Today, Carnival in Trinidad represents a beautiful mixture of upbeat music, vibrant costume, and joyful celebration, all rooted in the history and culture of the region. Trinidad Carnival is considered to be one of the best Carnivals in the world, open to anyone who wishes to attend. However, Carnival was not always as open and free as we now know it to be.
From 1498 up until 1776, Trinidad was one of the many colonies of the old Spanish Empire. In the late 18th century, King Carlos III of Spain declared two Cédulas, one in 1776, and a second in 1783, the latter of which being an edict of “28 articles governing several forms of land grants to encourage population growth, naturalisation of inhabitants, taxation, armament of slave owners, the duty and function of a militia to protect the island, and merchant and trade issues”. It allowed for mass immigration of people, primarily from the French Antilles, namely Grenada, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Dominica, to settle on the island. Any free person of the Roman Catholic faith who was willing to swear allegiance to the Spanish was granted the right to move to the island, with promises of several acres of land given to said immigrants, depending on their race, social class, and number of slaves they owned. This immigration policy brought Trinidad’s population from about 1000 in 1773 to 18,627 by 1797, which laid the foundation for the growth of the island to what it is today. In 1797, the British invaded Trinidad and colonised it, and proceeded to take over in the same manner as they did with Jamaica and Barbados.
Carnival is a Lenten celebration, and during Lent in the years 1783 to 1838, it was celebrated exclusively by the white upper class; coloureds (gens de couleur libres) and Africans, free or not, were all forbidden from engaging in Carnival-related activities. The emancipation of enslaved Africans in 1838 put an end to this, allowing all people to celebrate Carnival in whichever way they saw fit.
Celebrations in the pre-emancipation era were a lot different to what we now recognise as Trinidad Carnival. White people dressed up as negues jadin (nègres jardin, French for garden negroes) and mulâtresses (enslaved women with one Black parent and one white one) to re-enact practices maintained during slavery – when cane in the plantations caught alight, causing a fire to break out, the enslaved were rounded up by the plantation owners and were forced into the danger area to collect all the cane surrounding the fire to prevent its loss. This re-enactment is known as Cannes Brûlées, meaning burnt canes in French. After emancipation, the Afro-Creole population, with their regained freedom, effectively reclaimed the celebration, which was clearly a glorification of domination of the subjugated enslaved. It was renamed Canboulay; originally observed on August 1st (commemorating emancipation) for its first ten years before being moved to the pre-Lenten period, Canboulay involved revellers carrying burning sugar canes, engaging in masquerade dances, and following numerous other festive activities.
The practices of the Western colonial forces were almost completely erased; West African instruments and dances replaced those of European influence. The most notable introduction to Canboulay was the Kalenda, a stick dance usually performed by men, which consisted of a mock stick-fight between two in a circle. Each would be equipped with a boi of three-and-a-half to four feet long. Each stick-fighter represented a different social group among the revellers, and each group was led by a so-called chantuelle, a female singer, accompanied by a chorus of women, whose purpose was to intimidate and distract the fighter on the opposing side, as well as to galvanise the spirit of their own man. This grouping of people marching with musical instruments was the predecessor to the organised Carnival bands we see today.
Furthermore, the African population often gathered in so-called Kaiso tents, inside which a chantwell would lead the congregation in song, as a way for the people to express their inner feelings; a practice whose roots as a cultural celebration are undeniably West African (usually attributed to the people of the former Kingdom of Kongo). These melodies, coupled with the extensive use of varied instruments, served as the predecessor to calypso and soca music.
Government attempts to crack down on Canboulay
As one can imagine, the British authorities were not pleased with this newly-found African expression. With French power in the decline, and with the British determined to consolidate and widen the influence of its Empire, they tried to do everything in their power to suppress the freedom of expression of Black people in Trinidad. Canboulay and its attendees were therein vilified by contemporary French and British media, as well as the British colonial government, which all referred to the celebrations under a new term, jamette.
The word jamette carried negative connotations, indicating that Canboulay was celebrated by the “lowest” in society: criminals, stick-fighters, prostitutes, chantuelles, and many more. These people predominantly lived in East Port of Spain, which was unfortunately plagued with high levels of crime, disease, unemployment, and several other unfavourable circumstances in the area, due to the socio-economic factors faced by the former enslaved people. The senior British authorities focused on these problems, and (inaccurately) blamed their prevalence on the inherently “decadent” nature of the African population and its tendency to hold “unsavoury” street parties. While many other Anglophone islands in the Caribbean saw much less derision of African freedom of expression, an important difference to note here would be the proximity of the Black population to white people; both co-resided in Port of Spain. Emancipated African people elsewhere in the Caribbean generally lived in isolation from the white colonisers. Thus, in post-emancipation Trinidad, this immediate closeness to such a bold and proud culture made white authorities extremely uncomfortable and unsettled.
R. G. Hamilton, a colonial office representative from London, who lived in Trinidad throughout the 1870s, called Canboulay a “senseless, irrational amusement, that affords a pretext for the indulgence of unbridled licentiousness on the part of the worst of the population.” The Trinidad Sentinel disgustingly depicted Canboulay as an “orgy of every species of barbarism and crime.”
The British government began to implement laws to try to crack down on the Canboulay celebrations:
1846 – The outlawing of masks and masquerading
1849 – Laws allowed to police to actively restrict “dancing and music at specific times…in the streets and towns.”
1880 – All uses and forms of African percussion were banned.
However, fervent attempts to shut down Canboulay were met with great resistance from the people, with Canboulay bands continuing to perform and operate, and one actually saw a growth in numbers of participants in this notably more tumultuous period. Tensions had been rising between the African population and the whites for many years, and matters reached crisis point on 28th February, 1881.
Captain Arthur Baker, Inspector Commandant and chief of police in Trinidad for the British Empire, had been extremely determined to bring an end to the Canboulay parties, and is said to have made a drunken bet with a friend of his on the night of the 27th that he would indeed be able to do something to end Canboulay once and for all. He organised 150 police officers on the morning of the 28th and ordered them to go to Market Street in Port of Spain. Canboulay attendees were numerous that night, all of whom were resolute and unintimidated. Some had brought broken rum bottles and stones along with them for protection in case the police began to attack them for breaking the colonial laws. The police and Canboulay participants clashed for almost three hours across Trinidad, in Port of Spain, Princes Town, and San Fernando. Towards the end of the clash, after a British man was struck in the head with a stone, police opened fire, killing one and wounding two others. The crowd of Canboulay attendees then eventually dispersed in fear of their lives. Four police officers were killed in total, with another thirty-eight injured.
As a result of the Canboulay Uprising in 1881, Governor Freeling promised that “there shall be no interference with your masquerade,” which unfortunately did not last long, as, in the following years, the colonial government returned to increasing control over Canboulay, which was eventually stopped in 1884, and replaced by a much less open version of celebrations, now known as j’ouvert, on the Monday preceding Ash Wednesday.
The Canboulay Uprising of February 1881 was a fantastic testament to the undying passion of people of African descent in Trinidad refusing to relinquish their dedication to the celebration of their new culture in the face of oppression. While Canboulay in its original form was eventually cancelled, it is re-enacted every year on Carnival Friday, and it undoubtedly paved the way for the modern Trinidad Carnival and its associated observations, and will forever signify the resilience of Black culture against restrictive and destructive forces.