Origins of Rituals and Customs in the Trinidad Tobago Carnival
By Dr. Hollis Urban Liverpool
So Yu Going To... CARNIVAL Magazine
Most writers on the subject of the Trinidad Carnival have attributed the origins of the Carnival to Europe. Academic writers have perpetuated this belief because of the known presence of carnival in Europe from Roman times.
There is also the tendency to view Europe and Europeans through the lens of colonialism: European standards are superior. Thus European ideas and concepts have had an extraordinary effect on the Caribbean ever since Columbus.
That Europeans who settled in Trinidad and Tobago following the Cedula of Population1 love of Carnival fetes can be gleaned from the writings of Pierre Gustave Borde, a French-Creole historian of the 19th century.
Describing the cultural habits of the French, Borde wrote: The pleasures of meals at the dining table and picnics were added to those of music and dancing. There followed nothing but concerts and balls. There were lunches and dinners, hunting parties and expeditions on the river, as well as Carnival which lasted from Christmas time until Ash Wednesday. It is nothing but a long period of feasts and pleasures." (1876:306-07)
The notion that the Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago originated in Europe arose from the fact that Carnival festivities, that in some ways resemble the Trinidad Carnival, are still held today in Europe. In addition, the early French settlers so impacted the social, cultural, and political life of Trinidad and Tobago society that the seeds of Eurocentrism were fertilized to the extent that scholarship was choked by the reeds of colonialism; furthermore, the creation of institutions and networks to legitimize research and publications perpetuated this intellectual dependence. European writers undervalued the experiences and thought processes of the oppressed lower classes in Trinidad and Tobago, particularly those of African decent.
Thus did Raphael DeLeon, the calypsonian Roaring Lion (1988), Errol Hill (1972), Andrew Carr (1975), and Andrew Pearse (1956) posed the idea that not only did Trinidad's Carnival originate in Europe, but that all Carnivals have their common origin there. Newspapers, magazines, and even schoolbooks in the Caribbean have all since associated the festival with France.
DeLeon names his book Calypso from France; Errol Hill noted that the "black slaves did not participate" (1976:54); Andrew Carr pointed out that "from 1783, for half a century, they (the French) developed the Carnival" (1975: 57); and a reference book published by UNESCO in 1989 pointed out that "the people who brought the Carnival to Trinidad began arriving around 1785" (Anthony 1989:1).
Little or no credit has been given to the thousands of Africans who settled in the colony as en-slaved men and women to fill the coffers of their European overlords with wealth arising from the production of sugar-cane, coffee, and cocoa.
To most academic writers "the Africans began to take part in Carnival after they had attained freedom under the Emancipation Bill of 1833" (Carr 1975:57). To add further insult to injury, one writer refused to pay them credit for contributing even as freed men, noting that: all the Carnival activities of the slaves still had to be in the slave-yards because the slaves could not venture out onto the streets. But it is interesting that there was a little of what one would call street Carnival because at that stage there were thousands of one-time slaves who had attained their freedom." (Anthony 1989:4)
Michael Anthony's Eurocentric,." attitude is further demonstrated when he contradicts himself, asserting that "at Carnival time these Free Blacks took to the streets - not having great houses of course, nor the desire for the genteel and sedate atmosphere of the masked balls (of whites)." Imagine thousands of freed Africans on the streets - yet Anthony sees in this "little of what one would call street Carnival" (1989:4).
What historical data are there for European and Caribbean academics to associate Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago with Europe or with Europeans? The season of Lent was for Christians one of fasting, praying, and alms deeds. Most Christians feasted excessively before Lent. This feasting, however, was so much associated with paganism that the Protestants sought to abolish pre-Lenten feasting and even the Lenten fast.
Many persons, however, especially Catholics, continued to embark on the pagan feasting before carrying out the penitential rigors of Lent. While accepting the fast and other harsh Lenten penances as sacrificial atonement for their sins, Catholics are reported to have pressured the Church to accept the pagan feastings, and "forced parish priests to take part in them" (LeRoy Ladurie 1979:308). In the Carnival of Rome, as described by Edward Gibbon "riotous youths (...) ran naked about the fields" (33) and "women prostituted themselves to strangers" (in Tallant 1948:86-87).
These were some of the sins for which Christians wished wished to atone. The Church tried to stamp out the pagan practices that became associated with the Carnival in Europe but was forced to compromise as the festival, imbued with Christian significance, spread to Madrid, Vienna, Barcelona, Warsaw, and France (Tallant 1948:88).
