The Badjohn – A Slice of T&T History


Subject: The Badjohn – A Slice of T&T History

How “BADJOHN” became a word…

Of the countless jailbirds to tread this island, none has cast a longer shadow than John Archer, who set the local, probably the regional, and – who knows? – maybe even a world record with 119 criminal convictions, and whose very name would come to mean a ruffian and a bully.
’John Archer, a notorious Police Court character,’ reported the Mirror in 1902, ’better known as ’Bad John’.’ It was from him we got the term badjohn, which lexicographer Lise Winer defines as ’a kind of ruffian; a man willing to use violence and who likes being known as a dangerous person.’           
So the above Mirror report continued:
’’Bad John,’ and a woman named Augusta Wood, were charged by Detective John Dash with fighting in London Street, Corbeaux Town, on Wednesday morning
’When the woman was arrested a sharp table knife was found in her pocket, and – at this stage the woman was heard to hiss in an under-tone, ’I should have killed him’
’Before the stalwart constable at his side was able to divine his meaning the incorrigible ’Bad John’ hurled himself on the object of his wrath, and with a terrific and lightning-like right-hander on the jaw, sent her reeling against the dock he encircled the woman’s neck with his vice-like fingers, and bit her on her forehead
’In an instant five burly constables and a corporal were upon the fierce combatants trying to separate them. They soon succeeded and ’Bad John’ was observed to pull a tuft of the woman’s hair from between his teeth.’ He was dangerous all right, to others as well as to himself. Although it seems he had greater success against women, John was an equal-opportunities fighter, tackling women and men indiscriminately, as willing to give a good thrashing as to receive one.
James Inniss, for instance, fought John over a plank of wood on which John intended to sleep. Inniss ’fell upon John with his fist and foot and beat him mercilessly… Some time later he again met John on the reclaimed lands and broke a piece of an oar upon his head and again kicked and cuffed him John seized a bottle and struck him on the forehead.’
In another case, Charlie Crab-Back beat John and convinced the magistrate that a woman had paid Bad John to beat him. Crab-Back was fined ten shillings for beating John, who was then sentenced to two months’ hard labour for throwing a bottle at Crab-Back.
His 45 previous convictions turned the magistrate against him, yet Bad John was also famed as a ’friend and protector of all little children,’ although no exemplary incident has so far come to light.
It’s not certain when John Archer was born. At his death in 1916 he was, according to the Port of Spain Gazette, 62 years old, although three years earlier the Argos had put him at between 76 and 80. We do know, however, that he was born and grew up in Barbados, where as a young man he served in the Second West India Regiment. The combination of a Bajan upbringing and military experience explains much of his character: his fierce loyalty to Britain; his obedience to figures in authority; and his proud if peculiar sense of probity. Responding in 1904 to a charge of disorderly conduct John stated that he was in St James singing ’Rule Britannia, Rule,’ for which, ironically, he was arrested.
’He then told the Magistrate that he had been a soldier and would never tell a lie. If he did anything he would say he did it. He had been to gaol 60 times – not once for stealing.’
The magistrate asked: ’You want to go up there to spend a few weeks?’
John replied: ’Just as you choose, sir, I never fight against a power. I was a soldier.’
Such acceptance never faltered, although he often insisted that he did no wrong and never lied, but magistrates inevitably gave credence to the flimsy evidence of the police.
Bad John had left the regiment and Barbados in the mid-1880s with 300 others to work on the Panama Canal. It was the worst place for him. In the last half of the 19th century Panama experienced 40 administrations, 50 rebellions, five attempted secessions and 13 interventions by the US. Between 1863 and 1886 the isthmus had 26 presidents and almost continuous rebellions.
According to an account in the Argos, ’Bad John raised a fearful riot in which 230 of the number were shot dead, and running for his life, he got on board the s.s. Don, which was lying in Colón Harbour Two days after the Don was out to sea, the stokers noticed Bad John hiding in the coal bunkers, and he was taken on deck and made to work for his meals.’
He landed in Trinidad in 1887. ’On getting here,’ continues the Argos, ’he was charged as being a stowaway and was sent to gaol for 14 days, that being the maiden imprisonment of his notorious career.’
He worked on the wharves, a very black man in ragged clothes. He frequently wore a battered old beaver hat which helda Union Jack or a small likeness of the king. John read the papers, discussed politics knowledgeably and carried himself with dignity. A fervent Methodist, he regularly attended the Hanover and Tranquillity churches.
’I know him and have always found him very civil and decently spoken,’ said one anonymous commentator in the Mirror, who described one of many occasions on which John was arrested:
’Presently the policeman asked his captive to wait a moment while he went round the corner in search of a witness. The prisoner affably consented and sat down on the kerb. Sundry evilly disposed persons urged upon him the desirability of vamoosing. But the arrested one said ’no,’ he had promised to stay.’ He held no fear of gaol, where he was the most well-behaved prisoner, because ’it is just as the Queen’s Park Hotel to me.’
On the occasion of his 96th conviction, when he was sentenced to 30 days, he shouted to the magistrate: ’I thought you would have given me some more.’
Indeed, one limerick published in 1912 has him asking Magistrate Blackwood Wright for a month in gaol because of the high price of food.
The truth is, Bad John disliked going to gaol. He mourned the death of Magistrate H.P. Hopson, who was lenient with him, and he hated Magistrate Wright for his harshness. John swore to suitably celebrate Wright’s retirement, and he kept his promise, informing all that Wright was a dog. For that he was charged with being drunk and disorderly and sent up for seven days.
John also refused to speak to constables, but he had much in common with them, for most were Bajans who spoke only English and hated the rowdy, patois-speaking masses. And the 1880s saw the height of conflict between those of British culture and the rest of the society. Education and the civil service were being anglicised; the Canboulay Carnival procession and the drum dances were outlawed; the Hosay was brutally suppressed; and stern measures were taken against African customs, such as religious practices and especially music-making. John, naturally, despised the jamettes. Their anarchy would have gone against everything his Bajan heart held dear. At his trial in August 1904 for assaulting Louisa Brown, who tried to pick his pocket, he refused to cross-examine her. ’I have nothing to ask her, she is a common prostitute, and your worship knows what a prostitute is,’ he sneered, causing much laughter in court.
Despite all his fights he never took a life, but, rather ,saved several.
’When the south-westers blew at the wharf, and craft and men were in danger, none so brave as he in plunging off into the heaving swells to save life and property,’ eulogised the white planter Edgar Tripp. ’Some three or four human beings owe their lives to him today – saved by him from the muddy depths of the harbour when seemingly all hope had gone.’

