Carnival in Trinidad has grown out of the collective experience of all people who have come to this island from Spanish times, prior to 1797, on through to the present day. Carnival is essentially Roman Catholic in origin. Its earliest participants must have been the Spanish settlers who, in isolation, living in the little hamlets bearing beautiful names like San José de Oruna and Puerto de los Hispanioles, would have danced the medieval “burroquete” in the muddy streets accompanied by guitar, fiddle and drum. The local Amerindians must have been looking on in amazement.
Hardly drawing a crowd, the pre-Lenten fiesta would have been at most a dozen or so people dressed in rags, alpagattas and battered straw hats. The priests, the Governor, the chief of police, and of course the donkey costumes into which a man or boy got to prance about, waving the little ass’ head from side to side, making mincing steps in a parody of riding merrily. The burroquete mas is ancient, having its origins in north Africa and finding itself marooned in Spain after the withdrawal of the Moors in the 1490s. Eventually, it was brought to the New World.
In the period before 1783, before the influence of the French and Africans, it has been suggested that the population was as follows:
Spanish white - 126
Coloured - 245
Slaves - 310
Amerindians (Carib) - 2000
With the Cedula of Population of 1783, a dramatic change took place. The island, though a Spanish colony, received a French population. These French, made up largely of the petit noblesse of France’s southern provinces, brought with them many slaves. They came mostly from Dominica, St. Vincent, Martinique and Grenada. Amongst them were a great number of people of colour, who were not enslaved. Those were the descendants of earlier French settlers and African slaves. The institution of slavery was then seen by Europeans and Africans, by Christians and Muslims, as an economic reality. It meant that these free black people who came to Trinidad possessed slaves as well.
The population of Trinidad just before the British conquest in 1797 was as follows:
Spanish white: 150
Spanish coloured: 200
Africans enslaved: 300
French white: 2250
French coloured: 4700
African enslaved: 9700
Being almost entirely Catholic in their faith, the French in Trinidad just like the Spaniards observed Lent and celebrated Carnival. It is said that the French combined an aristocratic tradition and their natural tendency to “contagious gaiety, brilliant verbal sally and comic buffoonery” in their version of Carnival. This gave the festival a different flair altogether. Historians say that this period of Trinidad’s development, that is, the 1790s, was marked by a certain degree of racial ease. In as much as both the whites and the free coloureds were sharing the frontier town experience, having freshly immigrated, there was an atmosphere of modest mingling. In fact, there was a lot of so-called ‘miscegenation’ taking place! It was only with the advent of the British conquerors that this changed.
Carnival celebrations of the turn of the 19th century were enjoyed by both groups of the population. But what of the several thousand slaves?
Port of Spain had then a large slave population which acted as domestics. What of the hundreds of slaves who moved about on their masters’ business, as messengers, sailors, wagon drivers, etc.? According to tradition, they took no part in Carnival. A memory by Ofuba the chantwell, a slave who sang “Neg deye polla” has been preserved, picturing a slave peeping from behind the door at the Carnival fête of the French masters (“Nègre derrière la porte”).
By the 1820s, during Governor Woodford’s term, the free persons of colour were subjected to very stringent regulations, and although it was not forbidden to wear masks, they were compelled to keep to themselves and never presumed to join the amusements of the privileged class.
The Caribs were moving in their own world, their own time and space. Their rapidly diminishing share in the population did not share in the realities of the European and African immigrants, who in turn may not have noticed them particularly.
A description of a Carnival ball has come down to us. Mrs. Bruce’s ball in 1831 was attended by “the beauty and fashion of Port of Spain, composing a motley assemblage of elegantly dressed ladies, largely Swiss damsels, French marquises, English noblemen, grooms, postillions, priests and friars” (the latter costumes have been banned since then). The French also disguised as their servants and slaves, their husbands and mistresses. One costume was the graceful and costly one of the “mulatresse” of the time, whilst gentlemen adopted that of the “nègres du jardin” (in Patois ‘neg jardin’) or field labourer. In that costume the gentleman often figured in the “bamboola” in the “giouba” and in the “calinda”, all popular local dance steps of the era.
The French would often unite in bands, their faces blackened with soot, representing different estates. Lionel Fraser, who wrote a history of Trinidad, relates:
“In the days of slavery, whenever a fire broke out upon an estate, the slaves of the surrounding properties were immediately mustered and marched to the spot, horns and shells were blown to collect them and the gangs were followed by drivers cracking their whips and urging them with cries and blows to their work. After emancipation, the negroes began to represent this scene as a kind of commemoration of the change in their condition and the procession of ‘cannes brulées’ used to take place on the night of the 1st of August, the date of emancipation.”
In later years, the practice of cannes brulées was used at a different time of year to inaugurate Carnival. With emancipation, social life was altered between the free black people and the slaves. The ancient lines of demarcation between them as classes were obliterated. Fraser remarks:
“As a natural consequence, the Carnival degenerated into a noisy and disorderly amusement of the lower classes. The earliest record of an attempt to regulate or control Carnival appears in 1833. An attempt was made by Mr. Peake (assistant to the chief of police) to check the shameful violation of the Sabbath by the lower order of the population who are accustomed about this time of year to wear masks and created disturbances on a Sunday.”
Peake arrested several people. On returning to his home, he found that all his windows had been broken.