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Trinidad Carnival History

Carnival today is the end result of the evolution of an expressive cultural artform. To visitors it seems to be natural in every Trinbagonian despite of race, colour, creed and class. The festivity consists of many ingredients that over time has been expertly woven into the very fabric of Trinidad Carnival. Calypso, steelband and costuming are the main factors in our celebrations and when that is mixed with the human element the end result is Trinidad Carnival. Full of pomp, splendour, gaiety, joy, tears and laughter. One must not forget the bachanal element; without this main ingredient our carnival would be like the others that are held in major cities all over the world. Here is a historical perspective of our carnival.

Carnival is a pot-pouri of cultural expressions, drawn from European and African influences; that we celebrate along the catholic church calender. That is the time we celebrate our carnival is determined by the Catholic Church calender, our carnival is held every year on the Monday and Tuesday preceeding lent the two days before Ash wednesday.
We must remember that the Spanish and French colonialist brought catholiscism with them when they rediscovered the "New World". Christopher Columbus made first landfall in the Caribbean in 1492; and later on to Trinidad in 1498 when the island began its new-world history under the flag of Spain.

Carlton R Ottley one of Trinidad and Tobago historical writers states:

"Carnival had come to Trinidad sometime in the 1780 s with the arrival of the flood of French immigrants. It is true that the Spaniards did celebrate with disguise balls before that, but, the beginning of the festival.

Masqueraders such as known today, may be said to be a product of those early French men and women who sought refuge here towards the close of the (18th) century".

The beginings of Carnival may have started through the 16th and 17th Centuries, roots must have been there for it to have spread in the Caribbean, Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans alike. As to whether Carnival started somewhere in the West Indies, and then spread further afield is debateable.

Costumed MasqueraderWhat is clearly evident, is that the character of the Caribbean islands is very different. Populated by different cultures, over different timelines, under different conditions of wealth, health, religion and stewardship, the carnivals have evolved in the Caribbean region , are different with each island having their own style and one can see the difference when we look at the size and styles of costumes and the music the dance and even the number of participants. But the spirit of carnival is a common thread through out the region.Trinidad and Tobago carnival hads evolved along stronger national and community lines and this is evident by the thousands of participants every year and in 2008 the official reports are saying that the numbers are increasing.


19 Century Mas in Port of Spain
Let us look at what Carlton R Ottley wrote about some early carnivals in Trinidad; at the turn of the 19th Century.
Additional extracts are shown to provide notes on some practices at Christmas, that then led up to the event of Carnival.

"Although (Lieutenant Colonel Thomas) Picton (Military and Civil Governor or Trinidad - 1797 to 1802) had dispossessed the free coloured people of many of their privileges, they remained free to take part in all the many festivities especially carnival, which to Trinidadians of the early 19th Century was the culmination of an annual season of great jollification and unrestrained merriment.The season was heralded with the mustering of the companies of militia. Simultaneous with the calling out of the troops martial law was annually declared on December 23rd"

Martial law ended on January 8th, but the festivities once started went on without interruption. The wealthy of the city (Port of Spain) kept open house for their country cousins. There was a succession of balls, dinners, picnics, in all parts of town. The country was deserted. Everybody came to town. Trinidadians both ended and started their year with festivities. In the intervening months no opportunity was missed to celebrate the occasion whatever that might be.

The last night of martial law was the occasion for the grand ball at Government House, when the elite of the land, jigged and polkaed and waltzed, to the strains of the music supplied by the band of the 3rd West India Regiment, at the time stationed in the island. Under the Spanish regime, the free coloured people were among those who attended balls at the Governor s residence, but with the apparent determination of all British Governors from Picton onwards to support the French aristocracy in its fight to keep the coloured inhabitants in their places, they were excluded from these balls much to their anger and disgust.Be that as it may, the festivities of Trinidad went right on undiminished until the carnival season was heralded in. This was the stimulus for the greatest exertions in the provision of gay diversions and complete abandon.

There are several eye-witness accounts of Trinidad carnival of the early 19th century. These are of great importance in understanding the significance of this festival in the life of the islanders today.An English officer, in 1826, wrote to a friend: "I wish Bayley you had been here in the time of the carnival. You have no idea of the gaiety of the place in that season. Ovid s metamorphoses were nothing compared to the changes that took place in the persons of catholic Trinidad. High and low, rich and poor, learned and unlearned, all found masking suits for the carnival. A party of ladies having converted themselves into a party of brigands assailed me in my quarters and nearly frightened me out of my wits. I was just going to cut and run when Ensign... who was  with me, not knowing the joke, and thinking they were so many devils come to take him before his time drew his sword.."
(From these pages: Carnival Monday 6th February 1826)



Another eye-witness account of carnival of that time runs thus:

Having Fun"I was residing in Trinidad during the carnival, which commenced on Sunday, the 7th March at mid-night. I had seen the carnival at Florence, at Syra in Greece, and in Rome; and was now about to witness a Negro masquerade, which from its squalid splendour, was not unamusing, cheapness being the grand requisite".
"The maskers paraded the streets in gangs of from ten to twenty, occasionally joining forces in procession. The primitives were Negroes, as nearly naked as might be bedaubed with a black varnish. One of this gang had a long chain and padlock attached to his leg, which chain the others pulled. What this typified, I was unable to learn; but, as the chained one was occasionally thrown down on the ground, and treated with a mock bastina doing it probably represented slavery".

Each mask was armed with a good stout quarter-staff, so that they could overcome one half more police than themselves, should occasion present itself. Parties of Negro ladies danced through the streets, each clique distinguished by bodices of the same colour. Every Negro, male and female, wore a white flesh coloured mask, their wooly hair carefully concealed by handkerchiefs; this contrasted with the black bosom and arms was droll in the extreme".

"Those ladies who aimed at the superior civilization of shoes and stockings, invariably clothe their pedal extremeties in pink silk stockings and blue, white, or yellow kid shoes, sandalled their sturdy legs. For the men, the predominating character was pulinchinello; every second Negro at least, aiming at playing the continental jack-pudding. Pirates were very common, dressed in Guernsey frocks, full scarlet trousers. and red woollen cap with wooden pistols for arms. From the utter want of spirit, and sneaking deportment of these corsairs, I presumed them to have come from the Pacific. Turks also there were and one highlander, a most udicrous figure, a caricature of the Gael, being arrayed in scarlet coat, huge grenadier cap, kilt of light blue chintz, striped with white, a most indescribable philibeg, black legs of course, and white socks bound with dirty pink ribbon".
( From these pages: Carnival Monday 8th March 1886 )

Chapter 22 - Trinidad militia Military law proclaimed each year
Chapter 23 - Ball at Government House Carnival Description of disguises

Slavery Days in Trinidad: A social history of the island from 1797 - 1838
Carlton Robert Ottley (From Tobago) 1974 - Printed by Syncreators Ltd - Trinidad

 
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