Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago is one of grandeur, colour, revelry, rhythm, and gaiety. Evolving over the past two centuries from an elegant, exclusive affair to a truly all-inclusive national festival, it is by far the most spectacular event on the nation’s calendar. Although a major part of the Trinidad Carnival mystique lies in its unique ability to bring people of diverse backgrounds together in harmonious circumstances, the festival was not born to such noble pursuits.
From the inception of street parades in 1839 and for more than 100 years thereafter, the celebration flowed in two distinctly different social streams - upper and lower classes. For the most part, the upper classes held their masked balls in the great houses of sugar estates during the 19th century Carnivals, then mobilized the mas (but maintained their distance), by using the trays of lorries as their stage until well into the 1950s.
In order to fully understand the development of this festival, it is necessary to examine the complex historical, social, cultural and political contexts which gave birth to this national celebration.
In 1498, Christopher Columbus landed in Trinidad and, as was the practice in the so called age of Discovery and Exploration, took possession of the island in the name of the King and Queen of Spain. The island did not have the promise of immense wealth like the other countries in Spain’s Western empire. Trinidad was, therefore, largely ignored for over two hundred and fifty years.
In 1776, out of concern for this state of affairs, the Spanish king issued a Cedula of Population, which opened the island to colonization by the French. A second Cedula followed in 1783. This saw an even larger influx of planters from the French West Indian islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint Dominigue. Arriving also were Free Coloureds and Africans. The French brought with them their cultural traditions, language, dress, food and customs.
In 1797, Trinidad was captured by the British and was made a crown colony of Great Britain. The British immediately began the process of colonization as they had in Barbados and Jamaica two centuries before.
In this era, the period between Christmas and Lent was marked by great merrymaking and feasting by both the French and English. Historians of the nineteenth century wrote about the balls, fetes champetres (country style parties) and house to house visiting engaged in by the white upper class. It was also the custom of the British to impose martial law during the Christmas season. Military exercises were performed at the start of this martial law.
The Carnival celebrations between 1783 and 1838 were dominated by the white elite. Africans and coloureds (persons of mixed race) were forbidden by law to participate in street festivities. This is not to say that they did not celebrate in their own way in their compounds.
During this period also, there were numerous balls, parties and other entertainment. This gave the Africans some measure of freedom to enjoy themselves and engage in merry making. These festivities, along with the pomp and ceremony involved in imposing martial law, provided the Africans with ideas for some of the earliest masquerades for Carnival.
The pre-emancipation Carnival saw whites costume themselves as Negues Jadin (Negres Jardin - French for Garden Negroes) and mulatresses. They also reenacted the Cannes Brulées (French for Burning Canes): the practice of rounding up slaves to put out fires in the cane field. With the emancipation of the slaves in 1838, however, the door was opened for the full participation of the Africans in the Carnival.
Enter The Dragons
While Emancipation brought freedom for the Africans, it also brought new concerns for the whites. The British were entrenching themselves as the new Colonial power in the West. The French had lost their dominance in society. All the whites were caught up in the problems of labour, low productivity, and financial structures. Therefore, the opportunity was provided for Africans to take over Carnival and embrace it as an expression of their new-found freedom.
In the beginning they celebrated the anniversary of their freedom (August 1) by reenacting scenes of Cannes Brulées. Cannes Brulées had its genesis during slavery. Whenever a fire broke out in the cane fields, the slaves on the surrounding properties were rounded up and marched to the spot, to the accompaniment of horns and shells. The gangs were followed by the drivers cracking their whips and urging them, with cries and blows, to harvest the cane before it was burnt. This event became known as the Cannes Brulées – Later called Canboulay.
After Emancipation the slaves used this celebration as a symbol of the change in their status. They engaged in masking, dancing, stick fighting, mocking the whites and reenacting scenes of past enslavement. The August 1st celebration lasted for about a decade, after which it was transferred to the pre-Lenten season. The Canboulay usually started from midnight on the Sunday. This was, in essence, the beginning of the Africans’ Carnival. During this period the whites and coloureds ceased their participation in the street festival, thereby bringing an end to an era.
