Monday, January 6, 2014

Very Old Reference To John Canoe & Aunt Sally Stuffed Figures In The Caribbean

Edited by Azizi Powell

I recently came across an online copy of an April 11, 1886 New York Times article on 19th century West Indian culture that includes a reference to John Canoe and Aunt Sally stuffed figures. To date, I've not found any other information about John Canoe or Aunt Sally stuffed figures in the Caribbean or elsewhere. Note: I'm not referring to the United Kingdom pub game of "Aunt Sally"* and I'm very unsure if that pub game relates in any way to the customs that are referred to in the brief portion of that above mentioned article.


I'm posting the excerpt from that newspaper that I'm referring to as means of increasing awareness of it among individuals in the general public who may be interested in this subject.

I assume that individuals who study 19th century or earlier Caribbean history (and/or African American history) particularly as those histories relate to Jonkanoo already know about this article. And it's possible that those researchers have come across other references to stuffed figures of John Canoe, Aunt Sally, or other stuffed figures among people of African descent in those geographical areas or in any other part of the Americas. I'd love to learn more about this subject.

Here's that portion of that article that I'm referring to:
New York Times April 11, 1886

..."negroes are so constituted that they must have something tangible to worship and believe in-something they can see and feel....

They are wonderfully fond of stuffed figures. Nearly all their ceremonies have a figure worked in in some shape or the other. For instance, look at “John Canoes”. They rarely have a festival without a John Canoe, the stuffed figure of a man, that is treated with great respect. Sometimes they have two of them, which they consider father and son – John Canoe senior and John Canoe junior. If John is by any possibility left out Aunt Sally is substituted. She is the same as John, only, being a woman, she is not treated with the same respect. She is carried to the place of merry making, laid out on a board, like a corpse, amid cries of “Here comes Aunt Sally; poor Aunt Sally! she’s dead. They take" [end of online article]
I believe that the name "John Canoe" is a folk etymology form of some African word such as "Egungun", the Yoruba (Nigeria) word for "the collective spirits of the ancestral dead." I wonder if "Sally" is also a folk etymology form of some African word for a revered female masquerading spirit. I'm aware from my reading that "Aunt" was used as a title of respect for older women, including Black women, i.e. "Aunt Jemima". Also, I'm aware that in antebellum United States -and I presume in 19th century and earlier Caribbean- the title "Aunt" served as a substitute for "Mrs", a title that was reserved just for White women, (The title "Uncle as it related to Black people served as a substitution for "Mr" for the same reasons, i.e. "Uncle Remus" and "Uncle Ben").

Warning- I'm really guessing here, but I also just came across this February 2009 article "The Owu-Aru-Sun Festival Of The Kalabari Kingdom In Rivers State [Updated With More Pictures]"

I wpnder could "Sally" be a folk etymology form of "Sekiapu", although that article indicates that "Sekiapu" means "dancers" and those two words spelled or pronounced the same.

I won't speculate any further. I know that I know too little about this subject. However, I'm hoping that some people who do know about this subject will some information with me and others via this blog or otherwise.

Here's another very interesting online reference that I found about early Jonkanoo practices in the Caribbean: Dictionary of Jamaican English edited by Frederic Gomes Cassidy, Robert Brock Le Page, page

That page of that book also refers to "John Crayfish" who is a rival of John Canoe. Also, on page 4 of that book there's an entry for "Actor Boy" (also called "Koo Koo") who is one kind of John Canoe figure.

The important distinction I'm making between the 1886 New York Times article and this dictionary entry is that the former refers to stuffed figures while the latter refers to people acting out certain roles in their observations and/or celebrations.

There are several YouTube videos of the Owu Arusun Festival. Among those videos is this one:

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