From the time the first bamboo buss, and they drag it down from up in the St Ann’s hills to make music for the earliest bands of batonniers and maskers, the middle- and upper-class guards of underclass morality have been attempting to purge Carnival of its, well, Carnival elements. In fact, these attempts started almost as soon as the Carnival kicked off in the early years following 1838. They have travelled unashamedly unchanged into the 21st century.
The latter half of the 19th century was defined by relentless attempts to sanitise the Carnival, which was by then firmly in the hands of the underclass, the Jamettes whom Prof Bridget Brereton identified as “singers, dancers, drummers, stickmen, prostitutes, pimps and bad johns”. Newspaper editorials, referenced extensively by Brereton, reveal how the morality of the inhabitants of this tiny island—our fore parents—was constantly policed in much the same way it is being policed today.
Then, as now, governing authorities perceived the whole Jamette Carnival to be deeply offensive to their script of respectable behaviour; it was too noisy, too boisterous, too disordered, too sexually explicit. As more and more freed Africans participated in Carnival, more and more of the elites withdrew.
Then, as now, it was the explicitly sexual displays that most offended middle- and upper-class respectability. And this was, then and now, the intention; in the belly of Trinidad Carnival are challenges to moral and political authority, turning respectability on its head, rearranging the common order of things, wining in the face of religious morality, subversion of moral codes and relief from the authority imposed by a democracy that is not really democratic. Gyal, you could get charge for wining like that! Gyal, you could make a jail!
The commentaries then and now are uncannily, and sadly, similar: “...the immoral bands of men and women... base their right of existence on their power to outrage all that society holds most dear, and all that religion imposes” (1877).
“...Hordes of men and women, youthful in years but matured in every vice that perverts and degrades humanity, dwell together in all the rude licentiousness of barbarian life: men without aim, without occupation and without any recognised mode of existence—women wanton, perverse, and depraved beyond expression” (1875).
“...respectable inhabitants are scandalised and outraged by exhibitions that are not only neither amusing nor entertaining, but are decidedly unchaste in character and demoralising in tendency”.
Were ag Senior Supt Johnny Abraham alive in the 19th century, he would likely be among those policemen gleeful to enforce all the legislative controls on Carnival participants that were imposed at that time: the 1868 ordinance against torch bearing, masking and drumming; the Habitual Criminals Ordinance of 1875; the 1883 Peace Preservation Ordinance; the 1890-91 proclamation that no missiles, including flour, could be thrown at onlookers; the 1893 law that those intending to mask as pierrots had to register with the police.
A significant casualty of the trending legislative controls on Carnival was the pissenlit, a mas that the present generation have never and perhaps will never see again. Brereton describes it as the most notorious masquerade performed by bands of jamettes roaming the streets singing “lewd” songs. Translated as “stinker”, pissenlit was played by masked men dressed as women in long, transparent nightgowns, some of whom carried menstrual cloths with red stains. They “gyrated” and sang “obscene” songs; one movement involved a poui stick held between the legs.
What, oh what would LeRoy (Clarke)have done were he witness to the commonplace transvestitism of the early Carnival!
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The shame being showered is not for the masqueraders or the Carnival, but for those educated in the independence and post-independence periods who were to take the nation of Trinidad and Tobago forward but instead continue to guide it right back into a colonial paradigm. Our leaders and speechmakers are dense with sentiment they believe to be their own when they are simply deputies of a contemptuous colonialism.
As a people, we have not yet outgrown the self-rejection inherited by the enslaved and indentured. We still walk burdened by shame for ourselves and guilt that we are who we are.
But as Carnival survived colonial impositions, so too it will survive this ambush by politicians, police and priests. No doubt sanitisation will continue; National Security Minister Gary Griffith has said there will be even more police involvement next year, the NCC speaks of Carnival as an “industry”, the NCBA is a one-man Carnival show featuring demonstrations of arrogance, ego and arbitrariness and the Socadrome will extract the monied from the masses.
Jamettes, however, are a stubborn, renewable natural resource and as the controls tighten and Carnival is increasingly removed from Carnival, I have no doubt that in time those wishing to truly play themselves will retire from the organised structure and take independent control of what is theirs.
• Columnist’s note: Works by Bridget Brereton, Hollis Liverpool and John Cowley on Carnival in the 19th century are gratefully acknowledged.