John Canoe, or Jankunu (also spelled "Junkanoo" and "Jangkunu") is a festival derived from Akan slaves once common in coastal North Carolina and still practised in the Caribbean in islands that are or were part of the British West Indies, particularly Jamaica and The Bahamas. It is of Akan origin and is dedicated to an Akan warrior called John Kenu from Axim, Ghana. Similar festivals also take place on the coastal region of Ghana, where the advent originally took place, such as the "Fancy Dress Festival" of the Fante people.
January Conny (also named John Kenu, Johann Kuny, John Conrad, Johann Cuny, Jean Cunny, January Konny or John Conni by German, Dutch, British or French-language designation) was a powerful Gold Coast merchant. Conny had a private army and was an ally of Brandenburg-Prussia at the time of the Brandenburger Gold Coast colony (1683–1720) in Axim on the coast of present-day Ghana in West Africa. Between 25 December 1708 to 1724 he took over control of the abandoned Brandenburger fortress and defended it against several massive conquest attempts of the Dutch. The history of the defence of the fortress was distorted for propaganda purposes in the 19th century by followers of a German colonial commitment and used for their own purposes. The tale of January Conny has today spread to different parts of the Caribbean and Ghana's Fancy Dress Festival, which was probably based on the story of January Conny.
The names listed above are European corruptions of a still unknown African name, though it can be safely assumed that "Kenu" was a part of it, as this is a typical Akan name. Jon Conny, chief of the Ahanta ethnic group, often referred to as "the King of Prinze Terre", as the Prussian’s African broker, was a most effective ally, succeeding in directing such trade to the fort that revenues dwindled at the Dutch forts at Axim, Butre and Sekondi. More than 95 ships are recorded as having traded with Fort Fredericksburg between 1711 and 1713. In 1717, with their departure from the Gold Coast, Brandenburg sold its possessions to the Dutch, without John Conny's knowledge.
Despite this internal conflict he remained a middleman of the Brandenburgers and, with their support, led a two-year war against neighbouring Dutch and British bases. In the course of this war, he attacked the neighbouring British fortress Fort Metal Cross at Dixcove, which was seriously damaged. In the course of these events he was able not only to provide support for his private army (warriors of the Ashanti(Asante) and Wassa), but also was able to provide support to his local population of Ahanta people and the local brokers from Dixcove and the Dutch base Butre recourse. Supposedly he commanded 15,000 men and struck the British in battle in 1712. The Dutch and British appealed unsuccessfully to the Brandenburgers to withdraw their support for January Conny because they feared for the authority of the Europeans: "If Negroes are generals at their pleasure it is risky...".
January Conny had a large number of muskets and cannons, with which he repelled several attacks by the Dutch. Supposedly he commanded at that time an army of 20,000 men. In 1724, after seven years of control of the fortress, he gave up and withdrew from the Brandenburger Gold Coast, defeated by the British, who used Fante troops or a Fante Asafo. After the capture of Prince's Town, John Kenu vanished into obscurity possibly escaped to Kumasi the capital of his Asante allies.
In addition, Jan Conny was one of the three or four large African traders of the 18th century in Ghana. Jan Conny, John Kabes and Thomas Ewusi and an unknown man in command of large private armies and wrapped as a national wholesaler a significant part of trade (and hence also of the slave trade) with the Europeans on the Gold Coast.
According to Edward Long, an 18th-century Jamaican slave owner/historian, the John Canoe festival was created in Jamaica and the Caribbean by enslaved Akans who backed the man known as John Canoe. John Canoe, from Axim, Ghana, was an Akan from the Ahanta. He was a soldier for the Germans, until one day he turned his back on them for his Ahanta people and sided with Nzima and Ashanti troops, in order to take the area from the Germans and other Europeans. The news of his victory reached Jamaica and he has been celebrated ever since that Christmas of 1708 when he first defeated Prussic forces for Axim. Twenty years later his stronghold was broken by neighbouring Fante forces aided by the military might of the British and Ahanta, Nzima and Ashanti captives were taken to Jamaica as prisoners of war. The festival itself included motifs from battles typical of Akan fashion. The Ashanti swordsman became the "horned headed man"; the Ashanti commander became "Pitchy patchy" who also wears a battledress with what would resemble charms, referred to as a "Batakari".
Historian Stephen Nissenbaum described the festival as it was performed in 19th-century North Carolina:
Essentially, it involved a band of black men—generally young—who dressed themselves in ornate and often bizarre costumes. Each band was led by a man who was variously dressed in animal horns, elaborate rags, female disguise, whiteface (and wearing a gentleman's wig!), or simply his "Sunday-go-to-meeting-suit." Accompanied by music, the band marched along the roads from plantation to plantation, town to town, accosting whites along the way and sometimes even entering their houses. In the process the men performed elaborate and (to white observers) grotesque dances that were probably of African origin. And in return for this performance they always demanded money (the leader generally carried "a small bowl or tin cup" for this purpose), though whiskey was an acceptable substitute.