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The Carnivals of Yesteryear

Published: 
Sunday, March 5, 2017
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Actors portraying police officers under Captain Baker attack other members of the cast during a scene from the Canboulay Re-enactment on Piccadilly Street in Port of Spain on Carnival Friday.

Carnival in Trinidad has its origins in the pre-Lenten masquerade balls staged by French emigrants who began arriving in the island in 1783 under the Cedula of Population.

Slaves mimicked the masked finery of their masters and, after Emancipation, took the celebration to the streets of Port-of-Spain in what soon became known as Canboulay (Cannes brulees or burnt canes, since the festival occurred during the sugar harvest when canes were fired to get rid of sharp leaves and vermin).

The Canboulay was strictly the preserve of the lower classes and its wild revelry was frowned upon by the upper and middle classes who looked upon the pleasures of the masses as sheer barbarism. This cultural conflict resulted in the Canboulay Riots of 1881.

Although the Canboulay clashes tempered the zeal of downtown masqueraders for fighting, they cast no cold water on the events of Carnival Monday and Tuesday.

In the early days of downtown mas, popular chantwells (calypsonians) were the organisers of the bands. The chantwells composed songs around popular themes and this in turn developed the costume design of the band. The compositions were often in patois and thus became the first road march jingles.

This is the era in which formal bands began to be organised, echoing the pretty mas of the upper classes. The planter and merchant classes, primarily the French Creoles, kept their own Carnival festivities in their grand houses and at public venues like the Princes Building (erected in 1871, now the site of the National Academy for Performing Arts), the grounds of the Governor’s (now President’s) House and from 1895, the ballroom of the Queen’s Park Hotel (the site of what is now the bpTT building).

These upper-crust festivities were more restrained than the Canboulay, but were great fun all the same. The music would be supplied by orchestras, and revellers would spend enormous sums to create fantastic costumes.

Elaborate portrayals of Ancient Egypt, Rome and the Court of the Sun King, Louis XIV, were popular themes, as were characters from Shakespeare. Children were not left out and miniature Don Quixotes, Robin Hoods and Queen Victorias played in the gardens of the great houses while their parents waltzed.

With the advent of the automobile in 1900 and the motor truck in 1910, this pretty mas took to the Queen’s Park Savannah, where gaily decorated floats were constructed, depicting everything from The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe to a mock-up of a World War I tank.

The pretty mas evolved into bands which were sponsored by major business entities like Neal and Massy and Bonanza Stores, and featured the creativity of many great Carnival artists who later inspired the likes of the late Wayne Berkeley.

The eventual blurring of class and culture lines in a post-emancipation Trinidad and the exodus of many of the white natives in the face of the Black Power Movement of 1970 saw an amalgamation of pretty mas and downtown mas into the great melting pot which is Trinidad Carnival.

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