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St. John USVI Culture: Bonfire

Curtney "Ghost" Chinnery

One of the fondest memories I have about growing up on Jost Van Dyke is of an event we called "bonfire" which celebrated a rather obscure holiday we observed in the British Virgin Islands called Guy Fawkes Day.

Bonfire was a special time for us. People, young and old, would gather around a huge fire to eat, drink, dance, sing songs and tell stories. On Jost Van Dyke most of us were related in one way or the other, and the bonfire was like a family picnic, full of love, laughter, and joy.

A major aspect of the bonfire was the dancing. One dance that stands out in my mind was the glass dance. Broken glass was spread out on a towel or blanket and the dancer would dance barefooted upon the sharp pieces of broken glass. Sometimes he would choose a woman from the crowd and carry her the way a bride is carried across the threshold. Then with the added weight of the woman he would continue the dance, stepping harder than ever in an impressive stomping style on the bed of broken glass.

At times a flambeau was incorporated into the routine. The flambeau was made by wrapping a piece of cloth around one end of a stick. The cloth was then soaked in kerosene and set ablaze. Then while dancing on the broken glass the dancer would pass the burning flambeau over his body. Yes, actually rubbing the fire over his bare skin!

There were also times when a dancer would become a human flame-thrower. He would take a mouthful of kerosene, then placing the flambeau in front of his mouth he would spray the liquid onto the flambeau, causing a sudden burst of flame to shoot forth like a fire-breathing dragon.

When the dance was over, the dancer, whose skill kept him from being injured in the performance of this dangerous dance, would always receive a great show of appreciation from the crowd who would clap, whistle and shout out praise.

For the bonfire feast fisherman would go out in the early morning and haul their fish traps. When they returned they would clean the fish and rinse them in the sea. Fish traps were referred to as pots so we called these fish "pot fish" and they included grouper, snapper, old wife, grunt, porgies and shellfish.

The fish would be placed on an outdoor grill and after they were roasted one would add the seasoning of their choice. I am willing to put my word on this fact. Fresh fish roasted on an open fire is the best a fish will ever taste.

Along with the fish we had corn, sweet potatoes, johnnycakes and special breads baked in clay ovens. My favorites were coconut bread and cassava bread.

Eating utensils came from various sources. Bowls were made from calabash; tin cans were used for cups and green banana leaves served as trays.

For me the best part of the bonfire was the storytelling. The storytellers would tell tales about natural and supernatural events or relate true stories about the past or present. At times storytelling would serve as a form of confession to clear the conscience, such as "…when we were over at So and So's ground stealing mangos and So and So fell out of the tree and…"

"So it was you fellows up in my tree!" the mango owner would exclaim. The confession being made in this roundabout manner would make people laugh and usually all would be forgiven.

Sometimes stories were told for a purpose such as to encourage the young ones to come home before dark or to behave properly as in the tale about the mermaid who lived in the pond and who turned evil at night. If she caught children in the dark of night she would capture them and would take them into the pond and they'd never be seen or heard of again. Or there was the tale of "Red Head and Bloody Bone, a jumbie, who would come for children that showed disrespect or who don't listen to their parents.

The aftermath of the bonfire was peaceful. As the bonfire slowly died out, some folks would doze off while others would quietly gaze into the fading embers of the fire. Those who still had energy would start cleaning as much as they could so that whoever was responsible for the bonfire wouldn't have as much left to clean the next day.

The last bonfire that I know of took place in 1974. It was held by Mr. Sherman Callwood, a native of Jost Van Dyke who now lives on St. John with his wife and family.

The bonfire became a nostalgic memory for the men, women and children who would often reminisce on the event. Today these memories are rapidly fading away and one more piece of our culture may soon pass to oblivion.

I've asked many teenagers and young adults about bonfire and none of them has any idea of what I speak of and perhaps this little bit of information may be the last anyone ever hears of the cultural event that we called bonfire."