badjohn – noun
A man willing to use violence and who likes being known as a dangerous person; a ruffian, hooligan or miscreant. An illusion to Bajan John “Bad John” Archer, a criminal who figured prominently in Trinidad in the early 20th century.
Of the countless jailbirds to tread this island, none has cast a longer shadow than [Bajan] 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 Colon Harbour. Two days after the S.S. 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 held a 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 [A Trini term for a Brash and shameless skanky woman. What separates a jamette from just your average whore is that she is shameless and flaunts her skankyness]. 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 [secretary of the Agricultural Society and committee member of the Trinidad Chamber of Commerce]: “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.”
So when a Trini calls you a badJohn, you’ll know the word originated as a descriptor for John “Bad John” Archer: a Barbadian born ex-soldier who had served in the British West India Regiment, ex-Panama Canal worker, ex stowaway and wharf worker who was a notorious habitual criminal in Trinidad in the early 20th century.
As fate would have it, John Archer met his death on 3rd August 1916 saving a bucket which had fallen overboard from a schooner. He dived for it several times but without success, and was told not to bother. John persisted until, rushing up for air, he hit the keel of the schooner and was sent back down unconscious. “Onlookers waited fully 20 minutes when they saw a fragment of John’s pants rise to the surface and bubbles coming from below. Knowing the wonderful feats already performed by him in the Gulf, they believed that John was only fooling,” reported the Mirror.
Hours later: “When the body was taken out of the water much amusement was caused by “Sweet Minnie” remarking that drowning is the fate of all great men such as Lord Kitchener and “Bad John” undoubtedly were.” [To give perspective: on 5th June 1916, Lord Kitchener and 736 others had drowned when HMS Hampshire struck a German mine 1.5 miles west of Orkney, Scotland]
It seems John Archer left no wife nor child behind, because it took a “distant relative” named Catherine Rawlins to launch the subscription which quickly raised the sum necessary to be given a decent burial at the Lapeyrouse Cemetery.
How “badjohn” became a word was written by Dr. Kim Johnson and published in the Express newspaper. It is re-produced here with Dr. Johnson’s kind permission.
Dr. Kim Johnson was until Carnival 2020 the Director of the Carnival Institute of Trinidad and Tobago. He is an accomplished journalist, author and researcher. He has directed and/or written several prize-winning films, including PAN! Our Music Odyssey.
Dr. Johnson’s crowd funding Indiegogo campaign to print the second edition of “The Illustrated Story of Pan” launched on 3rd February 2020 and is due to be delivered to backers in February 2021. This book charts the history of pan and includes profiles on two Bajans:
- Cecil “Bajan Cecil” Ward, who first showed the steelband how to harmonise pans in 1946.
- Lt. Joseph Nathaniel Griffiths of the Trinidad Police Band, who directed the first modern steel orchestra, the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) in 1951.
Further information can be found here: The Illustrated Story of Pan: Support the Limited Second Edition.
Our thanks to Jim Webster who brought Bajan: John “Bad John” Archer to our attention.