Friday, January 29, 2016

More Information About What John Crow (Jancro) Means In Jamaica

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post provides information about the traditional and contemporary Jamaican meanings of "John Crow" (Jancro).

This is a continuation of a pancocojams post about John Crow that I originally published in 2012. That post is part of a three part series on John Crow. The second post in that series showcases two Jamaican Mento songs that mention John Crow and the third post in that series showcases a Reggae song about John Crow. Click "What John Crow Means In Jamaica" for the first post in that 2012 series. That post provides links to the other two posts in that series.

Also, click for a 2014 pancocojams post on the Ska song "John Crow Skank".

And click for the pancocojams post that showcases a recording of the traditional Jamaican Mento "John Crow Say Him Naah Wuk Pan Sunday" (John Crow Says He Doesn't Work On Sunday"). "

The content of this post is presented for historical & folkloric purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

This post isn't meant to provide complete information about the character/symbol John Crow (also known as Jancro).

I'm by no means an expert on Jamaican culture. I'm just learning about the John Crow character/symbol in Jamaica.

Additions and corrections are very welcome.

From "The John Crow - Graceful or Disgraceful Bird"
"John Crow, the common Jamaican vulture, was once widely known as a carrion crow or turkey vulture. In towns and throughout the countryside, these birds can be seen tearing at carcasses in the streets. Sometimes they circle in the sky or simply perch in trees or on housetops, often with outspread wings...

The John Crow is a bird of great symbolic importance. In the Jamaican setting it is associated with ugliness, blackness, evil and disgrace. In abusive arguments people will call each other names such as "dirty John Crow, black John Crow or heng man John Crow". The John Crow is also an omen of death. It is believed that if the John Crow perches on a housetop, someone inside will die. It is also believed that if a John Crow appears in an individual's dream, it signifies death or some other form of destruction in the person's family."...

Source: Jamaica: The Fairest Isle by Phillip Sherlock and Barbara Preston (1992) Plants, Spirits and the Meaning of John in Jamaica: Article Written in Jamaica Journal by John Rashford (May 1984)"

"John Crow" is a folk symbol. Folk symbols evolve. What a folk symbol means now may not have been what –or only what- it previously meant and may not be what the folk symbol will mean in the future. The connections of John Crow with the spirit world and jumbie (as discussed in those documents whose titles are given above) may explain the traditional association of John Crow with death and with the color black. However, death wasn't always considered something negative in traditional West African societies, and the color "black" wasn't always and/or wasn't only associated with death. For those reasons, it's possible that the very negative image of John Crow is an old development in Jamaican culture (which is heavily influenced by West African cultures). But John Crow may have originally or early on had a deeper meaning which wasn't negative.
It's important to note that the Jamaican "John Crow" (Janco) doesn't have the same meanings in Jamaica that the similarly named "jim crow" does in the United States.

Click "What John Crow Means In Jamaica" for more discussion about the traditional depictions of and attitudes toward John Crow (Jancro), and for information about the meaning of "jim crow" in the United States.

UPDATE: UPDATE March 15, 2016
With regard to my comment "John Crow may have originally or early on had a deeper meaning which wasn't negative", here's information about the meaning of the "vulture" in Ashanti (Asanti, Asante) culture in Ghana, West Africa:
From Symbolizing the Past: Reading Sankofa, Daughters of the Dust, & Eve's Bayou by Sandra M. Grayson (University Press of America, 2000), Page 36
"Among the Akan, the scarab and the vulture symbolize self-begetting, self-creation, and self-birth. An Akan maxim says of Odomankoma [the infinite, the interminable, absolute being], ‘The animal that symbolizes Odomankoma who created the world is the vulture.’ “Odomankoma a oboadee ne kyeneboa ne opete. (Meyerowitz . The Divine Kingship in Ghana and Ancient Egypt. See also Danquan, The Akan Doctrine of God"
Notes from that book:
6. "After Nunu was killed later in the film [Haile Geima’s Sankofa] no one could find her body. Shola says that the people believed that Nunu did not die; rather that a buzzard swopped down and took her back to Africa.
7. Opete is the Akan word for vulture"
Here's information about Nunu in the film Sankofa:
"Nunu African-born field hand who went about her day-to-day life with Africa still living in her heart and was characterized as a “strong motherly slave with a rebel mindset”
Also, read That post includes an excerpt of an April 11, 1886 New York Times article that includes a reference to West Indian ceremonies that include John Canoe and Aunt Sally stuffed figures which were treated with a great deal of respect.

