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VI) The Canboulay Riots of 1881

The class/race confrontations which occurred in Carnival culminated in the late 1870s with the naming of Captain Baker as Inspector-Commandant of Police in 1877. Baker was appointed to abolish the jamet bands of Port of Spain and expressed a willingness to use force to a degree to which his predecessor, Fraser, was not. Drawing on two recently passed laws which treated anyone with even one offence under summary conviction as a "Habitual Criminal" rather than the customary three, and stricter laws concerning riotous assembly, Baker was able to break up stickfights in 1878 and 1879 through increased police activity and surveillance. In 1880 Baker used an 1868 Ordinance to suppress Canboulay and demanded that the revelers surrender their torches, staves, and drums arguing that they constituted a threat of fire and a posed a disturbance to traffic on public roads as well as a public nuisance. The bands complied without a fight more out of shock and surprise as they were unexpectedly confronted with a well-armed police force.

The bands were insulted and embarrassed by Baker's success and took precautions to prevent a recurrence in 1881. The bands joined together and closed ranks in preparation for a battle with the police. After having specially armed his men with long balata clubs, Baker again tried to seize the torches, sticks, and drums of the bands. This time, however, the police were met with vigorous resistance and 38 of the 150 policemen were injured while the masqueraders also suffered numerous injuries as well. The atmosphere was so tense that the Executive Council was called into session to discuss the issue in the hopes of avoiding massive unrest (Brereton 1979:171; Pearse 1956:32-33).

On Monday morning the Borough Council implored Governor Freeling to find some way of appeasing the masqueraders so as to prevent a riot. The Governor called the regular troops into the center of town in case there was further rioting but also chose to address the people at the Eastern Market in Port of Spain. Freeling explained that the Government had no wish to stop the Carnival and had seized their torches only to prevent fires. He expressed confidence that the revelers would conduct themselves peacefully for the rest of the Carnival and promised to confine the police to their barracks for the remainder of the festival if the people promised to conduct themselves peacefully for the rest of the Carnival (Freeling 1881). After cries of "we promise, we promise" the masqueraders were "given the city" by the governor. The masqueraders could not resist taunting the police in their barracks at the center of town and conducted a mock funeral after burning Captain Baker in effigy. Otherwise there were no further serious incidents (Hamilton 1881; Brierly 1912).

The colored and black press condemned Baker for being a provocateur and praised Freeling for his grace and use of reason in a volatile situation. The editors of the papers, uniformly middle class, condemned the jamette Carnival and longed for the day when it would extinguish itself, yet they resented bitterly any interference on the part of the British authorities to abolish Carnival by force (Brereton 1979:172). Carnival was the 'national' festival, a cultural expression of Trinidadians and a deeply felt part of their lives. The French Creole elites and the growing black and colored middle classes always suspected the British of attempting to anglicize and suppress creole Trinidadian cultural forms and practices, Carnival being the preeminent distinguishing practice of Trinidadians. Efforts to eliminate the Carnival were interpreted as attempts to repress Trinidadian cultural forms. In a confrontation between an alien administration and the people, the press sided with the people even though they found many aspects of the festival distasteful. Carnival became the center of a conflict between the local middle classes seeking an opportunity to express their political agenda and the colonial authorities.

Governor Freeling's attempt to re-establish the civil peace without the use of lethal force reveals the crisis of legitimacy which pertained in the Crown Colony context in which a non-representative government ruled without the consent of the populace (Pearse 1956:33). In the Crown Colony system there are no elected officials in the Legislative Council which has the power to propose legislation and create laws. Under Crown Colony rule the Legislative Council is composed of official and nominated members and all legislation must be approved by the Governor and the Colonial Office in London. The Governor is theoretically the guardian of the people and is supposed to protect their interests as a benevolent despot from the rapaciousness of the local business, agricultural, and religious interests. Hamilton (1881), the Commissioner sent by the Colonial Office to investigate the disturbances remarked:

In my view it is of great importance, more especially in a Crown Colony where the people are not represented in the Government that they should as it were be taken into council in a matter of this port, as by this means I fully believe they may often be got to acquiesce in a course which they would resent if it were forced upon them. Ultimately, Freeling was rebuked by the Colonial Office and Baker commended on the basis of Hamilton's report.

