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V) Jamet(te) Carnivals

The Carnivals of the 1860s and 1870s assumed an altogether new character due to the influence of the jamettes, the urban unemployed and criminal lumpenproletariat perceived as beyond the "diametre" of respectability (jamet and jamette being the creolization of the term). Contemporary editorials in the newspapers attacked the Carnival and identified the jamets as the source of those features which the authorities found most disturbing. Concerned citizens wrote letters to the editor before and after Carnival offering remedies for the social problems which were the cause of the rise of the jamettes (Pearse 1956:31). Trinidad continued to undergo tremendous social transformations in the mid 1800s due to numerous immigrations, anglicizing educational policies, a growing Anglican influence in public affairs, and downturns in the sugar economy and the development of the coffee and cocoa industries. By the mid-19th century the working classes of Trinidad were composed of: a) formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants who were raised in the traditions of French or English plantation life, and who spoke patois and/or English, including many immigrants from other British West Indian islands, especially Barbadians and a few Africans; b) descendants of the small holders, artisans, and manual laborers of mixed or African descent; c) about 7000 "liberated" Africans resettled in Trinidad since emancipation, and d) peons from Venezuela who spoke primarily Spanish (Pearse 1956:36). In addition about 21,000 East Indians, 1000 Chinese, and 1000 Madeirans had emigrated to Trinidad by 1861 as part of a number of indentured labor schemes to provide a steady supply of constrained workers for the estates yet none of these groups was very involved in Carnival at this time (Pearse 1956:36).

The lives of the urban lower-classes were marked by tension, quarreling, and violence. The eastern section of Port of Spain, east of the Dry River, was notorious and was described by Governor A.H. Gordon in 1867 as a "sort of sanctuary for escaped convicts, runaway sailors and criminals of every class (Brereton 1979:125)." Violence, overcrowding, vagrancy, prostitution, unemployment, high infant mortality, petty theft, and assault arising out of personal quarrels and arguments characterized life for the urban under- and unemployed in the poor districts of Port of Spain (Brereton 1979:126).

The British government eliminated the preferential sugar quotas enjoyed by the British West Indies in 1852. The subsequent depression in the sugar industry resulted in widespread rural unemployment and dislocation. Migration to the two major urban areas of Trinidad, Port of Spain in the north and San Fernando in the south, increased. Between 1860 and 1880 the population of Port of Spain grew from 16,457 to 29,468. Many immigrants from other West Indian islands also came to Trinidad at this time seeking higher wages than were available in their homelands. Increased immigration of indentured servants from India which began in 1846 kept wages down although the creoles were disinclined to work on the estates given its associations with slavery. The sugar interests dominated the politics and economy of the island and placed administrative obstacles in the way of those wishing to acquire small parcels of Crown lands. Until Governor Gordon's reforms in 1867 which reduced the minimum size of parcels of land one could buy and the cost per acre, it was extremely difficult for a class of smallholders and independent peasants to develop who were secure in their tenures.

Behind the well-ordered shops fronts and houses of Port of Spain, barracks, long wooden structures precariously set against the walls dividing housing lots became the most prevalent form of housing for the poor. The barracks were divided into rooms by thin partitions and entire families often occupied one of these rooms. The communal yard which the barracks faced was the center of all activity. Water facilities and latrines were shared and much conflict arose over their use. Cooking was done in open sheds or in the yard. Impoverished squatter settlements surrounded the city constituting a ring of despair and hopelessness.

In these barrackyards and slums a sub-culture emerged dominated by the jamette, singers, drummers, dancers, stickfighters, prostitutes, criminals, pimps, and other "badjohns" (Brereton 1979:166). All actions were under public scrutiny and reputations were zealously guarded and protected. The closeness of the surroundings in the barrackyards, the lack of privacy, the impossibility of getting away from one's neighbors and the disputes that would arise were cited as the main causes for much of the violence (Pearse 1956:38).

People came to the city seeking work, yet encountered overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, disease, and crime. Juvenile vagrancy and petty crimes committed by gangs of youths were common in Port of Spain. Young girls often turned to prostitution having no other means of surviving. Very often they would have children who would be similarly maltreated and malnourished (Trotman 1984:62; Brereton 1979:121).

