Blackface entertainers get a lot of stick these days for being a long standing form of offence by white entertainers, but historically, there is often more to the story. Many years ago I saw a special programme by the Unthanks on traditional dances in England, some of which are pretty weird, none less so than the Britannia Coconut Dancers of Bacup, Lancashire on Easter Sunday. This comes from Curious Country Customs by Jeremy HObson:
“Every Easter Saturday, .. the Britannia Coconut Dancers with their blackened faces, white plumed turbans, black jerseys, red-and-white kilts, white stockings and heavy Lancashire clogs, manage to stop the traffic of Bacup. Led by the Whipper-In and accompanied by the Stacksteads Silver Band, they dance between the town boundaries. Also known as Nutters (because of the Coconut connection rather than their outlandish clothing) the dancers tap out rhythms on wooden discs or ‘nuts’ fastened to their palms, knees and waist.
This is the sole surviving troupe practicing the 5 garland dances and 2 nut danes thought o ave been brought to Cornwall by the Moorish pirates who settled and became employed in the mining industry. As mines and quarries opened in Lancashire in the 18th and 19th centuries, some of the pirates’ descendants moved north taking with them both their expertise in mining and the dances.
The tradition of blacked-up faces could come from the mining connection, but it is more likely to have been a way of preventing the dancers from being recognised by evil spirits. It was also a commonly held pagan belief that for magic to be effective the spell-casters had to be in disguise. ”
I recall from the Unthanks that they go through a series of mimes, which is thought to be a form of underground communication, as tapping could also transmit sound over long distances.
This is the folksingers Becky and Rachel Unthank:
Here’s some more information on the history of the dance.
What can we make of this? To start, the origins are lost in the mists of time, so who knows? It has a lot of elements in common with other English folk dances, especially the very old ones, so has probably picked up some local elements.
But it doesn’t seem offensive on any level. If it reminds me of anything, it is the post I put up of the Kate Bush impersonators. People in isolated communities centuries ago didn’t have a lot of entertainment, so anything novel would have added some colour to their lives. I am intrigued that a group of Africans would have been accepted into a small, isolated community as Cornwall was, and to an extent still is. Rather than seeing this as racist, it seems to be suggesting the integration of a group of foreigners, and the adoption of some of their rituals, which I think is rather charming. Incredible that it has survived so long, which shows the importance of the dance to people of Lancashire. I love it, so strange and very much an important part of local culture.