From Cannes Brulees To Carnival
Africans were unperturbed by the preoccupations of whites and coloureds and proceeded to celebrate with gay abandon. They introduced their own musical instruments and dance movements. The drum replaced the fiddle, the poui stick dethroned the sword, while the nut and minard gave way to the Kalenda and Bamboula. The vigour and vibrancy of the African masquerade, the militaristic nature of the Kalenda dance and the violence of the stick fighting rituals, were frowned upon by the ruling class.
The Kalenda (Calinda), a stick dance probably of African origin, was a popular form of entertainment for male slaves. It is an agile and dexterous dance performed to drums and chants while the dancers engage in mock combat with their sticks (bois). In the second half of the 19th century Canboulay and stick-fights dominated the Carnival. The main activity in the Canboulay was the stick-fight. The term Kalenda emerged as a general term for the stick-fight, the dance, the songs and other performances that accompanied it. The stick-fight involved two persons at a time with sticks three and a half to four feet long, who would Karay – take up a defensive position – in the middle of a circle (gayelle) and try to draw blood.
The stick fighters were organized into bands representing different social groups. They were lead by a lead singer called a chantuelle or chanteuse, whose duty it was to egg on the fighters. The chantuelle was supported by a chorus of women. The purpose of the singing was to deride the opponent in song. These activities were all part of the Cannes Brulées and they preceded the street carnival of Monday and Tuesday.
The torchbearers, carrying flambeaux, led the march. They were followed by the batonnieres or stick fighters, then came the king and queen and royal attendants, body of supporters, substitute stick men, paraders, chanteuse, lead band. They all marched to kalenda songs accompanied by horns, conch shells, rattles and skin drums. Cannes Brulées marked the beginning of the organized carnival bands.
The Jamette Carnival
This term was used by the French and English to describe the Carnival celebrations of the African population during the period 1860 to 1896. It comes from the French word “diametre” meaning beneath the diameter of respectability, or the underworld . It was used at that time to describe a certain class in the community.
The “Jamettes” occupied the barrack yards of East Port of Spain. They were the stickfighters, prostitutes, chantuelles, matadors and dustmen. They lived in appalling conditions in areas which were rife with all the conditions for social instability: crime, vagrancy, disease, prostitution, unemployment, sexual permissiveness and dysfunctional families. It is no wonder, therefore, that Carnival was embraced with such fervour. For the Jamettes, it was a necessary release from the struggle that was their daily lives.
The view of the whites was that the Carnival activities were immoral, obscene and violent. The kalenda, the drumming, the dances and the sexually explicit masquerades were thought to be totally objectionable. They were fully supported in this view by the contemporary press. Throughout this period there was a sustained attack on Carnival in most newspaper editorials. This ranged from outright condemnation to calls for a total ban. This was also the era of repressive legislation. The British Colonial Government passed several laws banning many of the activities associated with the Carnival including dancing to drums, carrying lighted torches and “obscene songs and dances”.
However, it took more than legislation and police batons to stop the Carnival. The more repressive the legislation, the more aggressive were the responses. Finally, in 1881 masqueraders carried out a planned resistance against the police who attempted to stop the revelry. In the aftermath of the riot of 1881 Governor Freeling addressed the people and declared “There shall be no interference with your masquerade.” (qtd. in Liverpool 310). By acknowledging the importance of the Carnival to the people he proved that it was much more than just music, masquerade and dance but rather a necessary form of cultural expression.
Unfortunately, this reprieve was short-lived. The following years saw an increase in governmental control over Carnival and pressure from the media to suppress the more “objectionable” aspects of the Carnival. The people's Canboulay Festival was abolished in 1884 and replaced with a restricted festival which took place at dawn on the Monday preceding Ash Wednesday. J’Ouvert (breaking of the day) became well established, with the tamboo bamboo replacing the African drums.
The Canboulay and the stickfighters were eventually driven underground. Stickfighting, however, continued to flourish in rural areas from Tunapuna to Sangre Grande in the east and Freeport to Moruga in central and south Trinidad.