In their Christianizing zeal, Spanish and English Catholics sought to change the lives of the Amerindians of Trinidad, and of the Africans who were brought in later as part of the New World slave trade. Trinidad, an island with an area of 1,864 square miles and situated 13 miles off the coast of Venezuela, was first in the 16th century by the who learned of its existence from the reports of Columbus.
In an effort to make the land productive, the Spaniards organized the Amerindian into encomiendas, but the 6,000 Amerindians found in 1553 were so badly overworked that they were almost decimated by the 18th century. By 1826, only 655 of them could be found (Williams 1962:2-5).
As such, the Spaniards devised the Cedula Population plan whereby thousands of Frenchmen from the neighboring islands of Grenada, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and St. Dominique poured into Trinidad. Besides the continental elite Frenchmen, thousands of free coloured French planters took advantage of the offer of free land, and, with their enslaved Africans, established flourishing estates on the island (see: Cedula of Population in Fraser (1891) 1971: Appendix I, i-v) 4.
In 1796, Spain declared war on England, and as Trinidad commanded an ideal position as a base for trading with the Spanish-American colonies, Britain decided to capture the island. In 1979, with few ships defend the colony, and with Spain unable to send either ships or men, the Spanish Governor Don Jose Maria Chacon surrendered to the British to avoid senseless bloodshed. Britain then administered the island through the instruments of a governor with wide powers, and a Council of Advice comprising planters of all nationalities nominated by the governor.
As Britain controlled policy making within and without the island, British merchants supplied enslaved Africans to the French planters. After the abolition of the slave trade in 1808, British merchants continued to crowd the island with Africans from neighboring Caribbean islands.
After the abolition of slavery, freed Africans, eager to gain a living from the increased wealth of the island occasioned by the production of sugar, coffee, and cocoa, poured into the island from around the Caribbean. In 1803, the population amounted to 2,361 whites, 5,275 coloureds, and 20,464 enslaved Africans (Fraser 1891) 1971:149). By 1830, Trinidad had the largest population of all the English-speaking islands in the Caribbean save Jamaica, and the largest population of free coloureds, who numbered 16,000. The enslaved population then was 22,750.6.
Trinidad, then, from 1783 when the first boatload of Frenchmen came, to 1838 when the Africans were freed, was a plantation island ruled politically from 1979 by Britain, but fashioned socially and culturally by France. The planters were faced with a severe shortage of labor yet were anxious to get rich quickly so they continued to import Africans from Africa, indentured East Indians and Chinese from Asia, Portuguese from Madeira, and many others from Syria and Lebanon.
There is evidence that the Europeans who came as early settlers to Trinidad and Tobago were not only experienced in the Carnival tradition, but they also had a propensity for feteing. It is this festive activity in Trinidad on the part of Europeans that has led to the erroneous Eurocentric belief that the origins of Trinidad's carnival lay in Europe.
In any case, Robert Tallant, who researched the roots of Europeans festivities, has shown that European Carnivals date back to the Egyptian of Africa, who thousands of years ago, held Carnival festivities in celebration of the fertility of the earth and women, as well as the replenishment of their food stocks (1948:85). According to Tallant, the roots of Mardi Gras very obviously lie in Africa (83-85).
The Carnival of the French
French planters brought to Trinidad a legacy of Carnivals. In Romans, a town located southeast of Lyons, as early as 1560, there was an annual Mardi Gras parade. Long before 1560, however, Christians in France celebrated the pre-Lenten season with pagan excesses climaxing on Mardi Gras with parades and mock trials of effigies (LeRoy Ladurie 1979:I-xvi).
The same practices occurred in Trinidad before Ash Wednesday when French Planters drowned their mundane cares in alcohol, parties, and house-to-house visits. With the of the French Revolution, the Mardi Gras parade and face masks banned by the revolutionary government as being "beneath the dignity of a citizen" (Tallant 1948:92).
This must have been the reason why the French in Trinidad joined with the English authorities in banning the face masks and Carnival disguises they disliked. In doing so, the French called the Africans who participated in 19th century Trinidad Carnival jamettes, a term that had its root in the French word diameter, which meant "below the diameter of respectability or the underworld" (Pearse 1956:175-93).
About the Author
Hollis Urban Liverpool is the Director of Culture for the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. He holds a B.A. and a M.A. in History from the University of the West Indies, a M.A. in African History and a Ph.D. in History and Ethnomusicology from the University of Michigan, a Diploma in Education from the University of the West Indies, and a Certificate of Philosophy from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Since receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, he has published four books and monographs on Carnival. As the calypsonian Chalkdust, he has been crowned Calypso Monarch of Trinidad and Tobago five times.
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