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IV) Emancipation and the Development of the Canboulay

With the early end of the apprentice system in 1838 and the advent of full emancipation, a new urban laboring class and an independent peasantry emerged as the former slaves left the estates to take up cocoa cultivation and timber extraction on unused Crown lands or huckstering and small trading in Port of Spain. Over 22,000 people were freed. In the immediate aftermath of emancipation, Carnival became a contested ground between the middle classes and the new laboring classes. Forms of participation in the Carnival were determined by one's class and ethnic position. Elites still paraded from house to house visiting friends and neighbors accompanied by small ensembles of European instruments and held private parties featuring the popular European dances of the time. The white and colored Catholics continued to enjoy masquerade and fancy dress balls at Carnival time but surrendered the streets to the boisterous and noisy revelries of the working classes who continued to draw on the "allegories and harlequinades of Catholic Europe" while adding elements of their African traditions to the festival (Wood 1968:243).

The local Creole middle class, more French than British due to their language, cultural practices, and religious beliefs, "was deeply resentful of any interference with Carnival by the Government, and was ready to use it if necessary as a means of indirect attack on the Governor and the upper (white) class whenever the tension rose (Pearse 1956:23)." Carnival became a focal point in the cultural/political battle between British administrators and French Creole white and colored middle classes.

On the anniversary of Emancipation, August 1, the laboring classes celebrated with Canboulay, a torchlight procession recalling the time when slaves from neighboring estates would gather together to assist one another in extinguishing the cane fires that were common during the dry season. This was a more energetic Canboulay than that portrayed by the planters in the days before emancipation. Although the exact process remains unclear, the day of the Canboulay gradually merged with the Carnival celebrations sometime during the 1840s (Wood 1968:243). Canboulay was a public, collective, and laboring class festival featuring parodies mocking and subverting the hypocrisy and pretensions of the upper classes, ritualized combat in the form of stick fighting, and adaptations of European ballroom dances such as the Calinda (Pearse 1956:18; Fraser 1881).

Canboulay expressed racial solidarity but also served as unifying force among the new urban working class which had shared the history of slavery. At once a time of collective remembrance for those who had experienced the hardships and degradation of slavery it may also have been an intimidating recapitulation of the threat of the slave revolt which had been ever present in the nightmares of the planters. As the counterpart to the forms of display of the army and the militia, the Canboulay constituted the mustering of the troops of a force against the plantation owners and colonial administrators and demonstrated their solidarity, strength, and threatening potential in a symbolic march and temporary takeover of the civil spaces.

The forms of public performance which occurred at Carnival changed dramatically in the next few years. Newspaper editors decried the proliferation of what they perceived as obscenity, nudity, and violence. One writer to the Port of Spain Gazette after the Carnival of 1838 was particularly incensed over the desecration of the Sabbath. The Carnival occurred over the three days before Ash Wednesday at that time. His letter prompted the following response from the editor which indicates the degree of white antipathy to the increasingly African-Trinidadian Carnival:

...We will not dwell on the disgusting and indecent scenes that were enacted in our streets--we will not say how many we saw in a state so nearly approaching nudity as to outrage decency and shock modesty--we will not particularly describe the African custom of carrying a stuffed figure of a woman on a pole, which was followed by hundreds of negroes yelling out a savage Guinea song (we regret to say that nine-tenths of these people were Creoles)--we will not describe the ferocious fight between the "Damas" and the "Wartloos" which resulted from this mummering--but we will say at once that the custom of keeping Carnival by allowing the lower order of society to run about the streets in wretched masquerade belongs to other days, and ought to be abolished in our own (in Pearse 1956:22).

While the above caustic remarks of the outraged editor in 1838 are the most eloquent denunciations of the festival not all reporters of the time were so hostile. An unusually positive and lyrical description of the Carnival of 1845 in the Trinidad Standard of 5 February reveals the variety of masquerades and types of amusements which appeared during the street processions:

The streets are thronged by parties and individuals in every variety of national and fanciful costume, and in every possible contortion and expression of the 'human face divine'. Some are gay and noble--some are as ignoble as rags and uncouth habiliments can make them. Some are marching to the sound of well-played music--the violin, the guitar, the castinet, the drum, and the tambourine strike the ear in every direction. Some delight themselves in the emission and production of sounds of the wildest, most barbarous, and most unearthly description imaginable, and their instruments are as extraordinary as the sounds they make. Now we observe the Swiss peasant, in holiday trim, accompanied by his fair Dulcima--now companies of Spanish, Italians, and Brazilians glide along in varied steps and graceful dance...But what see we now?--goblins, ghosts, fiends, beasts and frightful birds--wild men--wild Indians and wilder Africans. Pandemonium and the savage wilds of our mundane orb are pouring forth their terrific occupants. It would seem as though the folly and madness and fitful vagaries of the year had been accumulated in science and solitude to burst forth their exuberant measures and concentrated force in the fantastic revels of the Carnival.

