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Carnival and Society in Trinidad, 1783-1941: The Vulgarity of Truth and the Hypocrisy of Power

Class legislation is the order of this land

We are ruled by an iron hand

Britain boast of equality

For the dominant race in this colony

But all British coloured subjects

In Perpetual slavery.

-- Lord Protector

I) Introduction

The history of the Trinidad Carnival is embedded within the history of the formation of new centers of social, political, and economic power within Trinidad. Carnival does not merely reflect these transformations in the larger context in which it occurs but is one way through which those changes become known, are manifested, and experienced. This essay traces how the Carnival has been the site for a battle for cultural and political expression, an on-going yearly encounter between the powerful and the powerless, an occasion for vigorous protests and the object of social control. Through the Carnival an intense debate exploring the foundation and basis of cultural identity occurs. Every Carnival provides an opportunity for the society to examine itself, for commentators, moralists, and ideologues to pontificate on the moral condition and social organization of the society. One part of the nation eagerly anticipates the coming revelries and the chance to turn the world upside down while another part steels itself for yet another period of vulgarity, obscenity, and profligacy, another venal "bacchanal." Yet another part may leave the island entirely. Carnival has been a lightning rod for the collective anxieties and fears of the nation.

Trinidad Carnival may be described as both a ritual of rebellion in which the pretensions, hypocrisies, and social conventions of dominant social groups are mocked and subverted by subordinate groups and as a ritual of solidarity in which the social order and status quo are re-legitimized and celebrated. The Carnival has often been portrayed as a national festival distinguishing "the people" from their alien rulers as in the colonial era or as epitomizing racial harmony and fluid class boundaries as in the post-Independence era. Yet it always reveals and enacts deeply felt and long-standing social divisions.

Each generation has added new elements to the Carnival while other aspects diminish in importance. Largely innovations have come from those social groups called the "grass roots," the urban unemployed and under employed, sometimes the criminal element which is vilified by the middle classes as violent, disruptive, and vulgar. It is just these groups who have maintained the vitality of Carnival and undermined every attempt by the "respectable" classes to appropriate the festival and turn it into nothing more than a pretty banality, a shabby nationalism, an inebriated frenzy, a giant street fete, or "a beer and a bath suit" in the words of mas' designer Peter Minshall.

Attempts are being made by the government and a variety of business interests to make the Carnival a commercially viable enterprise by applying modern marketing, advertising, and administrative practices to the national, regional, and international promotion, presentation, and planning of the festival. Such efforts to make the Carnival more profitable and professional conflict with those locally oriented aspects of the festival which have emerged out of the grass roots and emphasize the destruction of social hierarchies and serve as a viable cultural expression of the dispossessed and working classes of Trinidad. Nostalgia abounds for a golden age of masquerade marked by a form of costume production which resembled a "mystery school" more than a Broadway spectacular and enabled dreams of power and glory. The current era is characterized by the assembly line production of indistinguishable costumes bought and sold in a market transaction; a grim indication of the loss of the true Carnival spirit to those who know another Carnival from their childhood and young adulthood.

With changes in the political, cultural, and economic context within which the Carnival is organized, administered, and experienced, anxiety over the future direction of the festival, its place within the Trinidadian cultural context, and the future of the society itself is intensified. This essay explores the ways significant transformations in Trinidadian society have been manifested through the Carnival from 1783 to 1941 the last year Carnival was held until the end of World War II.

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~~SweetEvil~~