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Carnival - A Brief History

Excerpt from my debut Novel- "Yuh Can't Stop de Carnival!"


In order to fully appreciate the evolution of the Carnival tradition throughout the Caribbean, one must understand the complex historical, social, cultural and political backgrounds from which these celebrations were borne.


The first ‘modern’ Caribbean Carnival originated in Trinidad and Tobago in the late eighteenth century and was a celebration of freedom that was linked to colonialism and religious conversion.


From 1783, French settlers brought the Masquerade tradition with them to the island and developed their Carnival into a season of festivities, extending from Christmas to Ash Wednesday. These festivities consisted of dinners, masked balls, concerts and hunting parties.



The island came under British rule in 1797 and by the beginning of the eighteenth century, there were already a large number of free blacks in Trinidad mixed with French immigrants, earlier Spanish settlers, and British nationals. This allowed for Carnival to transform from an implanted European celebration to a more diverse cultural fusion, which was celebrated before the commencement of the Lenten season.


With the abolition of slavery in 1834, the now completely free population outwardly celebrated their respective native cultures and their emancipation through dress, music, food, and dancing.


While Emancipation brought freedom for the African population, it also brought new concerns for the British who were entrenching themselves as the new colonial power in the West Indies, at a time when the French had lost their dominance in society. The governing British rulers were caught up in the local problems of labor, low productivity, and financial structures, therefore, the opportunity emerged for Africans to take over Carnival and embrace it as an expression of their new-found freedom.


In the beginning the emancipated slaves celebrated the anniversary of their freedom on August 1st, by re-enacting scenes of Cannes Brulées, as a mockery towards past slave owners. During slavery, whenever a fire broke out in the cane fields, the slaves on the surrounding properties were rounded up and marched to the burning cane fields followed by drivers blowing horns and shells while cracking their whips with lashes and commands, to harvest the cane before it was burnt. This event became known as the Cannes Brulées, meaning burnt cane. Today this re-enactment is known as Canboulay and takes place just before the beginning of J’Ouvert with masking, dancing and fire breathing.



The August 1st celebration lasted for about a decade, after which it was transferred to the pre-Lenten season.


From the inception of street parades in 1839 and for more than one hundred 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 nineteenth century Carnivals, then mobilized the masquerades or mas (but maintained their distance), by using the trays of lorries as their stage until well into the nineteen-fifties.


The view of the British 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 and these views were fully supported by the contemporary press. Throughout this period there was a sustained attack on Carnival in most newspaper editorials that ranged from outright condemnation, to calls for a total ban. This was also the era of repressive legislation and the British Colonial Government passed several laws banning many of the activities associated with Carnival including dancing to drums, carrying lighted torches and “obscene songs and dances”.


The more repressive the legislation, the more aggressive were the responses and 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.


Even through attempts by colonial government legislations and police batons, they finally realized, try as you may, "Yuh Can’t Stop de Carnival!"

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