Carnival In The Twentieth Century
The first two decades of the twentieth century marked the gradual re-entry of the upper classes into the festival, after having withdrawn from the celebrations for most of the latter half of the nineteenth century. They returned after the Carnival was purged of some of its 'coarser' elements. However, they did not take to the streets but came in their decorated trucks and lorries. It took another forty years before they rejoined the street masquerade. Until then, they restricted their participation to house parties, club dances and fancy balls.
Once again, Carnival took on a more organized and European character. Fancy dress balls were held at the Princes Building opposite to the Queen’s Park Savannah. In 1922, the first major Carnival stage spectacle was presented by the Les Amantes de Jesus Society – a voluntary organization under the leadership of M. Joseph Scheult. The Society gave an annual charity ball on Carnival Monday night. This started in the 1920s and continued until 1948. This period saw increased participation by the various ethnic groups and classes in society. The private sector also became involved, organizing competitions and sponsoring prizes.
The Carnival Sunday night Canboulay procession of the post Emancipation was replaced by a Dimanche Gras Show. This annual masquerade ball was organized by the Society of Les Amantes De Jesus, when a new venue necessitated a change from a ball to a stage spectacle. This stage presentation attempted to weave together all the main strands of Carnival – dance, costume and characters.
The Dimanche Gras Show was inaugurated in 1948 as a vignette in the Carnival Queen Show. It was celebrated on Carnival Sunday night under the auspices of the Carnival Committee and continues to be the premier Pre-Carnival celebration. Although it has undergone several changes it is still seen as an attempt to create a ” valid theatrical experience out of the mass of Carnival material” (Hill).
In the early 1950s, with the rise in nationalism, the government decided that Carnival was too important a national festival to be left in the hands of private enterprise. The CDC (Carnival Development Committee) was therefore set up in 1957 and given the responsibility of managing the carnival celebrations. The festival began to resemble its present day form with Jour Ouvert (later anglicized to J'Ouvert) opening Carnival Monday from 4.00 am to 12.00 noon.
By mid-century, Carnival was completely under the control of the central government. This meant more funding, more structure and increased participation by all sectors. This was the “Golden Age of Carnival”. Bandleaders and designers sought inspiration from history, films, great personalities and world events as they conceptualized their portrayals winning pieces. The economic aspect of Carnival was evident even then as businessmen responded to the opportunities created for the importation of fine fabrics and accessories for costumes. Masqueraders too, were aware of the benefits of being crowned King or Queen of Carnival.
By the mid-1950s, mas became very competitive and a "Band of the Year" award was initiated in 1955 to recognize the effort that was being put into the presentations. In 1956, participation was on the increase and more than ten bands crossed the Queen's Park Savannah stage with over 300 masqueraders. From 1957 to 1959, the Band-of-the-Year first place winner was awarded $500. In 1957, an innovative bandleader from Woodbrook, Port-of-Spain, by the name of George Bailey, made a stunning appearance on the mas scene, at the young age of 21, and changed the face of Carnival forever. The authenticity of his presentation Back to Africa won Bailey Band-of-the-Year honours that year when he beat back other breathtaking presentations such as Irwin McWilliams' Ten Commandments and Harold Saldenah’s The Glory That Was Greece. The extensive research that was reflected in the splendour of Bailey's presentation compelled others to follow suit in later years.
In 1961, the first prize for the Band-of-the-Year was increased from $500 to $1,000 and, in 1963, a breakthrough was scored by steelbands when the Silver Stars Steelband of Newtown, Port-of-Spain, copped the Band-of-the-Year title with its presentation of Gulliver's Travels. It would be the first and only time in the 20th century that this feat would be accomplished by a steelband. By the mid-1960s, bands began to move from historical to fantasy themes and by 1969, the masquerading population was on the increase.
Today, Carnival is Trinidad and Tobago’s main tourist attraction and has inspired several Carnivals in cities where citizens of Trinidad and Tobago have settled, including New York, Toronto, Miami and London. Other Caribbean islands such as Jamaica, St.Vincent and Grenada have similar festivities but Trinidad and Tobago Carnival remains the greatest show on earth.