonio Saunders, Pinnacle Photography

Davis and Pateman believe that Junkanoo began in the Bahamas as a reenactment of Canoe’s military feats, tied to traditional commemorations along the southern Gold Coast, like the Kundum festival of the Ahanta and Nzema people. The memory of Canoe’s epic battles also inspired the day when Junkanoo was held. “On Christmas Day of all days, John Kwaw and his warriors attacked the British at Fort Metal Cross,” Pateman points out. “They knew that was the day when the British were putting their feet up and would have their eye off the ball.”

Davis says, “I put more credit in Kwaw’s military strategy than Junkanoo being celebrated just because … slave masters gave [the enslaved] a day off. That would explain why the proverbial slave masters were afraid of Junkanoo.”

He adds, “John Canoe was a genius, the first Pan-African revolutionary. Think Stokely Carmichael meets Hannibal of Carthage taking on the might of Rome in 281 B.C.E.”

The researchers’ findings suggest that less than 1 percent of Bahamians know the African roots of Junkanoo; more than 90 percent think Canoe was simply an individual enslaved in the Bahamas. In truth, Canoe was never shackled and shipped to the Bahamas. As far as Davis and Pateman know, he lived all of his life on the Gold Coast. As to the question of whether he was a slave trader, the numbers don’t stack up. Between 1716 and 1750, when Canoe took on the might of England and the Netherlands, records show that not a single enslaved person was trafficked out of Ahanta land.

“Why would Africans celebrate a known slave trader?” Davis asks. “He may have taken Black enemy warriors [captive] in tribal battles, but that doesn’t make him a major slave trader.”

How John Canoe’s story reached the Bahamas

In 1721, at the height of Canoe’s fight against Europe and the transatlantic slave trade, the Bahama Gally landed 295 captives in the Bahamas. In a forthcoming issue of the magazine Times of the Islands, Davis, Pateman, and colleagues Alex Kwofie and Angelique McKay detail how this ship’s human cargo set sail from Ahanta land in Cape Three Points. After the Dutch defeated Canoe in 1724, two more slave ships bound for the Bahamas departed from Cape Three Points: the Nassau in 1730, with 133 enslaved Africans on board, and the Little Billy in 1755, with 92.

“There were only 250 Black people living permanently [on the island of] New Providence in 1721,” Davis says. “Crucially, this evidence gives us a definitive early Ahanta presence in the Bahamas when John Canoe was giving Europe hell. This high proportion of Ahanta to Africans from other regions is quite unique to the Bahamas.”

Pateman adds, “The new arrivals on the Bahama Gally more than doubled the Black population. In that hold they carried their fear and anger, but also undimmed their culture, faith and memory of Jan Kwaw, whose name got attached to Junkanoo. A new festival linking the old with a new reality was born, rooted in our ancestors.”

Enslaved: The Sunken History of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

A riveting exploration of the transatlantic slave trade by an intrepid team of divers seeking to reclaim the stories of their ancestors

Exactly what happened on slave ships is largely unknown, with most glossed-over evidence of the voyages coming from records kept by European traders. In recent years, however, enhanced technologies, from rebreather diving gear to remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), have helped researchers recover firsthand evidence from the depths of the seas. Now, a new book, Enslaved: The Sunken History of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, is the first to look at the trade from beneath the waves.

Between the mid-17th and mid-19th centuries, an array of Western powers, including Portugal, the Netherlands, France and the United States, competed for dominance in the slave trade. Near the top of the list of traffickers was Britain, which shipped 3.1 million Africans to Caribbean plantations between 1640 and 1807. Around 400,000 of these captives died while crossing the Middle Passage from West Africa to the Americas.

Among the wrecks discussed in Enslaved is a Royal African Company trade ship lost in the English Channel between 1672 and 1690. By studying it, scholars have opened a porthole into vessels like the ones used to transport captive Ahanta to the Bahamas.

A rebreather diver explores iron cannons on a slaver wreck in the Western Approaches to the English Channel.
A rebreather diver explores iron cannons on a slaver wreck in the Western Approaches to the English Channel. © Enslaved, Associated Producers Ltd.

“The slaver, perhaps Captain Theodore Tyler’s Providence or James Butler’s Lindsey, was returning home after completing the triangular trade between England, Ghana and the Americas,” says Enslaved co-author Simcha Jacobovici. “Its human cargo had been delivered to the Caribbean, and in its hold were elephants’ tusks and probably sugar, long scattered, and maybe gold. Half a day from the safety of home in London, a storm engulfed the ship. At a depth of 360 feet, it may be the oldest slaver known.”

Among the artifacts found in the wreck are eight copper manilla bracelets—precious fragments of the currency of the slave trade. In 1517, an enslaved laborer cost 57 manillas; by 1681, the price had risen to 200. Between 1673 and 1700, the Royal African Company bartered a colossal 46 tons of manillas in the Gold Coast.