 The Role of the Bad Johns’ in the Development of the Steelband Movement

The darkest side of the steelband movement came to the fore during the formative years from the mid forties through the fifties into the sixties and as late as 1972 when the last recorded steelband clash saw Invaders running through its step daughter steelband Starlift in Woodbrook of all places .

     The steelband was stigmatized by the behaviour of its robust practitioners and immortalized in song by the Mighty Sparrow in his iconic calypso “Outcast” .The most effective line being “If yuh sister talk to a steelpan man the family want to break she hand, put she out break up every teeth in she mouth pass yuh outcast”.

     The average steelband man in the early years was mostly unemployed and employable: he was a hustler, gambler and a pimp living off the immoral earnings on the jammettes who were prostitutes of a very violent nature.

     The Barrack yard was the community of the dispossessed .There was a long building with several apartments tenanted by various extended families communal cooking and bathing was a common occurrence. In the early compound for Africans related festivals such as the Shango\Orisha feasts, Dame Lorraine and Kalinda or Stick fighting competitions. The Congo drums supplied the music and the young ladies danced the Bongo and the Bele .Later on, when the Africans drum was banned ,the Tamboo Bamboo band was invented to replaced it and later on the precursor of the steelband took shape in the form of the metal bands .

     The young men grew up in this environment that invoked the warrior spirit of their African ancestors ,these were street fighting men never unwilling to defend their turf or to allow an insult to pass unchallenged: The Steelband inherited the barrack yard and its social infrastructure. Most of the steelband clashes resulted in disputes over women .The pan fraternity was extremely chauvinistic and the cult of Machissimo was clearly evident in that women were debarred from playing .They however fed, housed, and supported their men folk and the jammettes besides minding the saga boys were the flag wavers of the bands and the cause of much friction especially during the World War II days when the night clubs catered to the thousands of American Servicemen stationed here.

     The bad johns were employed as bouncers ,panmen provided music and security , while the jammettes provided comfort and other chores .The area of Wrightson Road to French Street to Donkey City (present location of Crowne Plaza Hotel) was renamed the Gaza Strip as it was compared to that piece of land in the middle east that was the arena for pitched battles between the Israelis and Palestinians in that era .

     Each steelband had a gang attached to them that sometimes operated beyond the boundaries of steelband warfare .They also engaged in pitched battles with the police where they were often met with full brutality and bundled into the infamous Black Maria Van to be transported to her majesty’s prison.

     The early bad john were stick men and stick fighters , people like Mastifay and Dalgo from Tunapuna and Sagiator from Hell Yard. Because of the tough nature of the early steelbands men leadership status usually automatic became the unchallenged domain of the baddest men on the block who were not necessarily involved in musical noises but led the troops in battle and enforced strict discipline within the band. This mantle of strongmen captain first won by bad john like Stephen “Goldteeth” Nicholson of Renegades stretches over to modern steelbands East Dry River and San Juan were the areas .Where some of the baddest steelbands came from and it was no surprise that there was always a state of war with San Juan All Stars engaging Renegades, Desperadoes and Tokyo in different occasions ,sometimes out of the Carnival season .San Juan boasted bad johns like Lance Scott, Son Johnson, City Mouse, Glad Man, Jo-Jo, Ghost, Valery, Aker, Keune, The Diamond Brothers and other Renegades gang law breakers was a mixture of saga boys and hardened criminals ,a jail term was a badge of honour and many youths had to make time to be accepted so they channeled their miserable behaviour into petty crimes to serve a prison sentence. Some of the lawbreakers were Nickos, Half-a-Donkey, Tan Tan, Tampico, Papito, Little Axe, Mr. Lee, Whitey Kincaid, The Mc Queen Brothers, Dalphie Holder and Peter Blood.

The need to criticize simply belies a longing for recognition, appreciation, and validation. None of which, however, can be obtained through criticism.


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