John Canoe (Jonkonnu) Costume, Jamaica (1838)

The source is a picture of an Afro-Caribbean dress.
Isaac Mendes Belisario
Grade Level

This text is part of the Teaching Hard History Text Library and aligns with Key Concepts 5 and 6.

Jamaican costume

Captioned "Koo, Koo, or Actor Boy," this lithograph depicts an elaborately costumed and masked male dancer surrounded by on-lookers and musicians; he carries a whip and fan, the former used for clearing his path, the latter for cooling himself when his mask is lifted. Issac Mendez Belisario gives a detailed description of John-Canoe festivities and also speculates on the origin of the name. With respect to this illustration, he writes the "band consists of drums and fifes only, to which music the Actor stalks most majestically, oftentimes stopping to afford the by-standers a fair opportunity of gazing at him . . . . The foundation [of his headdress] is an old hat, affording the wearer the means of sustaining the superstructure, to which it is firmly attached, and composed of various colored beads, bugles, spangles, pieces of looking-glass, tinsel, etc. attached to a pasteboard form trimmed round the edges with silver lace, surmounted with feathers.

This text is in the public domain. Image and caption both retrieved from http://slaveryimages.org/details.php?categorynum= 12&categoryName=Music&theRecord=6&recordCount=55.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    What is this a depiction of? What sorts of colors stand out to you? What sorts of clothing are drawn?
    This is a depiction of a street performance in 19th-century Jamaica, with a performer set in the center wearing feathers, bright-colored clothes and other regalia. A great deal of blue, red and yellow decorates the actor’s brilliant clothing.
  2. Question
    Can you point out some of the materials depicted? Do you see cotton, beads, feathers?
    Feathers, beads and ribbons cloak the actor. Men in the background carry drums and wear plainer clothes, with fewer colors and beaded materials.
  3. Question
    What makes this photo distinctive and important, given both the garment and the ethnicity of the individual involved? What does the caption beneath, “Koo, Koo, or Actor Boy,” say about the reason he is dressed up? What does this dress, and “Actor Boy” tell you about Afro-Caribbean culture? What does it tell you about power and class in the Caribbean, given his role as a street performer?
    The photo shows a creole population with people of many skin tones, many of whom represent the island’s African population. The image is important because it captures a moment of culture and patrimony in the island’s slave-based economy, underscoring the important ways enslaved people passed on traditions and culture even amidst their captivity. The caption “Koo, Koo, or Actor Boy” suggests that street performance was a means of earning for the character and not just a cultural expression. This is fascinating because it adds dimension to the Jamaican slave society that historians may not otherwise consider.
Reveal Answers
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