Lionel M. Fraser, Chief of Police until 1877 and later the Inspector of Prisons and a historian of Trinidad (1891/1892), asserted that the urban black working class exhibited "an utter disregard for the decencies of life" and believed as did most whites and government officials that depravity, savageness, and ruthlessness characterized the life of the urban poor (Brereton 1979:123). The colonial elites argued that blacks would only work when supervised by whites and found in the masses of unemployed support for their racist ideas concerning the indolence and laziness of the black creoles.

Letters to newspapers condemned the spreading lawlessness of the streets, protested against the frequent loud parties marked by obscene songs and incessant drumming, and complained about the vagrants and idlers who crowded the streets and harassed passers-by. In this highly charged environment of class antagonisms supplemented and augmented by racism, Carnival became an arena in which an assertive African-Creole culture confronted the Anglo-Victorian sensibilities of not only colonial administrators and agents of the economic interests of the planters but also those of the growing cadre of colored and black middle class aspirants to Anglophilic respectability.

Carnival was the unique province of the African Creole and therefore sharply ridiculed by segments of both the upper and middle classes. Other manifestations of what were considered the customs of the African Creole masses including many practices and activities of African origin such as Shango (a syncretic religion combining aspects of Roman Catholicism and Yoruba beliefs), Rada cults, drumming, dance, and song were summarily dismissed by both elites and the middle-class as so much evidence of savagery (Brereton 1979:151; Wood 1968:245). The jamette Carnival was an affront to the respectable citizens and their professed moral and social code (Brereton 1979:169). To the editorialists and letter writers of the 1860s and 1870s Carnival was not an occasion to release tensions built up during the year nor a chance for the poor and downtrodden to indulge in fantasies of grandeur by playing a king for two days but the climax of a year-round spectacle of vice (Brereton 1979:124).

The urban unemployed organized themselves into social bands for drinking, gambling, stickfighting, and drumming (Brereton 1979:124). In 1879 the Attorney General described the bands as made up of:

persons without any settled occupation subsisting by theft or by the favor of prostitutes, whose wages they share. They have no charitable, political or other definite object, but are called into operation only for the purpose of fighting with other bands (in Brereton 1979:124).

The bands confronted the police on a daily basis and were the subject of letters of outrage to the press. They were described as disorderly, insolent, and aggressive and at Carnival they would "do battle against each other with stones, long sticks, glass bottles, and other missiles to the danger and terror of the peaceful people (Brereton 1979:124)." In 1877 the editor of the Palladium remarked that the situation of the bands was becoming more intolerable:

the insolence and wanton cruelty of these canaille are well known...the life of crime and idleness which they lead have [sic] a charm for these people, and the usual incarceration with hard labor is no disgrace for them (in Brereton 1979:125).

The bands were territorial and semi-secret organizations which were perhaps descendants of West African secret societies formed during slavery (Brereton 1979:167). Fraser (1891:269) outlines the structure and hierarchies of the nearly one dozen bands of Port of Spain which were similar to those of the 'Convois' or 'Regiments' formed by slaves. Each group included a Roi, Reine, Dauphin, Grand Judge, soldiers, and alguazils.

The communal yards became social spaces for drumming, dancing, singing, and Carnival preparations. Tents would be constructed and activities organized by a leader or captain of the band who was also often the shantwell, the singer of songs praising the accomplishments of his or her group and denigrating those of rival groups in other yards and from other neighborhoods. Special songs composed by the shantwells boasting of the prowess and strength of the band's champion were usually sung in patois in call and response form. Rival bands would gather in a yard to have stickfighting tournaments and charge admission to raise money for band members who were in jail awaiting payment of fines (Brereton 1979:125).

At Carnival several bands united and competed to demonstrate their superiority in singing, dancing, and fighting. Bands drank and roamed the streets looking for fights armed with stones, bottles, and barrel staves. Guns and knives were rare and injuries were usually not serious. The goal was to demonstrate the skill with which the fighter was able to use a particular weapon to break through the defenses of an opponent not to cause grievous bodily harm.