The Carnival of 1848 is described in exacting detail by Charles Day (1852). He comments on bands of ten to twenty almost naked black men covered with black varnish and armed "with a good stout quarter-staff" parading through the streets. In many bands, one member was held by four or five others by a long chain attached with a padlock to his leg. The chained figure would sometimes be thrown to the ground and treated to a mock beating which called to Day's mind the depredations of slavery. Women also danced in the bands in "boddices (sic) of the same colour (in Hill 1972:18). Pirates, Turks, Scottish highlanders and Pulchinello (sic) were also among the most popular masquerades which were of European origin. South American Indians covered in red ochre carrying bows and quivers of arrows were also popular masquerades often adopted by Venezuelan peons. Day also remarks favorably upon a fellow wearing a skeleton costume which consisted of bones painted on a black body stocking, a depiction of the figure of Death. Day also describes two grand processions; one a parody of the marriage of a high law-officer, and the other an imitation of Queen Victoria and the Royal consort.

As may be deduced from Day's description royalty, exotic, and foreign figures were the masquerades that dominated the Carnival. Many of these characters represented alien forces which disrupted the orderly arrangement of groups and persons in a rigid colonial society such pirates, Turks, and even death itself (Pearse 1956:26-7). Just as in the Canboulay, the oppressed and marginal assume center stage at Carnival time. The city is given over to "wild Indians and wilder Africans," creatures of nature, and other figures of upheaval, disruption, and violence. Wood (1968:8) suggests that the Carnival was an opportunity for the creoles to assert their own cultural aesthetic and values while parodying and ridiculing the pretensions of the white elites. Beyond this aspect of satire, Wood (1968:8) contends that the assumption of the persona of a king or general had a therapeutic effect while the freeing of restrictions on behavior allowed people to purge themselves of the emotional and psychological strains they endured as a result of their subordinate position in the society.

Wood's interpretation of the psychological benefits of playing mas' written in the mid-1960s emphasizes the effects of the mas' on the player while contemporary accounts of the mid 1800s indicate that spectators were appalled and offended by what they saw. There is no talk of how Carnival "purges the soul" in the newspapers of the day. Carnival is described as vile and disgusting, vulgar and dangerous. It is not an opportunity to play pretend but a violent disruption of an otherwise orderly and rigid society. The intensity of the protestations toward the violence and vulgarity of the Carnival indicates the great cultural and social divide separating the British, Anglican, white elite and black middle classes from the French Catholic elites and working class for whom the Carnival was an important and long standing cultural practice.

Over the next ten years newspaper accounts of Carnival called for the forces of law and order to put a stop to the noise, obscenity, and violence. "Nakedness and, to a lesser extent, transvestism were characteristics of the nineteenth century Carnival that gave offense (Wood 1968:245)." Condemnations of the Carnival demonstrate the extent of the divisions between the different sections of the middle classes. The Protestant British saw the Carnival not only as a foreign influence, but also as a perhaps even more repellent, Catholic excess (Wood 1968:244).

A variety of reasons were put forth by representatives of the different social strata for either restricting the Carnival or eliminating it all together. Masking was objected to as providing anonymity for those who engaged in criminal activity during the Carnival. A large number of fires in Port of Spain caused by arson in 1846 led to prohibitions against carrying flambeaux and masking out of doors. Masking could not be completely abolished however as paraders wore spectacles and false beards or would carry their masks as they went from house to house donning them once at the door. Opposition to the "blasphemous" practice of holding Carnival revelries on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday led to Ordinance 6 of 1849 which restricted the festival to the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (Johnson 1988:xiv; Pearse 1956:22).

Colonial administrators continued to seek opportunities to suppress the Carnival celebrations of the urban working classes. In 1858 Governor Robert Keate deployed troops in Port of Spain to assist the police in arresting those who continued to mask in violation of the law (Wood 1968:245). Only a few of the many people were arrested were actually wearing masks, and, consequently, public outrage was great. A group of an estimated 3000 African creoles marched on the police station armed with cutlasses, hatchets, and other weapons and derisively taunted the police. Keate and other British colonial administrators were attacked in the black and colored press for attempting to transform Trinidad into a little England in language, thought, customs, manners and religion (Pearse 1956:29).

Again in 1859 concerns about the disregard of law and order at the Carnival prompted Keate to send the police into the "French" sections of Port of Spain, the working class African creole areas in the eastern sectors of the city. The police confiscated a canoe on wheels and the crowds in the processions became extremely unruly (Wood 1968:246). In 1860 rumors were circulating that the Governor wanted to abolish Carnival by force yet the Trinidad Free Press of 22 Feb 1860 argued that it would better to allow the Carnival to die a natural death as it appeared to their editorialist that the festival was becoming less enthusiastically celebrated each year (Wood 1968:246). However, certain segments of the middle class were not completely antagonistic to the Carnival. For many merchants the Carnival was a profitable time due to the increase in sales of material for costumes and accessories imported from Europe.

By the 1860s burlesques of prominent social, political, and economic figures and farcical re-enactments of contemporary events were reported as a new element of the Carnival which enhanced the "satirical vigour and undertones of political protest...(Wood 1969:246)." In addition to these mocking parodies of well-known members of society, clergymen, doctors, lawyers, and newspaper editors were also lampooned (Wood 1968:247, Pearse 1956:30). While the upper classes found these performances clever and amusing and indeed perhaps the only aspect of the festival which they found worthy of praise, they were increasingly concerned about the prominence in the Carnival of members of the criminal underworld of overcrowded Port of Spain known by the creole term jamets (male) or jamettes (female).

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~~SweetEvil~~