End of March 15, 2016 Update
Martha Warren Beckwith's now classic 1924 collection of Jamaican folklore entitled Jamaica Anansi Stories contains at least two folktales that include John Crow. Those folktales will be featured in an upcoming pancocojams post.

As background, quoting from, "The trickster Anansi, originally a West African spider-god...Anansi is the spirit of rebellion; he is able to overturn the social order; he can marry the Kings' daughter, create wealth out of thin air; baffle the Devil and cheat Death. Even if Anansi loses in one story, you know that he will overcome in the next. For an oppressed people Anansi conveyed a simple message from one generation to the next:--that freedom and dignity are worth fighting for, at any odds."
Click for a pancocojams post that featured four Anancy stories that include John Crow.

I find interesting that John Crow isn't associated with death in any of these stories. Instead, John Crow appears to be an anthropomorphic character like Anancy and all the other birds and animals in those folktales. It's also interesting that the name "John Crow" isn't given in Patois as "Jancro" or any other spelling. I wonder when this spelling of John Crow's name began and when John Crow became such a villainous or insulting character in Jamaican culture.

The Jamaican Mento songs that I've showcased on pancocojams to date-"John Crow Say Him Naah Wuk Pan Sunday", "Long Time Gal" which mentions "peel head John, and "One Solja Man" - may have been lifted from Jamaican stories about Anancy.

UPDATE: January 30, 2016
The song "John Crow Say I'm Wan' Decent Woman" is a version of the John Crow Say Him Naah Wuk Pan Sunday" family of songs. An example of that song is included in the 1981 Folkways Record album entitled "John Crow Say..: Jamaican Music of Faith, Work and Play".
The song begins with the verse
John Crow say "I wan' decent woman
Can't work can't work can't work on Sunday.
John Crow say "I wan' decent woman
Can't work can't work can't work on Sunday."

Instead of being a despised symbol, in this Mento song John Crow is shown upholding the rules of society - that Sunday should be honored as God's day and no work should be done on Sunday.

Here are a few quotes and editorial comments about the term "Jancro"
"Jancro" and "Kiangkro" are Jamaican Patois (Patwah) way of spelling "John Crow". I don't know how old (or how new) those spellings are.

From gives this definition for "Jancro":
"Jancro (Noun)
English Translation: John Crow

Someone that is the lowest form of human life. Usually doesn’t have any redeeming qualities . To be called a “jancro” is one the most demeaning insults and would signify that this person is worthless as a life form and doesn’t serve much purpose on the planet.

Example Sentences
(patois) Him a jancro!
(english) He’s a scum!"

"Ted Lee Eubanks' Fermata
John Crow, or "Kiangkro." This is the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), and the bird figures into many Jamaican sayings. For example, "every John Crow tink him pickney white."
Every [person called a] John Crow thinks his child is white [better than other (Black) children].

From "Talk Jamaican - John Crow (Jangcro) -Peter Grant
This unfortunately visually poor quality video log was uploaded to YouTube on Jan 22, 2011. The summary to that vlog indicates that "Peter from shares how the term jangcro which is used to describe a vulture is also used to address people."
Peter shares that "John Crow" is an insulting reference used by Jamaicans for males and females, including children.
Insulting someone by calling him or her "Jancro" derives from the negative depictions of and negative attitudes about the black John Crow buzzard vulture. Given those "traditional" Jamaican depictions, I find it interesting that a contemporary description of Jancro is of an albino bird.
Glossary of Jamaican Reggae-Rasta words, expressions, and slang.
“Jancro- John Crow, which is the name for the hated albino buzzard/vulture; also an expression of hate.”
John Crow is hated and feared because it is a symbol of death and people hate death. Death is commonly associated with the color black. But it appears that Rastas have turned that traditional symbolism upside down by depicting the buzzard as albino. Does the albino buzzard represents White institutional power and/or White people? If that is the case, then perhaps Rastas are saying that instead of Black people hating themselves, they should hate what (or who?) hates them (oppresses them).