In the late 1860s newspaper reports comment on the gangs of prostitutes and criminals who would parade boisterously in the streets and assault spectators and other revelers with obscene speech and gestures (Wood 1968:247). Gangs from Belmont, East Dry River and the center of Port of Spain took advantage of the relaxation of the forces of vigilance at Carnival and settled old scores and resolved conflicts in a mixture of ritualized violence and stylized aggression.

The key feature of Carnival for the jamettes continued to be the Canboulay which began at midnight on Sunday and involved a procession of bandmembers carrying lighted torches and singing songs, dancing, and drumming. The middle classes and the authorities were concerned about the noise, the potential for fire, and the general violent and aggressive atmosphere that persisted until daylight (Brereton 1979:170).

Great accomplishment and skill in gambling, drinking, stickfighting, singing and dancing, the display of a unique personal style in dress and gait, a sharp wit, and defiance of law and authority distinguished the jamets from the rest of society. Reversals of the values of respectable society and the rejection of the norms of the white European educational, legal, and moral authorities were essential elements of the jamette Carnivals. The 'respectable' laboring classes who aspired to be included in white society yet were excluded from it by the racist beliefs of the elites and were barred from obtaining the requisite education and social connections necessary for advancement covertly and sometimes overtly supported or at least enjoyed the jamets' ridicule of the elites (Pearse 1956:40).

Carnival was the perfect opportunity for the expression of the ethos of the jamettes as it was a time of the reversal of social roles and values. The grassroots would express their dissatisfaction by lampooning, mocking, and ridiculing authority figures and respectable members of society. Lee (1991:423) maintains that " [i]n the absence of political representation, their culture became their main weapon in the struggle against oppression." The growing urban poor unable to resolve their conditions turned to song and ritualized combat to express discontent with their living conditions and social subordination. In the era of the jamets, Carnival continued to be an arena in which class antagonisms would be fought out (Brereton 1979:169)

A tremendous cultural chasm existed between the working class African-Creole elements of the population and the middle and upper-class Trinidadians who felt that "civilisation was fighting barbarism, and that the victory of civilisation could be achieved only by controlling or eliminating debasing or primitive influences (Brereton 1979:153)." European cultural forms and values were promoted as the ideal yet racism withheld socially ambitious blacks and coloreds from achieving full acceptance by the dominant white society. The cultural forms and practices of the Africans were an affront to whites and socially ambitious blacks and coloreds who interpreted such practices as marks of the degree to which the savage and the primitive threatened to engulf the civilized world of the colony. The African-Creole Carnival was threat to white supremacy because it was open display of African cultural traditions adapted and reinterpreted within the West Indian creole context, a signal of the decline of European cultural dominance, and the beginning of demands by the black lower classes for some form of political representation.

The response of the white and colored elites to the spectre of the jamette Carnival assumed many forms. Merchants and businessmen feared that the bands would disrupt commerce and undermine the economy. Newspapers owned by the white elite criticized the Carnival of the streets and called for its elimination while suggesting that their own costume balls continue. Whites and other members of the upper and middle classes interpreted the events at Carnival time as confirmation of their myths and fears about the African-Creole urban poor. African cultural forms were interpreted within this context of arrogance, hostility, and suspicion. Racist ideologies were further supplemented by anxiety about class warfare (Wood (1968:248). Elites considered the members of the working class who worked for their betters as the industrious poor while those who worked for themselves were the idle poor and scorned. Perhaps this sentiment is best expressed in this editorial from the Port of Spain Gazette after the 1874 Carnival:

...all around, the dwelling houses and shops had to be closed so as to keep out the stones and broken bottles and other missiles which were set in constant motion by the contending bands. There are, we are informed, about treble the number of bands as before and all were in active operation at the Carnival . . . the name and season is but a cloak . . . for the shameless celebration of heathenish and vicious rites of some profligate god whose votaries rival in excess the profligacies and brutalities of Pagan Rome or Heathen India. (in Pearse 1956:30-31)

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~~SweetEvil~~