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Carnival: evolution or cycle?

Q: Archbishop J, what’s with Carnival?

Carnival has a long and complex history. Its beginnings, in Trinidad, reaches back to the country’s early contacts with Europe and Africa, to a time when the French planters held masked balls in their homes on the days before Ash Wednesday, in the gaze of the African slaves.

Because it was Dry Season, a three-month extended time of festivity was possible since work on the plantation was minimal. While the white planter and free coloureds celebrated in the house, the slave festivity took place outside, with traditional African drumming, masked characters, and song. Over time each celebration made a parody of the other by inverting the social order.

In pre-emancipation Trinidad, the population was divided into three classes: the white planters and their staff, free coloureds, and slaves. What they had in common was the French language and the Catholic culture.

Britain captured Trinidad in 1797 and, by 1802, it had full control, politically. The island was French by culture, Spanish by law, and British by political rule. These cultural differences played themselves out in the Carnival.

The British rulers were puritanical by religious persuasion. So, Carnival was a shock to their moral sensitivities. These differing perspectives worked themselves out in society and in the Carnival over the next 100 years.

During slavery, plurality was manifested as an enforced stratification. In the emancipation period (1834–1890), we saw the rise of the Jamette Carnival; 1890–1950, the reintegration of the social classes in Carnival; 1950–1980, epic mas’; 1990s to present, bikini and beads.

The festival has moved from displaying an enforced social stratification to social integration, then to enforced stratification one more time. The height of the integration in the 1960s was also the height of the festival as epic pageantry on the streets of Trinidad and Tobago.



Once the slave was freed, Carnival evolved significantly. The French planters continued their masked balls in their homes; the freed slaves took to the streets, and a new phase of the Carnival began.

In this early time, there was strict stratification. The white planters, coloured planters and professionals, and the freed slaves, each developed the Carnival in their own space.

Canboulay emerged during this early period, as a street festival depicting the harvesting of the sugarcane. The forerunner to today’s J’Ouvert, it began after midnight on the Sunday. With masked characters, lighted torches, and dancing in the street, Canboulay represented the defiance of the former slave, and was meant to terrorise the white planter in a very hostile post-emancipation Trinidad.

Emancipation unleashed the creativity of the former slave and the emergence of a street festival that challenged both the planter and the British political elite.

Many characters emerged during this phase: Dame Lorraine, Baby Doll, Devil Mass, Jab Jab, Jab Molassie, Midnight Robber, Moko Jumbies, Negue Jadin, Pierrot Grenade, Bats, Wild Indians, and Sailors. This was the Jamette Carnival.

For the British rulers, this looked very different. Said one commentator:

…We will not dwell on the disgusting and indecent sense that were enacted in our streets—we will not say how many we saw in a state of nearly approaching nudity as to outrage decency and shock modesty—we will not particularly describe the woman on a pole, which was followed by hundreds of negroes yelling out a savage Guinea song …we will not describe the ferocious fight… but we will say at once that the custom of keeping Carnival by allowing the lower order of society to run about the streets in wretched masquerade belongs to other days, and ought to be abolished in our own. (Port of Spain Gazette, 1838).


Jamette Carnival

In 1846, the British Government outlawed masking. By 1849, restrictions were placed on the music and dancing of the freed slave, and by 1880, African percussion instruments were outlawed.

In 1881, the antagonism between the British political elite, the French planter and the freed African slave led to the Canboulay riots. Nothing stopped the Carnival.

In 1882, the leaders of the Canboulay worked with the media to publish rules for the next Carnival. Also, the business class began to sponsor elements of the Carnival, including prizes for the King and Queen. All of this impacted the festival and the society. The middle-class entered the street festival over the next decades. With the ban on the African drum, the Tambo Bamboo emerged, which evolved into iron bands, using discarded brake drums and then dustbins, and then the pan.

By the 1930s, the street festival involved all social classes in the society, but with the elites on lorries and the lower-class on the street. This vertical separation melted with time as Carnival entered its next phase with the rise of pan and a new phase in the mas’.


Social Integration

By the 1950s, the festival incorporated steelpan bands. Traditional Carnival characters, now organised into bands, gave Carnival a more mythic character. Then emerged epic mas’: the historic depictions of George Bailey, Harold Saldenah, and Bobby Ammon; the fantasy portrayals of Wayne Berkeley, Irvin McWilliams, and Edmond and Lil Hart and the theatrical masterpieces of Peter Minshall.

When I entered Carnival in the 1970s, class segregation between the steelpan bands and the epic mas’ was apparent. But all of Trinidad mixed and mingled on the streets of Port of Spain on Carnival days.

Conversations centred on the art and artistry of each band. The band house was a community where people came after work and devoted themselves to making the mas’. The focus of these bands was art and the festival. Societal integration emerged.


Bikini and Beads

In the 1980s, Peter Minshall tried, through his many portrayals, to comment on the deterioration of the mas’. These are worth their own reflection. This artist and masman saw the moral degradation of both Carnival and Trinidad and Tobago and tried to speak to this through the mas’.

Minshall’s 1983 portrayal River, began a trilogy. The queen of the band, ‘Washerwoman’, represented life and purity; the king, ‘Mancrab’, was a symbol of greed and technological madness. After a fierce battle, Mancrab won and Washerwoman’s “lifeless body was carried away, the River People doused each other with paint of many colours in a ritual of pollution, until the once-pristine masqueraders were a uniform muddy purple” (Wikipedia).

Brian MacFarlane, Peter Samuel, Roslyn Gabriel for the youth, and the Catholic Band all tried to keep the integrative and creative spirit of Carnival alive.

In the 1980s, Minshall drew attention to the drift of Carnival from art to business. We have lost our way. Now imitating Brazil, no art or imagination is necessary. Nudity is what sells. The importation of costumes from China means many bands look alike.

Now have come all-inclusive bands, which have forced social segregation again. The steelpan’s model of development is building community and inclusivity. Mas’ bands—for the most part—have moved in the opposite direction, to social stratification. Mancrab won this round. But the journey has not yet finished.


Key Message:

Carnival is a lens into the soul of Trinidad and Tobago. Right now, our soul is sick; lust, social stratification and greed consumes us.

Action Step:

Contemplate this movement of 200 years; are we heading in the right direction? What must we do?

Scripture Reading:

1 Timothy 6:9–11