Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago is one of grandeur, colour, revelry, rhythm, and gaiety. Evolving over the past two centuries from an elegant, exclusive affair to a truly all-inclusive national festival, it is by far the most spectacular event on the nation’s calendar. Although a major part of the Trinidad Carnival mystique lies in its unique ability to bring people of diverse backgrounds together in harmonious circumstances, the festival was not born to such noble pursuits.
From the inception of street parades in 1839 and for more than 100 years thereafter, the celebration flowed in two distinctly different social streams – upper and lower classes. For the most part, the upper classes held their masked balls in the great houses of sugar estates during the 19th century Carnivals, then mobilized the mas (but maintained their distance), by using the trays of lorries as their stage until well into the 1950s.
In order to fully understand the development of this festival, it is necessary to examine the complex historical, social, cultural and political contexts which gave birth to this national celebration.
In 1498, Christopher Columbus landed in Trinidad and, as was the practice in the so called age of Discovery and Exploration, took possession of the island in the name of the King and Queen of Spain. The island did not have the promise of immense wealth like the other countries in Spain’s Western empire. Trinidad was, therefore, largely ignored for over two hundred and fifty years.
In 1776, out of concern for this state of affairs, the Spanish king issued a Cedula of Population, which opened the island to colonization by the French. A second Cedula followed in 1783. This saw an even larger influx of planters from the French West Indian islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint Dominigue. Arriving also were Free Coloureds and Africans. The French brought with them their cultural traditions, language, dress, food and customs.
In 1797, Trinidad was captured by the British and was made a crown colony of Great Britain. The British immediately began the process of colonization as they had in Barbados and Jamaica two centuries before.
In this era, the period between Christmas and Lent was marked by great merrymaking and feasting by both the French and English. Historians of the nineteenth century wrote about the balls, fetes champetres (country style parties) and house to house visiting engaged in by the white upper class. It was also the custom of the British to impose martial law during the Christmas season. Military exercises were performed at the start of this martial law.
The Carnival celebrations between 1783 and 1838 were dominated by the white elite. Africans and coloureds (persons of mixed race) were forbidden by law to participate in street festivities. This is not to say that they did not celebrate in their own way in their compounds.
During this period also, there were numerous balls, parties and other entertainment. This gave the Africans some measure of freedom to enjoy themselves and engage in merry making. These festivities, along with the pomp and ceremony involved in imposing martial law, provided the Africans with ideas for some of the earliest masquerades for Carnival.
The pre-emancipation Carnival saw whites costume themselves as Negues Jadin (Negres Jardin – French for Garden Negroes) and mulatresses. They also reenacted the Cannes Brulées (French for Burning Canes): the practice of rounding up slaves to put out fires in the cane field. With the emancipation of the slaves in 1838, however, the door was opened for the full participation of the Africans in the Carnival.