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Resisting slavery

He ran away from bondage in Jamaica and became the leader of what the newspapers described as “a very desperate gang of Negro Slaves”. He had a mutilated hand. He was accused of robbery and several murders. Between 1780 and 1781, he evaded all attempts at capture. A royal proclamation was issued, offering a reward of £100 for his arrest (to which was later added £200 for his head), the promise of emancipation for any slave who should take or kill him, and a further £5 for the apprehension of each of his followers.

Have you already guessed the identity of this fugitive? Once known by the name of “Bristol”, he gained notoriety as “Three-Fingered Jack”; the slave (anti)hero whose actions so fascinated the eighteenth-century imagination that his story was variously told and retold in popular treatises, novels, chapbooks, and plays.

On stage, Jack’s exploits first appeared in the form of a pantomime written by John Fawcett, which premiered at the Haymarket in 1800, and was later adapted by William Murray into a melodrama headlining the so-called “African Roscius”, Ira Aldridge, in c.1827. The plays shared the same title of Obi; or, Three-Fingered Jack, and enjoyed transatlantic sell-out success, even though the shift to melodrama (a mixed genre, blending music and action) demanded and enabled important changes to the original, including the introduction of a speaking part for Jack.

The popularity of theatregoing in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries helped ensure that “Three-Fingered Jack” became a household name. But if Obi capitalised upon Jack’s exploits, it was not confined to them alone. As the biographer and playwright James Boaden would later recall, “we became acquainted with the Obi woman, with Tuckey, and Jenkannoo [sic], Juashee [sic] and Quashee’s wife.” A few misspellings aside, Boaden’s remark is notable for the prominence he affords to Jonkanoo, the most minor part to appear in the pantomime’s published list of male dramatis personae.

Unique to the dramatization of Jack’s history and exotic enough to warrant the addition of an explicit gloss to his name, Jonkanoo was described by the pantomime’s Prospectus as “a grotesque personage, with a ludicrous false head, and head-dress, presiding as Master of Ceremonies at negro balls in Jamaica.” But was Jonkanoo distastefully, or terrifyingly, “grotesque”? Why, exactly, was he “ludicrous”? What kind of “false head and headdress” did he wear?

Jonkanoo makes his first appearance at the end of Act 1. Lauded in song as “merry Jonkanoo”, “One funny big man […] master of all”, he leads the revelries on the eve of Quashee and Sam’s expedition against Jack. Jonkanoo must have cut a figure that was larger than life. Yet he secured no more than a passing mention from one of the play’s many early reviewers.

The popularity of theatregoing in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries helped ensure that “Three-Fingered Jack” became a household name. But if Obi capitalised upon Jack’s exploits, it was not confined to them alone.

More knowledgeable theatregoers may have recognised in Jonkanoo a character of ethnographic curiosity. His name is one of the many accepted spellings for the Jamaican slave festivities known as John Canoe, John Connú, Jonkonnu, Junkanoo, and Jankunu (among other variants) that spread across the West Indies and reached as far as the southern United States. Combining music, dance, and masquerade at Christmastime, Jonkonnu took on new forms as its historical and geographical reach widened. Early costumes were described as “primitive”, consisting of repurposed foliage and animal parts; but by the end of the eighteenth century, a distinctive Jonkonnu economy had emerged, with slaves wearing silk and lace that showed off their masters’ wealth. In The Bahamas, where Jonkonnu is still performed and has become a lucrative tourist attraction, preparations for the Boxing Day and New Year’s Day parades begin up to six months in advance. Corporate sponsorship helps finance the high costs involved, with groups competing for the cash prizes awarded for best music, costume, choreography and choice of theme.

The etymology of “Jonkonnu” has been hotly debated since the early nineteenth century. Noting its kinship to Scottish Mummery, some commentators suggested that the label referred to the use of recycled costumes described as junk enoo (junk enough) in Scots dialect. Others speculated that the use of masks had occasioned the French label gens l’inconnu (trans. unknown people), although this seems improbable, since Jonkonnu originated in the British, rather than French colonies. Perhaps the most romantic, if also attractive, theory is that Jonkonnu pays homage to Jon Konny, the Gold Coast tribal chief who, in 1717, took command of the Brandenburg African Company’s trading fort and, for seven years, successfully prevented the Dutch from taking possession.

Isaac Belisario’s lithograph of ‘Jaw-Bone, or House John-Canoe’ (1837) is the best-known visual record of a nineteenth-century Jonkonnu performer. The dancer wears a militarized costume and a disproportionately large – if not quite “ludicrous” – headdress representing a multi-storied plantation house. In a slave society such as Jamaica, a black dancer in a white mask carrying a model plantation house on his head conveyed a powerful message: at his mercy, the system could topple. The Prospectus suggests that “Mr. Hawtin” – the actor who first played Jonkanoo – also wore an elaborate head-dress, although we do not know what shape this took, while in Murray’s melodrama, Quashee notably instructs the other slaves to “run and tell merry Jonkanoo to get him big head on, and all dansa, dansa, like mad”.

But if topicality opened up the potential for new readings, it also threatened foreclosure; in order to reap commercial success, Fawcett needed to avoid partisanship and keep in line with dramatic censorship laws.

Verisimilitude was, however, unlikely to have been a genuine aim of either the pantomime or melodrama versions of Obi. When Obi premiered in in 1800, the violent slave revolution in Saint Domingue was still underway. Armed rebellion in the French colony lasted from 1791 to 1804, resulting in the abolition of slavery, an end to French rule, and the establishment of the modern state of Haiti as an independent black republic. The revolution in Saint Domingue would have radically inflected Obi’s theme of marronage (escaping slavery) and the subversive energies embodied by its investment in the Jonkonnu tradition. But if topicality opened up the potential for new readings, it also threatened foreclosure; in order to reap commercial success, Fawcett needed to avoid partisanship and keep in line with dramatic censorship laws.

Obi’s production and reception histories are limited by what the Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot describes as the silences of the archive. The play’s first reviewers have left no explicit commentary on the impressions made by Jonkanoo; the published pantomime text is only skeletal; while descriptions of the Jamaican Jonkonnu tradition are determined by what the white population saw, felt, and ventured to know. But if the effects and affect exerted by Jonkanoo on stage are thus difficult to confidently ascertain, his dynamic presence is importantly – and pressingly – still within our ability to scope.

Featured image credit: ‘Plate III, Negres au Travail’. CC BY 4.0 via Wellcome Collection.

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