Kinga Phillipps, an explorer who dived the wreck with Diving With a Purpose, says, “Diving on slavers is unlike any other wreck experience. Each one of these manillas was traded for a human life, who once laughed and dreamed. These lumps of copper literally shackled a continent.”

Until now, the copper for England’s early manillas was believed to have been imported from Sweden and Flanders. But Tobias Skowronek, an archaeometallurgist at the Technische Hochschule Georg Agricola in Germany, found otherwise when analyzing 100 samples from seven wrecks dated to between 1524 and 1843.

Copper manilla bracelets used as trading currency, recovered from a slaver wreck in the Western Approaches to the English Channel
Copper manilla bracelets used as trading currency, recovered from a slaver wreck in the Western Approaches to the English Channel Courtesy of Seascape Artifact Exhibitions Inc.

“The metal from the Narrow Seas’ manillas turns out to be made from leaded brass. Its copper was mined not abroad but in Cornwall, southwest England, unusually with high amounts of antimony, arsenic and nickel mixed in,” Skowronek says. “This ship’s merchants were bartering with very poor quality impure ‘copper’ manillas. This kind of metal was much cheaper than the standard refined copper. In other words, the Royal African Company was trying to fob off Africans with the shoddiest wares they could: buying low, selling high.”

Trading manillas for people and packing them in hulls, “press’d together like Herrings in a Barrel,” as the Capuchin priest Dionigi de Carli put it while traveling in Ghana in 1667, is how the Ahanta captives ended up in the Bahamas.

Preserving John Canoe’s legacy

Thanks to Davis and Pateman, Canoe is no longer a faceless Gold Coast warrior whose myth was greater than the man. In June, Otumfuo Badu Bonso XV, king of the Ahanta, formally recognized the pair’s efforts to link Junkanoo with the Gold Coast. He anointed Davis Nana Asafohene Jan Kwaw II, King of the Warriors John Canoe II, to resurrect and carry on the legacy of Jan Kwaw I, and made Pateman a warrior of Junkanoo. The titles are not just ceremonial. They come with a burden of responsibility. Most pressing is settling a great Ahanta injustice.

After the Netherlands abolished the slave trade in 1814, the Dutch turned their attention to recruiting locals for military service in the East Indies. In 1838, the Ahanta rebelled, attacking Elmina Castle—the Dutch recruitment center where Canoe won a great victory the century prior—and killing its commander and top officials. The ensuing conflict became known as the Dutch-Ahanta War.

The coronation of Christopher Davis, appointed Nana Asafohene Jan Kwaw II, King of the Warriors John Canoe II, in Ahanta land, Ghana
The coronation of Christopher Davis, appointed Nana Asafohene Jan Kwaw II, King of the Warriors John Canoe II, in Ahanta land, Ghana Frank Quayson

At the height of this clash, the Dutch executed Badu Bonsu II, an Ahanta king known as the Great Whale. They shipped his head to the Netherlands, where scholars set out to study how a Black Ahanta with limited firepower could compete against the mighty Dutch. Then Badu Bonsu’s remains went missing, only reemerging 170 years later, in 2002, when a writer found his head preserved in a jar of formaldehyde in a Dutch lab. The Netherlands repatriated the Great Whale to Ghana in 2009. Now, plans are being finalized to lay the king to rest in ancestral land.

“The Ahanta believe the people of the African Diaspora can never rest, or that the potential of the Ahanta can be fulfilled, until the Great Whale returns home,” says Davis. As Nana Asafohene Jan Kwaw II, he will join a royal delegation on a 300-mile walk from Accra, where the head is stored, to Buswa, the Ahanta’s traditional capital. “We will stop at every village so people can pay their respects and end at the secret ancestral burial place,” Davis adds. The return of the Great Whale is on track to be completed in 2023.

“The transatlantic slave trade and horrors of slavery never broke the fighting memory of Jan Kwaw, the Great Whale and Junkanoo, and they never will,” says Angelique McKay, founder of the Junkanoo Commandos, a group dedicated to bringing the celebration to the world. She is also the Queen Mother Asafokyereba of Pokesu by command of Otumfuo Badu Bonso XV.

McKay adds:

In Ahanta land, we saw the antiquity of Junkanoo in the Kundum festival. … Only here do you see the same cow bells, triangular and tapered at the base, played exactly the same way as at Junkanoo. They ring these bells to summon the right energy from the ancestors. In Junkanoo, we always wondered why we have to ring bells for two hours straight. It’s exhausting, yet we have the energy and wherewithal to keep going. Discussing it with the spiritual guardians of the Ahanta, we realized that Bahamians did this in the 18th and 19th centuries to try to get our ancestors to free us from enslavement.

As Davis concludes, “In the Bahamas, Junkanoo is in the people’s blood. We are linked to some of the most formidable warriors in West African history. We feel we have to have Junkanoo or we’ll go crazy. Now we know why.”

Concrete busts of enslaved Africans by Ghanaian sculptor Kwame Akoto-Bamfo
Concrete busts of enslaved Africans by Ghanaian sculptor Kwame Akoto-Bamfo © Enslaved, Associated Producers Ltd.