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 decided that Carnival was too important a national festival to be left in the hands of private enterprise. The CDC (Carnival Development Committee) was therefore set up in 1957 and given the responsibility of managing the carnival celebrations. The festival began to resemble its present day form with Jour Ouvert (later anglicized to J’Ouvert) opening Carnival Monday from 4.00 am to 12.00 noon.
By mid-century, Carnival was completely under the control of the central government. This meant more funding, more structure and increased participation by all sectors. This was the “Golden Age of Carnival”. Bandleaders and designers sought inspiration from history, films, great personalities and world events as they conceptualized their portrayals winning pieces. The economic aspect of Carnival was evident even then as businessmen responded to the opportunities created for the importation of fine fabrics and accessories for costumes. Masqueraders too, were aware of the benefits of being crowned King or Queen of Carnival.
By the mid-1950s, mas became very competitive and a “Band of the Year” award was initiated in 1955 to recognize the effort that was being put into the presentations. In 1956, participation was on the increase and more than ten bands crossed the Queen’s Park Savannah stage with over 300 masqueraders. From 1957 to 1959, the Band-of-the-Year first place winner was awarded $500. In 1957, an innovative bandleader from Woodbrook, Port-of-Spain, by the name of George Bailey, made a stunning appearance on the mas scene, at the young age of 21, and changed the face of Carnival forever. The authenticity of his presentation Back to Africa won Bailey Band-of-the-Year honours that year when he beat back other breathtaking presentations such as Irwin McWilliams’ Ten Commandments and Harold Saldenah’s The Glory That Was Greece. The extensive research that was reflected in the splendour of Bailey’s presentation compelled others to follow suit in later years.
In 1961, the first prize for the Band-of-the-Year was increased from $500 to $1,000 and, in 1963, a breakthrough was scored by steelbands when the Silver Stars Steelband of Newtown, Port-of-Spain, copped the Band-of-the-Year title with its presentation of Gulliver’s Travels. It would be the first and only time in the 20th century that this feat would be accomplished by a steelband. By the mid-1960s, bands began to move from historical to fantasy themes and by 1969, the masquerading population was on the increase.
Today, Carnival is Trinidad and Tobago’s main tourist attraction and has inspired several Carnivals in cities where citizens of Trinidad and Tobago have settled, including New York, Toronto, Miami and London. Other Caribbean islands such as Jamaica, St.Vincent and Grenada have similar festivities but Trinidad and Tobago Carnival remains the greatest show on earth.