Trinidad Carnival: A Look Back

Trinidad Carnival.

A spectacle that seems to be grounded more in the realm of the fantastical rather than within the dull confines of reality. A dancing, pulsating masquerade, resplendent in its beauty and grotesquerie, populated by blue devils, dragons, and giant butterflies, all descending on the capital city for two days of revelry and merriment. It is at the heart of Trinidadian culture and society and almost any Trinidadian will tell you that the year revolves around the carnival season. It has influenced the music, and the cultural expression of that nation and can without much exaggeration be considered the lifeblood of the twin-island republic.

Once again, the Carnival Season is upon us. However, if you were to take a trip to Trinidad this week, you would not have been greeted with the throngs of happy masqueraders that usually decorate the streets at this time of year. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government of Trinidad and Tobago has canceled its Carnival celebrations, in the interest of protecting its citizens and the wider community. 

This has dealt a severe blow to the country’s cultural calendar, but the people of Trinidad and Tobago have taken it all in stride, with the general consensus seemingly supportive of the decision taken by the government.

In spite of the cancellation of the two-day parade that represents the climax of the Carnival Season, the general air of merriment and abandon has not deserted the people of Trinidad and Tobago, with several of them and even a Mayor, vouching to go to work in full costume. Additionally, several prominent soca artistes and Carnival bands have hosted virtual concerts, in an attempt to ensure that the season does not pass without receiving the recognition it deserves.

So what is the origin of this festival, this bacchanalia that has influenced the manner in which Carnival is conducted the world over?

Carnival, in its original sense, marks the beginning of the Lenten season, the forty-day period of fasting and privation that precedes the Christian holiday of Easter. Carnival, derived from a Latin expression meaning, “Farewell to the flesh”,  has always been marked by festivity and indulgence in the pleasures that were expected to be foregone during the period of Lent. Historically, pancakes and meat would be eaten in great quantities accompanied by the copious consumption of wine, all of which would have to be abstained from during the observance of Lent.

Perhaps even more important than the gastronomical excess that was encouraged during the period, was the frivolity and merriment that would accompany it. The common people made masks and costumes to depict mythological creatures as well as to caricature public authority figures and to make fun of them. Nothing they said during the period would meet with future reprisal, and even the nobles and rulers would dress as commoners in order to make fun of them in turn.

With the age of European expansion west across the waters of the Atlantic, The continents and islands of the Americas came under their purview. The Europeans, led by the Spanish, brought their customs with them, imposing them first upon the Native populations they encountered there, and then upon enslaved Africans they had ferried across the Atlantic as the demand for free labour increased.

Initially the Spanish were more concerned with the pursuit of gold and the mythical El Dorado to place any significant focus upon exploiting their territories for their agricultural potential. Thus, Trinidad, on which there was no gold to be found, remained a relatively small and unimportant colony until the late 18th century. The Spanish left little significant social or cultural impact upon the colony which was only populated with about one thousand inhabitants until the Cedula of Population of 1783.

The Spanish Crown, wary of the continuing expansion of the protestant British across the West Indies, sought to cement their hold on the island of Trinidad, primarily through greater infrastructural and agrarian development. Thus in 1783, they issued an edict, inviting white and free coloured Roman Catholics from the nearby French Caribbean Islands. By doing so, they hoped to settle the greater part of the island, as well as establish a militia that could defend the island against attacks by the British or Dutch.

The invitation came with the promise of a generous 32-acre land grant, with an additional 16 acres for each enslaved African that they brought with them to the colony. The whites and free coloureds, fleeing from the rumblings of the French Revolution that could be felt even in their island territories, accepted the offer with gusto, swelling Trinidad’s population from 1000 to 18,627 in just over ten years.

In spite of their provisions, the fears of the Spanish were realized and in 1797, the island of Trinidad was captured by the British. Wisely choosing to maintain the present status quo rather than enacting a major societal overhaul, they upheld the terms that had been agreed upon in the Cedula of population. Thus both the whites and free coloureds were allowed to keep their lands and slaves, now under the protection of the British crown. Trinidad was now a British Crown Colony, inhabited by French-speaking landowners, with French customs and French-Speaking slaves.

The French, unlike their revolutionary brethren in the motherland, were devout Catholics, and thus the celebration of the pre-Lenten festivities was carried out much as they had been in the islands of Saint-Domingue, Martinique and Guadeloupe from which they had come. Their Carnivals were elaborate, regal affairs, with balls and masquerades that echoed the bygone days of Louis XIV. 

The slaves, excluded of course from these affairs of high social importance began to mimic them with a festival of their own. Called “Canboulay” from the French “Cannes Brulees”, it celebrated the harvest season, that would be marked by the burning of the canefields to prepare for next year’s crop. Their celebration was as carnal and as festive as that of their masters, but excelled it with the hypnotic and pulsating rhythms that emanated from their drums and accompanied the dancers. The slaves caricatured their masters, mimicking their habits and mannerisms and singing riebald, mocking songs about them in a style that became known as Calypso, a derivative of the Kaiso that they had brought with them from West Africa. 

They strung poles horizontal to the ground and skillfully manouevred under them in a manner that became universally known as Limbo. The men would fight each other with sticks in an arena known as a Gayelle to the sound of the drums and the singing of the “Chantwell”.  So wild and intoxicating were these slave festivities, that even the whites and free coloureds were fond of them, often stealing away from the tamer balls and masquerades in order to observe the goings-on of the enslaved.

