The Trinidad Carnival has been an on-going site in the battle for cultural hegemony from the time the British annexed Trinidad to the present. African-creole Trinidadians resented the assault on their cultural institutions as they were support from material deprivation and psychological oppression. During the course of the nineteenth century until the Canboulay riots of 1881, the struggle for cultural hegemony therefore depended less on the socializing agencies of church and school to win consent and more on the coercive arms of the state to enforce compliance. The "cultural policy" of successive British administrations was effectively to criminalize the cultural practices of the working classes. As a result large segments of the population were legally defined as criminals, habitual offenders, rogues and vagabonds (Trotman 1986:272).
Cultural activities which threatened the supremacy of European culture were seen as a challenge to the dominance of the British administrators. Much of the collective violence of the period stemmed from the actions of a politically powerless class defending their cultural interests (Trotman 1986:273). Carnival as a symbolic inversion of the social world constituted an established form of oppositional culture, one which had a limited sanction during the period of Spanish rule but which was completely foreign to the British despite the tradition of mummering common in the British Isles. The Carnival involved masses of drunken, rowdy, and loud working class black people parading through the streets engaging in sexually explicit activities and serious social and political commentaries. The loyalty of the masses was brought into question by their mockery of the elite and powerful, by the unrestrained glee and wickedness they expressed upon some scandal or misfortune of members of high society. A lack of a proper demonstration of respect on the part of the working classes was seen by the elites as an affront and a threat. Yet for the poor and oppressed these scandals indicated that their alleged social superiors were no better than anyone else. The Carnival was an opportunity to articulate an egalitarian ethos.
In France, Germany, Spain, and Italy there are similar festivals during which the urban and rural poor were permitted to reverse the traditional social order (Bakhtin 1984). The Carnival and the carnivalesque was an established part of the ritual and religious calendar in which the usual moral and social taboos of the society would be transgressed and licentious behavior temporarily sanctioned. As opportunities for the subordinated classes to purge themselves of pent-up hostilities engendered by social deprivation, economic subordination, and political suppression, these festivals constituted useful mechanisms for social control. One significant difference between the Carnivals of Europe and those of colonial Trinidad is that those of Europe took place in racially homogeneous societies. Trinidad is a racially heterogeneous society and the social strata were divided not only by race but also by religion, language, family organization, attitudes toward sex and the body, and popular entertainments. The value of the Carnival as a form of social therapy, a Bread and Circuses, to dissipate social unrest and avoid serious disturbances while ultimately reinforcing the overall hegemonic social and moral order did not outweigh the ever threatening class and race revolt in a nineteenth-century plantation society in which there was no provision for any kind of political representation of the interests of the poor (Trotman 1984:273).
Carnival posed not merely a threat to the morality of the populace but allowed the massing of an armed mob which potentially could start a riot. Hence, from 1846 to 1895 a variety of ordinances designed to reduce the violent threat the Carnival posed were enacted: the restricting of the festival to two-day period in 1849 and to specific daylight hours; the Peace Preservation Act of 1884, which prohibited the carrying of lighted torches; and Ordinance 2 of 1891, which outlawed certain practices and carnival presentations to list just the most significant laws relating to the Carnival. While much of the actual violence of the streets was between bands of working class males and females; that is restricted to intraclass rivalries, this impulsive violence always implied the possibility of an attack against the elite through its mere existence. These bands were arranged in their own hierarchies which mirrored those of the greater social world. The principle of hierarchies was maintained, just the individuals who occupied the positions differed.
As forms of protest took on more conventional forms including political agitation and industrial action the Carnival came to be more organized and formalized. More members of the middle-class had grown up in poverty and managed to succeed. It is these new social actors who came to re-organize the festival in line with their ambiguous social and cultural position. They attempted to legitimate the cultural practices of their youth, of their parents, yet in such a manner that they would be respectable to those more established factions of the middle and upper class whose approval and sanction they sought. Powrie (1956:94) argues that the Carnival allows the colored middle-class to connect with their usually repressed and rejected black cultural heritage.
Powrie (1956:98) characterizes the emergent colored middle class individual as internally riven by cultural ambiguity and confusion: "His outward, professed, and material culture is imitation white, his underlying, sub-conscious, and spiritual conscious is black, it is his sub-culture."
For the colored middle classes rejected by both white upper class society and the lower class blacks, Carnival became a time when they could release their inhibitions, express themselves and take license in a manner that they could not given their precarious and stressful social situation.
Carnival enabled them to remove the mask of respectability they wore at other times of the year. Imitating the white European ideal of behavior, culture, and values while condemning black culture, the middle class, according to Powrie (1956:94-5) is marked by a:
curious lack of character...[and] ...Life is pursued in such a way as to ensure the minimum of individuality; conformity, of an almost absolute nature, is demanded in all spheres of life, and this is achieved through social pressure due to the relatively face-to-face organization of the group concerned.
Carnival for the middle class became an eagerly anticipated event because of a
...need of excitement plus the fact that the confines of life are narrow in all spheres, together with the tension created by the highly competitive 'sparring' for the few positions at the social and economic peak, necessitates some kind of periodic safety valve (Powrie 1956:95).
The middle classes are caught between their cultural roots and a set of practices and values once despised and still in many ways counter to those of their own social aspirations, and a heritage that was also partially theirs, that of European dominance and exclusivity. The middle class has created a paradox: If the Carnival is cleaned up, they will no longer be able to indulge their fantasies of Wildness; If it is not cleaned up, Carnival will degenerate into a giant street party and be lost to the commercial interests of tourism boards, hotels, and breweries. It is through being maligned and denounced that the Carnival has, in the minds of the middle classes, retained its power to satisfy the desire of insolence and longing for mockery of the mores and norms of society which distort their souls and psyches.
After the end of the first World War formal competitions had become commonplace and it was no longer unusual for members of the middle or even upper classes to participate in street processions at Carnival. As World War II begins the first tones of the steel band have been heard and the clamorings for internal self-rule and unrestricted suffrage ring through the colony as well.
In 1946 after the wartime restrictions are removed the Carnival changes dramatically: the steelband becomes the dominant musical form, the traditional masquerades diminish while exquisitely detailed costumes depicting historical and fantasy themes become prominent. Politically, full adult suffrage is granted in 1946. In 1956 full internal self-rule is achieved and the People's National Movement led by the historian, Dr. Eric Williams, comes to power proclaiming the Carnival as a national festival, thus marking the arrival of the festival to fully sanctioned respectability. The implications of these transformations will be the subject of the next chapter as the period from the end of World War II to the Black Power uprisings of 1970 is explored.