Lesson of the Day: Carnival is Not Just a Party
Here is an overview of the Caribbean Carnival and its roots in slavery
(Photo Credit to Jaime Flores Photography circa 2019 Worcester Caribbean American Carnival)
The complexities of Carnival are rooted in its commingled relationship between colonialism, slavery and religion as its history dates back to the settlement of Europeans in the Caribbean Islands in the early 1800s. Although, its history is more complexed than most realize, many outside of the culture assume it is just a reason to party and they fail to understand the deep beginnings and what it means to Caribbean people all over the world; me included.
According to historians, the celebration of Carnival was birthed in ancient Egypt and adopted by the Greeks, where “pagan festivals in honor of mythological Gods were traditional, such as Bucchus, the Roman God of wine, agriculture and fertility.” Eventually, Carnival was adopted by the Roman Catholic Church and celebrated in Italy, before its adoption in France and Spain.
The word Carnival has Latin origins, Caro being the Latin word for “meat” or “flesh” and vale meaning “farewell” - and its interpretation is a direct reference to the practice in Catholicism to stop eating red meat during lent from Ash Wednesday until Easter; “farewell to flesh.” But saying goodbye to eating meat was only a piece of the adaptation of Carnival. When the European settlers and British Nationals embarked on taking over Trinidad and Tobago in the 18th century, they brought with them African slaves mixing in a heavy influence of their European annual pre-Lenten Carnival celebrations of Fat Tuesday and masquerade balls and that of the African culture, all while excluding African slaves from the festival and extravagant masquerade balls.
In 1834, after the Emancipation of enslaved people, the Africans infused Canboulay - a night parade which gathered the slaves to put out the sugar cane fires at a nearby sugar cane plantation - into the festivities. As newly liberated people, the Africans left the plantations and flooded the streets, “snatching up the discarded garments of their former slave owners, to be used as costumes and disguises, mimicking and satirizing the dress and behaviors they had observed in the pre-Lenten masquerade balls and parties thrown by their former masters. They grabbed metal rhythms for dancing and chantouelles - the “journalists” and “reporters” of the time, sang satirical renditions about the living conditions of their existence as well as songs of rebellion. This was the first Freedom Fête that became an annual tradition.”
Carnival was now a celebration of the end of slavery and included all of the elements of the Canboulay, Fat Tuesday and Mardi Gras depicting the evils of slavery and embracing the African culture. The Carnival spread across the Caribbean Islands including Puerto Rico (the Carnaval Ponceño), St. Vincent and Grenadines (the Vincy Mas), Dominican Republic, the Cayman Islands, Haiti and Martinique.
This new Carnival faced several attempts of suppression by the British colonial authorities in hopes of abolishing the festival: licenses were required for certain masquerades, they banned the use of drums and flambeaux and controlled the numbers of stick fighters, criticism came from “the upper class about the low standard of Carnival and strong feelings expressed about the desecration of the Sabbath,” in 1943 Carnival on the street was restricted to Mondays and Tuesdays, and ultimately, the celebrations were banned later for the duration of World War II.
Representing so much more than a pre-Lenten festival, the people fought to defend Carnival, with many of these struggles ending in death. The most infamous event being the Canboulay Riot in Port of Spain in 1881. Captain Arthur Black was brought into office under the order to rid Trinidad of Canboulay festivities. In 1881 he issued an attack on Canboulay masqueraders during these riots. In 1884, he turned to the South and issued a plan to attack those celebrating Carnival. In Princes Town, police officers and Special Constables were armed with rifles, waiting for the events to begin. They intended on waiting until a Canboulay band passed before them on the street. The Canboulay was prepared and knew the plan and headed straight for the police station, unafraid. One of the Canboulay died with three injured.
Despite England’s attempt to suppress Carnival, it has survived and has become the celebration we know today bringing over 30,000 tourists to Trinidad and Tobago to take part of this significant history of freedom.
This article is dedicated to my friend, Jennifer Gaskin - founder of the Worcester Caribbean American Carnival in Worcester, Massachusetts. Thank you for keeping our culture alive.
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