Make your own free website on

III) Carnival After the Capitulation to the British

The Carnival period extended from Christmas to Ash Wednesday as it had under Spanish rule. During this period martial law would be in effect and the British militia would stage elaborate military parades while the usual business and administrative activities of the colony would be suspended. Band performances, parades and reviews of the troops, demonstrations of cavalry charges, ballroom dances, and fireworks displays provided a constant series of amusements and entertainments for the elites. Dueling was permitted under martial law and those who felt themselves aggrieved would postpone settling old arguments and resolving perceived and intended slights and insults until this time. The arrangement and parade of the militia re-presented the status organization of the colony. The assembled militia reinforced in the form of a public spectacle the transformation in the social position of the free colored after capitulation.

The celebrations of the French planters attempted to recreate the fantasy of the Court of the King of France and many of the masquerades were drawn from Europe; nobility, priests, servants, and bandits. Popular masquerades also constituted social inversions of the social order of the plantation society. Men would dress as negres de jardin, field laborers, while women would assume the persona of the mulatress, the women with whom their fathers, husbands, and brothers would have sexual liaisons, by donning brightly colored head kerchiefs and long flowing cotton dresses.

One of the chief amusements of the season was the reenactment of the Cannes Brulee, the time when cane fires would threaten entire plantations and slaves from neighboring estates would be enlisted to extinguish the fires. It was one of the few moments of excitement on the plantations as well as a rare opportunity for slaves from adjacent estates to spend time together. An anonymous letter writer to the Port of Spain Gazette of 26.3.1881 describes the Cannes Brulee or Canboulay (creole) as it was celebrated in the 1820s:

The favourite costumes of our mothers and grandmothers was the graceful and costly one of the "mulatress" of the time; whilst gentlemen adopted that of the "negres de jardin", or in creole "negre jardin" or field labourer. In that costume, the gentlemen often figured in the "bamboola", in the "giouba" and the 'calinda". These pretended negres de jardin were wont to unite in bands, representing the camps of the different estates, and with torches and drums to represent what did actually take place on the estates when a fire occurred in a plantation. In such cases the gang of the neighboring estates proceed alternately accompanied with torches at night to the estate which had suffered to assist in the grinding of the burnt canes before they became sour (quoted in Pearse 1956:17-18).

The planters indulged their fantasies and fears of the uncontrolled sexuality and primitivism of the slaves, while the women would, in assuming the identity of the object of their husbands' sexual fantasies, desires, and attentions, abandon the role of wife and its concomitant responsibilities of running the household. As for the free coloreds it was only during street masking that the social boundaries of color could be violated (Pearse 1956:19). For the enslaved Africans, Christmas and New Year's constituted a period of license in which they were given considerable freedom for dancing, visiting, and feasting at the expense of the planters.

Lee (1991:420) delineates two significant trends as emerging at this time: 1) the formation of a hierarchy of class, race, and color based on the supposed superiority of European over African culture; and, 2) the emergence of a creole culture through the processes of interculturation and cultural hegemony. Plantation society forced people together and resulted in unequal yet unavoidable cultural exchanges which aroused feelings of cultural ambivalence. Yet the relative isolation and limited interactions between the masters and slaves on the estates allowed alternative celebratory forms to occur among the slaves including forms of dance which drew on both European ball room dances but used African based movements and the rhythms of African music.

The enslaved Africans added their own satire and humor, forms of music, dance, and ritual masking such as those found among the Kono of Guinea to the Carnival (Pearse 1956:17). In post-emancipation Carnivals, these creole forms would burst forth into the public streets and become the most important and distinctive aspects of the Carnival.

The transition out of slavery began with the inauguration of the "apprentice" system in 1834. Apprenticeship was to last for six years for field slaves and four years for other slaves and provided the planters with time to explore new sources of coerced labor. Until new laborers could be secured to maintain the sugar estates the "apprentices" were to work without pay for three-fourths of the work-week and for wages in the remaining fourth. Special magistrates were appointed and charged with the responsibility of protecting the "apprentices" rights (Brereton 1981:63). It remained slavery in all but name.

In 1834 with a tone of anticipatory dread of the impending social upheavals expected upon the end of slavery, the Port of Spain Gazette reports that the Carnival lacked the splendor and gaiety it had demonstrated in previous years. Concerns about the involvement of the apprentices and free blacks in the Carnivals after emancipation were expressed in the tone of the commentary of the white press on Carnival which moved from one of "unctuous self-congratulation ... to the apprehensive expectation of disgust tempered by condescension in case of disappointment (Pearse 1956:21)."

pg.2 pg.3 pg.4 pg.5 pg.6 pg.7 pg.8 pg.9 pg.10 pg.11 pg.12 pg.13 pg.14 pg.15 pg.16