Saturday, January 5, 2008

WE CULTURE - The History of Trinidad Carnival

By Antoinette Ifill

Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival is unique amongst its Caribbean neighbours for the one fact that it is not staged as a tourist attraction but has deeply rooted foundations in the history of the twin island republic.

At the end of the 18th Century, the French were invited by Spain to colonize the island of Trinidad and brought with them the tradition of ‘Carnevale’, a period of merriment before the somber reflection of the Lenten season. These celebrations began in December and ended on Ash Wednesday, during which the white elite portrayed the lower classes and slaves in costume. It was common for the upper and middle class to dress as field slaves called “negre jardin”, while the Africans were forbidden by law to partake in the festivities.

The abolition of slavery in 1834 gave freedom to the former slaves to in turn mock their slave masters in costume and the Carnival celebrations were eventually taken over by Africans and “coloured” persons of mixed descent. With this shift in the dynamic of the revelry, the whites withdrew from the festival hoping that it would loose it’s popularity by decrying the Carnival as a “Jamette Carnival” of which only the lowest class would participate in such an immoral and obscene activity. It was due to this disapproval of Carnival celebrations practiced by the Africans that the festival was reduced to only two days.

Unperturbed by the concern of the whites, Africans continued making Carnival into an observance of their own by introducing musical instruments such as African skin drums, masks and dances reminiscent of their native rituals. One of the most important activities of the Africans during the days of Carnival was the Cannes Brulees (French for Burning Cane), a festivity of song, dance and stick fighting. The Cannes Brulees was birthed during slavery; when fires erupted in the cane fields the slaves were rounded up to harvest the cane. This event became known as Canne Brulees, which was later changed to Canboluay, commemorated on Carnival Sunday.

As pressure was placed on the Africans to give up their Carnival festival, hostility brewed between the black underclass and white upper class culminating in the Canboulay Riots of 1881, a two day rampage by the retaliating lower class that resulted in deaths and mass destruction of property. Subsequently, the Canboulay Festival was abolished in 1884, replaced by a more restricted festival which began at dawn on Carnival Monday. Today this celebration is known as J’ouvert.

Africans used costume to highlight their plights as well as mock the aristocracy in masquerade developing unique Carnival Characters such as the Negre Jardin, European Clowns, Jamettes, Dame Lorraine and Sailor Mas. For most of the latter half of the 19th century, the white elite removed themselves from Carnival celebrations until the festival was rid of its unrefined elements. Upon their return it was from a position of observation in their vehicles, and it would be another forty years before the upper class rejoined the street celebrations. Today Trinidad Carnival, a celebration once so divisive, can be seen as the one event that unites all classes, creed and races, if only for a few days, of complete harmony and celebration.

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