With the Emancipation of enslaved Africans throughout the British Colonies on August 1, 1834, the slaves took to the streets in wild abandon, overwhelmed with the joy of their newfound freedom. Thus August first became a sort of impromptu Carnival but eventually, the African population came to celebrate their freedom at Carnival since it was already a period of universal merrymaking on the island and was thus more likely to be overlooked by the prudish British authorities. They called their celebration Canboulay as they had called it during their enslavement.

The celebration became a large-scale affair, with thousands of the island’s black population descending upon the towns and cities every Carnival to celebrate their Canboulay. The season was accompanied by “Kaiso tents” where throngs of people would gather to listen with delight at the chantwells mocked and derided the British authorities in French-Creole calypsos. They gathered en masse to watch the annual stick fights and limbo competitions, that had become battlegrounds where fame and boasting rights could be won, fostering the birth of many a local legend. At times the festivities would break out into violent conflict between stick-wielding revelers, causing the British authorities to unsuccessfully ban the carrying of sticks in 1868.

The Protestant British authorities hated and feared the black, French-speaking Catholic masses, and lived in horror of the Carnival season and the start of the Canboulay. The French-speaking whites and land-owning coloreds, themselves Catholics, were more tolerant and accepting of the Canboulay, as they saw it in a harmless parallel of their own festivities. Influential though they were, they were not the ones who wielded power on the island. 

In 1880, Captain Arthur Baker was appointed the head of the Trinidadian police force. A harsh and virulent racist, he was filled with hatred for the blacks and their festivities and sought to put an end to the Canboulay once and for all, under the pretext of maintaining public order. In 1881, he banned the Canboulay festivities and took to the streets with his mounted police to ensure that the ban was observed. Unsurprisingly, the revelers took to the streets in spite of the ban, resulting in a fierce battle between black revelers and the police. 

Trinidad Carnival 1882

This incensed the ire of the general population of Trinidad, who supported the Canboulay festival. In an attempt to placate them, the governor recalled the police to the barracks and allowed the triumphant revelers to proceed. Baker, however, would not be deterred, and in 1884 he once again sought to put an end to the Festival, this time in the South of the Island resulting in bloody clashes that saw one reveler killed, several policemen seriously injured and a magistrate wounded by a stone flung from the crowd.

Eventually, the riots (now known as the Canboulay Riots) were quelled and the revelers dispersed. Cowed by the fierce resistance they had encountered, the beating of drums and the carrying of sticks were banned and the annual celebrations took on a more sober tone. All in all, however, the black masses had won out, their resistance during the Canboulay riots cementing the permanence of an Afro-Centric manner of celebration during the Carnival period.

Banned from their drums and their sticks, the revellers turned to bamboo as a means to substitute both. Using bamboo cut at different lengths to create musical notes of varying pitch and tone, they took to the streets once more, the Chantwell singing to the accompaniment of the new instrument, known as “Tamboo Bamboo”.

By the 1930s steel instruments began to supplant the place of the Tamboo Bamboo,  and in 1947, the 55-gallon oil drum was adopted, rendering the Tamboo Bamboo entirely obsolete. Winston “Spree” Simon and Anthony Williams, pioneers of the art form, worked out the placing of notes on these steel drums by indenting them and cutting them at different lengths. They called this instrument the Steelpan, and soon entire orchestras made up of various sizes of the instrument could be found all over the country. The invention of the steel pan completely revolutionized Trinidad’s Carnival. Once more it became the wild, violent affair it had been during the age of Canboulay, accompanied this time, however, by an instrument on which any melody could be played with the utmost precision. The chantwells/calypsonians were no longer loud enough to be heard over the deafening boom of the steel drums, but now it was their songs that were played by them. 

The Steelbands, by and large, became a nexus that attracted young men from all over the island, eager for battle and to prove their manhood against each other. The clashes between steel bands were often bloody affairs, legendary for their violence, such as was immortalized in the 1954 Calypso “Steelband Clash” by Lord Blakie.

Sticks, cutlasses, and all manner of weapons would be concealed in the Bass Drums of the steel bands, waiting for the slightest provocation to be brought to light. The steelband yards were virtual barracks, housing throngs of young men, many expelled from their homes by parents who associated the playing of the instrument with hooliganism and crime.

Trinidad Carnival 1960

Around the 1970’s local companies, recognizing the value of Carnival as a tourist attraction, began to take an active part in funding and promoting the carnival. They began to sponsor various steel bands, and their company logos could be seen emblazoned across the drums. As a direct result of this, Carnival became a less violent affair, as the bandleaders sought to protect their sponsorships, having no tolerance for violent behavior. Encouraged by the pacification of the steel bands, many women began to join them en masse, finally participating in an activity from which they had been debarred for years.

With the Oil boom and an increase in general prosperity, large trucks loaded with megaphones and speaker boxes replaced the steel bands who had led the masquerade on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. Now the most popular Calypsos of the season, known as the “Road Marches” could be played directly to the throngs of delighted masqueraders. It is this practice that has persisted to the current day.

Today, the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is a universally recognized affair, influencing the manner in which the festival is celebrated throughout the Caribbean as well as in North America and the United Kingdom. Far from its humble roots, it has become an increasingly commercialized affair, with costumes in the various bands often being priced in the thousands. It draws multitudes to the twin-island republic every year and an entire industry has grown up around it. Even those who traditionally do not participate in the festival have developed their own cultures that are based around it, with  Carnival retreats being an established part of the protestant calendar.

So as we mourn the cancellation of the Carnival festivities this year, let us remain mindful of its origins, of the culture of defiance and resistance to the colonial mandate that fostered it. Above all, let us honour the memory of the pioneers who have gone before, celebrating their contribution to a festival that is as integral to Trinidad and Tobago as its national flag.

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