Mas today nothing to see
February 13, 2020
Raising a child with real world resilience
February 13, 2020

A theology of Carnival

Presbyterian Minister Rev Clifford R L Rawlins gave a public lecture on ‘The Theology of Carnival’ at St Crispin’s Anglican Church, Woodbrook on January 30. The event was hosted by the Sehon Goodridge Theological Society. This is part one of three, of an edited version of the paper.

Just mention the word, ‘Carnival’, and a host of negative comments ensue from puritan-minded churches and pastors relating to all the biblical vices of lust, lasciviousness, licentiousness, revelry and debauchery.

This outlook stems from the classic Augustinian worldview that divides the world into two sharply opposing and distinct ways of being; the sacred and the secular or sometimes, the profane; the Christian, refined and destined for eternal glory, and the non-Christian, perverted and doomed.

Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago can claim two distinct fountains of origin; the more noticeable being the Latinised European i.e. French and Spanish source, because of the time when it is celebrated, and the other being the African heritage because of the nature of many of the celebrations.

Carnival celebrations among the former slave population in Trinidad only came into being with their emancipation in 1834, which they marked with great festivity. By 1844 these two festivals of the two main classes of society would be merged into one and limited to a two-day, pre-Lenten festival by the British, in an attempt to exercise a measure of control over the fomenting anti-British sentiment on the one hand by the French ascendancy and, anti-colonial feeling by the newly freed African population on the other.

The masses of newly freed peoples formed the substantive part of the society and the lower ranks at that. Even then, there would be two categories of lower-class citizens. One made up of those who were only economically impoverished but who held on to values and mores derived from their religious traditions, Christian and/or otherwise and mainly rural; and the other, a mass of people who formed the underworld of brigands, prostitutes, bad johns, stickfighters and obeah men, which flouted sexuality and flirted with obscenity.

The former would become characterised as the ‘silent faithful’ who, though recognising their unequal status in society, struggled inwardly through their prayers and concerns. The latter would be bolder and more open in their challenge of the social conventions of the day, the protesters and rabble rousers who were braver in giving a voice to their silent compatriots.

This latter group would come to dominate the Carnival celebrations and displace the provenance of French Creole society.

They would be given the name ‘Jamette’, from the French ‘diametre’, not only because their women and prostitutes would sensually show off their buxom waist diameters but chiefly because they were considered to fall below the diameter of respectable socially accepted behavioural standards.

‘Jamettised’ society, as Selwyn Cudjoe has come to describe it, can be seen today in the perpetuation of an undesirable underworld that has expanded to include trafficking in drugs and guns and the escalation of gang and turf warfare. The perception of being a ‘bad john’ has been transmuted from stickfighters to gunmen where the sentiments of the old songs are still aroused by the thirst for violence and blood.

Devil mas a metaphor

This Jamette society took over Carnival and demonstrated an African way of life and being in their songs, dances, drumming, ritual, the use of masks, in the poetry of Pierrot Grenade and the Midnight Robber. But they also incarnated their struggles in their portrayals, even as God became incarnate among his people in solidarity with human pain and suffering and struggles against imperial domination and an unequal society.

Their devils or ‘jab jab’ from the French ‘diable’ portrayed the economic hell of deplorable living and working conditions, a people without moral direction as they were not good enough to go to church.

The ‘jab molasie’ or molasses devil with his cracking whips and enchained body, and breathing fire and demanding money from bystanders, showed the cruel and demonic nature of the sugar industry (from which molasses is derived) that held them captive for so many years and deprived them of basic human dignity.

These were not devil worshippers as vitriolic preachers would condemn. It was the devil of slavery, the sugarcane devil, the whip of the slave master. The devil, therefore, becomes a metaphor for social evil. Their baby doll and pregnant women costumes gave light to the plight of unwed and/or teenage mothers without any paternal support from their male ‘saga boy’ partners, nowadays glorified as ‘players’.

There was a subliminal aggression against the traces of empire found within the society that gave rise to a preponderance of stickfighting, whips, chains, threatening verbose speeches, and extortion of money from the public. The anti-heroes of western culture were celebrated, Native American Indians, robbers, devils and imps, vampires and bats.

The Midnight Robber with his grandiose claims to greatness and an ancestral lineage of the world’s greatest fiends becomes a modern-day Robin Hood who takes back from the rich what they have stolen and restores them to the original poorer class owners.

The pretensions of respectable society were burlesqued in the Dame Lorraine skit, and in the satire and picong of calypso (10). These constituted part of the early democratic institutions of the emerging society.

Sense of being

There were always imperialist attempts to restrict the new-found expressions of the people out of fear that the freedom of expression, speech and movement might destabilise colonial rule and ascendancy but also because the colonial society was able to see the hypocrisy of its pretensions unmasked in the masks of the revellers, and seeing themselves for who they really were, they felt all the more threatened. This was truly street theatre at its best; the word hypocrite in Koine Greek originally meant ‘to judge over the mask’ and was the common word to describe an actor.

To dismiss Trinidad and Tobago Carnival simply as pagan revelry is to miss entirely the point of a celebration that represents, in its fullness, the cleavings of a society in flux, the tensions and travails of an emerging people, who are yet to come into their own.

Not to accept it is to miss the point of one’s sense of being, one’s sense of rootedness to the new place, of one’s Trinidadianess or Tobagonianess. It would mean denying all that has made the peoples of this land who they are, and that has led the society to its present point in time.

This portrayal of society in all its cleavings, unmasked behind the masque or mas’ as it has been adapted locally, reflects the fallenness of the human condition. It is a humanity unredeemed spiritually, morally and economically, in the fullest sense of the word as the Jamettised society did not have a place in the ‘oikoumene’, or the inhabited place.

Puritannical Christianity: Roman, Reformed and Evangelical, have tended to look at the obscener portrayals as repugnant to good behaviour. Masqueraders flaunted their sexuality openly, in what many would consider lewd and obscene, in a demonstration of female independence and male sexual machismo.

Christianity condemns this in Carnival and perhaps rightly so when there is the tendency to go overboard with certain portrayals. Carnival is not just the incarnation of the struggles of the lower classes against the system in their portrayals, it is also a representation, an iconic image of the reality of such a Jamettised society.