Although I know very little about Rastas-I don't believe that hating White people is a tenet of Rasta culture. That hate would be incongruent with the "One Love" sentiment that has become a worldwide concept thanks to the Rasta Bob Marley. Yet, all of Bob Marley's Reggae songs aren't "kumbaya". Some of them are quite revolutionary.

I'd love to know whether the depiction of John Crow (Jancro) as an albino bird is relatively recent.

Jancro- John Crow, which is the name for the hated albino buzzard/vulture; also an expression of hate.
He's a jancro
That yard full of jancro's

by KC!! June 02, 2006

Here's a comment that I wrote for the pancocojams post on the Mento song "John Crow Say Him Naah Wuk Pan Sunday" whose link is given above:
"Although John Crow is almost always a despised character, in Beenie Man's [Reggae Song] "John Crow" ( when the (black?) motorcycle is referred to as "John Crown" it's a compliment. My guess is that like John Crow (the vulture), that motorcycle is seen as "intimidating" and "fierce" in the vernacular sense of those words."
Having said that, my sense is that most contemporary Jamaicans don't consider John Crow to be a complimentary figure or symbol.

UPDATE: January 30, 2016
This news article serves as an example of how "John Crow" is still considered negatively in Jamaica:
"Opposition Leader Andrew Holness wants National Security Minister Peter Bunting to go beyond the apology he made for likening members of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) to john crows, saying the minister should pledge not to make such utterances in future.

"While we received in Parliament the statement from the minister of national security, which acknowledges the error of his statement, we must have a commitment that such statements will never be made again," Holness declared in the House of Representatives yesterday.

Bunting, who in the past has called for divine intervention in tackling the serious crime problem locally, yesterday backpedalled on his 'john crow' comment, which was made at a constituency conference in Eastern St Andrew last Sunday."...

UPDATE: January 31, 2016
Here's a link to Jimmy Cliff's 1990 Reggae song entitled "John Crow" which is part of the sound track for the Stephen Segal movie Marked For Death
Here's part of the lyrics to that song:
...Jancro a go nyam your supper soon, boy
Jancro a go lead the children astray
Jancro a go meet the retribution
Justice has finally find it's way
Still, oh yes, you know that your time has come
You don't do right you gonna dead tonight
So now a go take you down the road to doom
The jancro a go nyam all your supper soon
Jancro a go nyam your supper soon, boy
Jancro a go lead the children astray
Jancro a go meet the retribution
Justice has finally find a way
Are you worried, says the wolf in sheep's clothing
Try to lead the children astray
But don't we know (?) a who fe frighten
Take my hands I will show you the way

"nyam" - jamaican Patois word from Wolof (West African language) meaning "eat". The name of the vegetable "yam" also comes from this Wolof word.

This concludes this post.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Additions and corrections to this post are very welcome.


  1. There's a novel by Thomas Hood, published in 1835, which refers to the Jamaican vulture as 'John Crow'. It's ''Tylney Hall'. It features two characters who are people of colour, and one, Marguerite, who has grown up in the West Indies, twice refers to vultures as 'John crows'. She also mentions 'John Canoe', when talking about a planned party:
    "They have prepared a rare show for a birth-day, like a Jamaica revel for a New Year; but where is the chief puppet?" she added, with a kind of chuckle, "where is their John Canoe?"

    I've wondered who Hood could have met to tell him about Jamaican customs.

    1. Hello, slam2011.

      Thanks for sharing that information.

      You mentioned that John crows in that book were vultures. Were they symbols of death in that book and feared, or otherwise negatively portrayed?

      I wonder why the Jamaican Anancy folktales that I've read which were collected in 1924 and later don't seem to portray John Crow negatively.

