By A. Walrond
We in Trinidad owe our tradition of Carnival to the French, who first came to our island in 1783 through the efforts of a Frenchman by the name of Phillipe Roume de Saint-Laurent. He petitioned the Spanish Crown to allow migration of Catholics under a Cedula of population. Trinidad at that time was underpopulated and underdeveloped.
Traditional carnival characters
Most came from French colonies such as the island of Martinique, but others also followed from France after the French revolution. Along with the French and their African slaves, free Africans and people of colour from the colonies arrived with their own slaves.
In the beginning, carnival balls were held on plantations and the slaves were not allowed to participate. The free Africans however took the masquerade to the streets.
It was following emancipation in 1838 however, that the vibrant celebration started to evolve into what we call Mas (short for masquerade) today.
Many times over the centuries the powers that be have tried to ban carnival for some reason or the other—in Colonial times it was the wining (gyrating of hips) that offended the sensibilities of the elites.
The last time efforts were made to curtail Carnival celebrations was in 1972. On the pretext there was an outbreak of polio, the government of the day cancelled carnival that year. Everyone knew that the real reason was because of social unrest, and mutiny by the army the previous year. Protesters took to the streets and demanded that the carnival be held. Their cries were so clamorous that the government was forced to rescind the ban, and the carnival, which is usually held on the two days before Ash Wednesday was carded for the month of May, after the lenten season. The people were happy! the only trouble is that our rainy season starts in May, need I say more? Sporadic showers put a damper on celebrations that year, but they didn’t complain, they got their Mas. This event was made famous in song by calypsonian Lord Kitchener.
Today, people come from all over the world to participate in Trinidad carnival. Some Trinis have even exported carnival to a other places such as Notting hill in England, NY, Miami and Canada, but held at different times of year. Weeks of pre-carnival shows and competitions culminate on Dimanche Gras night with the crowning of Calypso Monarch, and King and Queen of Carnival. Following that, the action leads to J’ouvert celebrations (daybreak Monday morning) which consists of dirty Mas—smearing the body with paint, mud, black grease, coloured powder, and the latest I hear being used is chocolate, depicting devils and other beings from hell. There are also humourous portrayals often laced with double entendre. Later in the day, a watered down version of the Mas bands parade through the streets. It would occupy too much space for me to go into all the details and aspects of what takes place on Monday.
Tuesday (Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday), the bands come out in all their splendour and glory to parade in front of the judges before hitting the streets. There are some traditional characters that make an appearance every year, but the majority of the costumes are new designs. For the past ten years or so the costumes have been getting skimpier, basically bikinis with beads and fringe, and a feathered head piece. A few bandleaders however, still take the time to put some creativity into their designs.
For readers who might like to check out our carnival, you can log on to carnivaltv.net later this morning.
Trinidad Carnival images and text © A. Walrond 2011
Lord Kitchener Rainorama - uploaded by shapelender