Carnival has been celebrated in Trinidad for well over 200 years. The pre-Lenten festival was originally brought here by French settlers in the late 1700s (it was a tradition in many of the Roman Catholic European states) and then gradually transformed by African-Trinidadians and others during the 1800s and 1900s.
But how can we know what Carnival was like in the past? What sources are available that will allow us to reconstruct, as far as possible, the sights and sounds of the festival, and to understand the social and cultural meanings of what people did?
There are no films of Carnival before the 1930s or 1940s, and virtually no photographs before 1900. We do have a few drawings, notably the famous one by the British artist Melton Prior, showing a parade on Frederick Street during the 1888 Carnival, which was published that year in the Illustrated London News and has been often reproduced. Recordings of Carnival-related music began in 1914.
So our knowledge of what Carnival was like before the 20th century is mainly based on written descriptions and on oral traditions. Oral traditions and reminiscences about “old time” Carnival were recorded and published, for instance, by the anthropologists Andrew Pearse (British), Daniel Crowley (American) and Andrew Carr (Trinidadian) in the 1950s.
The colonial newspapers provide by far the best documentary evidence. Starting in the 1840s, each Carnival season they reported, and commented on, the events of the festival. The newspapers form the major source for studies like John Cowley’s important Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso: Traditions in the Making, which examines the festival’s evolution between the 1790s and 1920.
In addition to the reports, letters and editorials in the newspapers, other written descriptions can be found in official documents and in memoirs and travel books by residents or visitors. Of course, all these sources must be used with caution, recognising the biases and cultural ignorance usually found in accounts of popular festivals by writers of a different class and/or ethnicity.
One of the best known events of 19th-century Carnival was the 1881 Canboulay Riots, which was a violent confrontation in east Port of Spain between the colonial police under Captain Baker, and men and women who were resisting his attempt to stop the unruly torch-light procession known as Canboulay which took place on the Sunday night before Carnival Monday.
Living in 2014, it’s perhaps hard to believe no-one was killed and only a few men, on both sides, were seriously hurt; no guns were involved, and the weapons were police batons and staves (sticks) carried by the rioters, plus stones and bottles.
The local newspapers in 1881—there were three or four, though none was a daily paper—reported and commented on these events. In addition, the Colonial Office sent a British official to investigate the riots, and his report, known as “The Hamilton Report into the Disturbances in Connexion with the Carnival”, was published in the Port of Spain Gazette in October 1881.
Considering that this report was written by a British colonial official, it provides a surprisingly balanced account of the riots and their causes. Hamilton concluded that the riot was caused by the maskers’ belief that the police were planning to stop the whole Canboulay procession, based on their action in 1880 when they had forcibly put out the torches. A related cause was the “want of judgment” of some policemen in their dealings with the city’s working-class residents, and the generally poor relations between the police and the public in Trinidad.
When he came to consider the future of Carnival, Hamilton doubted that it would simply “die out” as education spread, a view held by some locals. Nor did he believe it should be entirely and forcibly repressed, as some members of the British elite advocated. Such a policy, he recognised, would be bitterly resented as an unjust interference with a legitimate working-class holiday.
Hamilton thought Carnival should be allowed to continue, but under careful regulation. The torchlight night-time procession (Canboulay) should not be banned, but should be restricted to a part of the city, perhaps the Queen’s Park Savannah, where there was less danger of fire, and less annoyance to residents. (The procession was noisy and violent, involving frequent fights between bands.) The agreed regulations about the carrying of torches and parading at night should be publicised months before each Carnival, and then rigidly enforced. Hamilton concluded his report by saying the police should be supported, but their relations with the public had to be improved.
In recommending that Carnival should be allowed to continue, and specifically that Canboulay should be regulated but not banned, Hamilton showed himself to be more open-minded, and less hostile to the African-Creole festival, than sections of the local upper and middle classes. In fact, Canboulay was permanently abolished by the local government in 1883-84, and the festival as a whole came under much stricter police regulation in the late 1880s and the 1890s.
In Part 2, I’ll look at two contrasting views of Carnival at the turn of the nineteenth century.
• Bridget Brereton is Emerita
Professor of History at UWI, St
Augustine, and has studied and written about the history of Trinidad and Tobago, and the Caribbean,
for many decades