    2. Which came first, the American (United States) term "jim crow" or the Jamaican term "John Crow".

      According to the etymology section in the Wikipedia page about Jim Crow laws "The phrase "Jim Crow Law" can be found as early as 1892 in the title of a New York Times article about voting laws in the South.[1][2] The origin of the phrase "Jim Crow" has often been attributed to "Jump Jim Crow", a song-and-dance caricature of blacks performed by white actor Thomas D. Rice in blackface, which first surfaced in 1832 and was used to satirize Andrew Jackson's populist policies. As a result of Rice's fame, "Jim Crow" by 1838 had become a pejorative expression meaning "Negro". When southern legislatures passed laws of racial segregation directed against blacks at the end of the 19th century, these became known as Jim Crow laws.[1"]

      In her comment above slam2011 shared that "There's a novel by Thomas Hood, published in 1835, which refers to the Jamaican vulture as 'John Crow'. It's ''Tylney Hall'. It features two characters who are people of colour, and one, Marguerite, who has grown up in the West Indies, twice refers to vultures as 'John crows'."
      Are there Jamaican references for "John Crow" earlier than 1832?

    3. It occurs to me that there are no other characters in Anancy stories except Anancy, Tacomah, and John Crow who have a given name. I wonder if that is significant or not.

      I just found this very informative pdf file about Anancy: "Creolizing Anancy, Signifying Processes in New World Spider Stories" by Pacal De Souza.

      Here are two longish excerpts from that paper:
      "Anansi Is King Of Stories [pp 347-348]
      …”Anansi’s role as trickster is paradoxically, yet intimately, linked with his role as a creator figure. As Robert Pelton stresses, the spider is “a symbol of the luminal state itself and of its permanent accessibility as a source of recreative power.” His liminality as well as such characteristics as his ability to spin a web out of his own substance and his tendency to live in holes all help explain why several people credit him divine powers of creation. The Kakas in Cameroon believe that his underground existence allows him access to ancestors and spirits, hence his use in divination. The Ashanti believe that their people were created by a large spider, while among the Bambaras, the spider represents the highest level of initiation. In the New World, the Jamaican storyteller Louise Bennett aptly summarizes the creative role ascribed to Anancy “Everything that happens in the world was started by Anancy”.…
      His divine powers of creation as well as his ability to move freely from the divine to the secular worlds lead Anancy to pursue enduring fame…

      In several tales, however, Anancy fails to reach his goals. His failure reminds his listeners that he does not enjoy divine powers and immunity but reminds creature of human fraility.”...

      "What’s In A Name[pp.357-358]
      When researching Anancy, one is confronted by the issue of naming the spider trickster. The existence of an array of names explains why I have chosen to respect the titles given by researchers for the folklores mentioned but opted, for simplicity’s sake to refer to him under the most commonly accepted name of Anancy. His various names in African tales can be accounted for by the different languages spoken in the various countries where he appears. His aliases range from Ture among the Zande, Djakole among the Bete, Kendebbe among the Agni-Baoule, Kakou Ananze among the Agni, Kweku Ananse among Akan, to Anansi, Ananse, or Ananze among the Ashanti. The multitude of Ashanti spider stories as well as the extensive slave trade from Ghana may explain why the names for the spider in African American folktales bear a striking resemblance to the names recorded among the Ashanti.

      Even though English is spoken in most of the New-World countries where Anancy is found, names still vary greatly. Anancy can be found in Nova Scotia as Nanacy, Nancy, Brer Nancy, or Brother Nancy, in the Carolinas as Ann Nancy or Miss Nancy; in Jamaica as Hanansi, Anansi; or Nansi, in Curacao as Nanzi; in St Martin as Ahnancy; in the Bahamas as Banansi, Nansi, Boy Nasty, or Gulumbanansi, in one Uncle Remus tale as Aunt Nancy, a creature who is half woman and half spider. In one and the same story, Anancy may also be called Anansi, Nansi Buh Nansi, and Compe Anansi. He then draws from the African and the English or the French language-Anancy, Brother Nancy, Compe Anansi- to adapt to the language spoken by storyteller and listeners. The same argument may be made regarding his accomplice, who is variously portrayed as his companion, his wife or his son and can [be] such variant names as Tacoma, Tacomah, Tukoma, Tukuma, Tookerman, Tookerman [sic]*. Terrycooma…Whereas a single name would have been an indication of a set or consensual identity, the multiplicity of names points to Anancy’s (and Tacoma)’s ability to assume any identity that suits him”.

