Oh Come All Ye John Bull
Dr. Lester CN Simon-Hazlewood
This Christmas you should replace your Christmas tree with a John Bull? Not a real John Bull. Start with a mannequin. Add a crocus bag or two. Cover it with fig leaves and cane trash. Pad it up with grass and straw. His eyes must be bulging, blood red and fierce, piercing through his masked, daubed face. Angle his head so it is poised with assurance from the cattle horn, tied to the “catacoo,” falling off with the jigging and jagging and digging, and dipping to collect the money.
The Bull masquerade used to be rampant in the Caribbean. Red Bull in St. Kitts-Nevis. Jam Bull in the Virgin Islands. Jonkonnu in Jamaica. Junkanoo in Bahamas. John Bull in Antigua. Writing in the journal, Folklore, in 2009, Robert W. Nicholls explores the Bull masquerade in the Caribbean and claims the Bull masquerade entertainment reached its apogee in Antigua.
Falling from apogee to nought might have to do with a John Bull meeting his match, literally, when he was burnt to death in 1981. The immortality of John Bull was hinted when it was assumed that the deceased John Bull was the great Arthur Sixteen, only for Arthur Sixteen to appear at the funeral undead and unburnt.
The death of John Bull in the year of our independence might also signify the removal of one of England’s national symbols, John Bull. Nicholls writes about making up John Bull to appear fearsome but turning the tables on him by whipping him in return for the whipping of slaves. The author also underscores the psychological aspect and insight associated with this inherent inversion in which the negative experience of oppression and resentment against the colonizers is re-presented in a perceptible but camouflaged form.
The detailed study of slavery is important for many and varied reasons, including how we re-presented oppression in a perceptible but camouflaged form. This is vital because oppression seemingly never ends, regardless of the source. Hence the modern day need for new re-presentations in new perceptible and new camouflaged forms.
The creative arts will save us whether it is good, regular public theatre, televised soap opera, or double entendre calypsos, etc. There is always need for a John Bull. Our culture is awash with healing arts. Healing includes being thrown into comic relief on seeing some female members of our tribe abandon (must be wittingly) their beautiful hair for a discordant wig that neither complements nor compliments them. Instead, the results represent the natural outcome of a raucous fight between an old, wet, stringy mop and a traumatised, sodden floor cloth. Life is more bearable when it is reflected in a story, a song, a photograph, a painting, or even when heard (sometimes) on the radio.
But we must also learn that being a performer is not just about re-presenting and entertaining. We ignore the financial origins of slavery and we disregard reparative justice as much as we discount the financial and marketing aspects of our culture, to our detriment. The John Bull must be paid. The John Bull must pay.
Notwithstanding all the apparent fun and excitement at Christmastime, Nicholls makes the crucial point that the John Bull, like the Mocko Jumbie, functioned as a vehicle of social control. The Mocko Jumbie used his intimidating appearance to modify behaviour, particularly among ill-disciplined children. So too, was the John Bull used as a cautionary threat to reprimand children who had been naughty, especially a bed-wetter child. In return for the dancing and the disciplining of children, the John Bull was offered money, drink and food, with varying degrees of liberty to help himself to food and money from vendors.
These days, children are raised differently. We no longer use Mocko Jumbie and John Bull to control children. Some regard such measures of control as abusive. What is remarkable about the social control the John Bull purportedly engendered is that the John Bull himself was under the control of the clap-whip man. This probably suggests that even if the method or the vehicle of social control changes, the new method and new vehicle also should be under the control or scrutiny of a new clap-whip. These days we have new John Bulls chasing and abusing children without clap-whip justice.
The passing of John Bull into mythical status must be re-presented by retelling and reshowing because the absence of myths is said to leave a vacuum for real monsters to plague us without control. In place of a Christmas tree, a bedecked John Bull with his attendant, controlling, clap-whip man might just be the perennial, Caribbean symbol of conscience we need.