In 1882, the government allowed Canboulay to take place and the maskers organized themselves to insure that there would be no disorder. At Hamilton's recommendation the governor placed a warship on alert in the port just in case. Twelve bandleaders in Port of Spain visited with the editor of the Port of Spain Gazette and requested that the paper use its influence to prevent rioting and disorder (Pearse 1956:330). The bandleaders themselves circulated a broadsheet called "Advice for the Coming Carnival" which requested that the masqueraders demonstrate their appreciation for the governor's trust and confidence in them by refraining from any violent activities. Canboulay occurred without incident and even rival bands refused to fight one another. It was one of the most sedate Carnivals in years (Brereton 1979:172).

The Carnival of 1883 marked a return to the disorder and violence of previous years. There were numerous violent confrontations among the bands. One band, the Newgates, allegedly composed of Grenadians and other "small islanders" who were often cited by Trinidadians as responsible for all the ills of the society, provoked and attacked other bands without restraint leading many commentators to suggest that they were paid agents of those who wished to see Carnival abolished (Campbell 1988:15). Some argued that Baker had incited further rioting by encouraging other bands to retaliate against the Newgates. Fighting also occurred in San Fernando in the south and in Arouca and Arima in the east.

The recurrence of violence in the 1883 Carnival led Governor Freeling to pass legislation which would allow the police to eliminate Canboulay and do away with the bands once and for all. Ordinance 11 of 1883 attempted to prohibit the "immoral' drum dances by making the owners of yards liable for those who occupied them and responsible for the singing, dancing, and other activities that occurred there. The act held owners accountable for the presence in the yards of any 'Rogues and Vagabonds' who were defined by law as those who had been previously convicted of any offense. Consequently the yard owners were more cautious about allowing drum dances on their property (Brereton 1979:161).

In 1884 the Peace Preservation Act empowered the Governor to forbid public torch processions, drum beating, and any dance, procession, or any disorderly assembly of ten or more persons armed with sticks or other weapons.

Furthermore any street parade before 6:00 a.m. on Carnival Monday was prohibited. The law also required persons playing pierrot (a masquerade that often ended in a ritualized whip fight between competitors) to register with the police thus undermining the anonymity of masking. To prevent violence the roads were paved and bottles were collected depriving revelers of their favorite and most easily obtained weapons. The Canboulay with its ritualized violence and large gangs of stickfighters was effectively abolished and did not occur in Port of Spain. The press largely endorsed the government's actions.

While there were no incidents in Port of Spain, in San Fernando a mob resisted the police on Sunday night and attacked them with sticks, stones, and bottles. In Princes Town, also in the south, two large bands of 500 members in all attacked the police station. The police fired upon them and killed two while injuring five (Brereton 1979:173). With the eradication of Carnival related violence nearly complete, the authorities turned their attention to the more obscene elements which may have most offended and alarmed the middle and upper classes. Obscenity, lewdness, and masques on sexually explicit themes were common in the jamette Carnival. One masquerade which always scandalized and enraged was the pisse-en-lit in which men would dress as women in long transparent nightdresses stained with "menstrual" rags and engage in sexual carousing while singing obscene songs in creole. Women, often active or retired prostitutes known as matadors, would dress in the traditional Martinique costume and occasionally expose their breasts while raining down a series of foul epithets on shocked spectators. Men verbally harassed spectators and made vulgar suggestive comments to women (Brereton 1979:170).

Between 1885 and 1895 the police placed plainclothes officers knowledgeable in patois among the bands to take note of those who "misbehaved' during Carnival. After the Carnival was over many arrests would be made for obscene speech and acts. In 1895 the pisse-en-lit masquerade was finally outlawed. Cleansed, purged, and dressed up in new finery, Carnival was now ready to be re-appropriated by the middle classes.

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