    4. I don't think that the character named "Tacoma", "Tukuma" etc. in Anancy stories has the same etymology as the name "Tacoma" (as in Tacoma, Washington (USA).

      But what African language does the Anansi "Tacoma" come from?

    5. Trying to suss out the origin and meaning of the name "Tacoma" I happened upon an example of an Anansi story in page 37 of the Google book excerpt of the book Ghana by Rachel Naylor.

      That story (about how wisdom came into the world) includes these words "There lived Kwaku Ananse, his wife, Aso Yaa, and his son NtiKumah."...
      Prior to coming across this excerpt, I wondered if "Tacoma" (and its variants) was a form of the Ghanaian number name "Nkrumah" (the ninth born). This excerpt reinforces my guess that "Tacoma" and its variants are folk processed forms of the name "Nkrumah" (NtiKumah). But I'd still would very much like to have some input about this from people who know Twi.

      I STILL don't know what "Aso" means. In searching for information about the name "Tacoma"

      A pancocojams post on the hit song "Aso" by Ghanaian Highlife singer Kwabena Kwabena confirms that this is a female name. Some comments in that video's YouTube discussion thread also confirm that. But what does "Aso" mean?

      I came across this very comprehensive paper about Ghanaian personal names in my effort to find the meaning of the name "Tacoma" and "Aso": "The Sociolinguistics of Akan Personal Names" by Kofi Agyekum, University of Ghana, Legon.

      I haven't read the entire paper (yet), but I didn't find the name "Aso" in the pages that I read.
      "Yaa" is female born on Thursday.

      Btw: In my January 31, 2016 at 3:22 PM comment, I "misspoke" when I wrote that Anancy (Anansi) was an example of a character in those stories that has a personal name. "Anansi" means spider in Twi Akan. I should have written "Kwaku Ananse" is an example of a character in those stories that has a person name.

      Here's a brief quote from Kofi Agyekum's "The Sociolinguistics of Akan Personal Names" paper:
      "People born on certain days are supposed to exhibit the characteristics or attributes and philosophy associated with those days. For example, a Monday-born child is supposed to be peaceful and calm, while a Friday-born is a wanderer and an adventurer, and a Saturday-born is creative. (See Obeng: 2001.16)" [p. 215]
      "Kwaku" means "male born on Wednesday". The characteristic for males and females born on Wednesday is "evil". That seems to me to be a fitting name for the trickster Anansi.

  2. Hi Azizi, I looked up in OED for the first citation they have for 'John Crow' and it's 1826, so pre-dates Rice and his act. It's in a travel book written by an Englishman who had lived in Jamaica: C. R. Williams, 'Tour through Jamaica', p. 82 :
    "The dead carcass of a mule, on which a score of john-crows were holding an inquest."
    (The author used 'Cynric R. Williams' as his pen-name but actually seems to have been a plantation owner called Charles White Williams. He also wrote a novel called 'Hamel the Obeah Man'.)

    The first citation OED has for Anancy comes from 1705. A Dutch writer called Willem Bosman wrote a book about his experiences in Africa, translated into English as 'A new and accurate description of the coast of Guinea'. In it he wrote (according to the English translation) that in Africa he found a great spider in his bedroom one night, with legs as thick as a man's finger :"... The Negroes call this spider Ananse, and believe that the first Men were made by that Creature."

    1. Wow, slam2011.

      That's very interesting.

      I appreciate you sharing your research!

  3. I forgot to answer your question about whether the John-crow vultures mentioned in ''Tylney Hall' were negatively portrayed. I would say yes, as they're referred to in negative passages. In one Marguerite predicts someone's death - "His flesh shall feed the John Crows!" - and in the other she speaks cynically of someone who has just denied any complicity in a man's death, but looks to benefit from it. She compares him to a John Crow about to feast on a hanged man - the John Crow didn't hang the man, but he will still profit by the death.