The Origins of Carnival
Written by: Tiara Chutkhan
Carnival in the Caribbean is one of, if not the biggest, celebrations in the world. The bold and bright costumes intricately decorated with jewels, feathers and glitter, the high energy vibrations from music trucks and floats that take up the entire street. Bodies of all different shapes and colours moving in unison to sounds of Calypso and Soca, the classics and the newest hits. Loosened waists and hips taken over by the infectious rhythms. Carnival is time for us to celebrate ourselves, both as a people and individually. It’s a time to have fun, feel beautiful and be proud of the diverse islands we come from.
While there’s much to enjoy during Carnival season, there are also the complex origins of the celebration that we can’t forget.
Trinidad and Tobago is said to be the birthplace of Carnival, dating back to the 18th century. The festival originated with Italian Catholics in Europe and later spread to the French and Spanish Catholics. The pre-Lenten tradition came with them when they settled and brought slaves to the Caribbean islands; particularly Trinidad, Dominica, Haiti, Martinique and others.
The first “modern” Carnival took place when an influx of French settlers brought the Fat Tuesday masquerade party tradition with them to the island. In the beginning of the 18th century there were large numbers of European immigrants as well as free Blacks and early Spanish settlers. Trinidad came under British rule in 1797. The white and free Blacks both staged these masquerade balls during Christmas as a “farewell to meat” or “farewell to flesh.” This referenced the Catholic practice of abstaining from red meat from Ash Wednesday until Easter.
Each group often mimicked the other through their use of costumes and entertainment. The West African slaves and free Blacks had their own masquerade traditions and held festivities around the burning and harvesting of sugarcane. This was known as cannes brulees— later anglicised as Canboulay.
In 1838, after the emancipation of slaves, Canboulay became the symbol of freedom and defiance.
The British colonial government responded to the bold acts by outlawing drumming, stick fighting, masquerading and African derived religions. There was even an attempt to ban the well known steelpan, but this ultimately failed. Despite the multiple efforts to suppress these celebrations, the festival was able to find a consistent place on the Monday and Tuesday before Lent and was adopted as a symbol of Trinidadian culture during the independence movement.
In the mid 19th century, the celebration by lower classes was looked down upon by the upper class. It was viewed as undignified— particularly the running through the streets in the middle of the night carrying flame torches.
Nowadays Carnival is more than just a couple days of the week. It's an entire season that begins with Fetes promptly after Christmas, and the actual parade taking place in February. In the weeks to come, radio stations and music channels are filled with the latest hits that will be guaranteed to play at the parade. The week before Carnival is filled with the biggest fetes, finals of limbo, stick fighting and traditional character competitions. On the Friday of that week, known as “Fantastic Friday” there is a re-enactment of the Canboulay Riots of 1881. The event takes place in the early hours of the morning.
We can’t forget about J’Ouvert, meaning "break of day," one of the last modern festivities that most reflects the origins of Carnival— particularly in masking and Canboulay processions. The dance is from dark to light through the town streets early on Carnival Monday morning. It starts around 4am with groups of people covered in paint, grease and mud, moving through the city to the sounds of music. Street theatre, also known as “Ole mas,” is an essential part of J’Ouvert. Ole mas competitions consist of rival masqueraders dressed in old clothes that are composed and elaborated for social or political satire competing for a prize. The costumes may also reflect current affairs or the creativity of the island.
Carnival spread to many other Caribbean islands and Latin American countries, each festival taking place at different times of the year. Every country has infused their culture in the celebration to give it a twist that is unique to that area. Carnival has also spread to places where large groups of Caribbean people have immigrated, such as Toronto and New York.
No matter where we are in the world there’s likely a way for us to jump and wave.
The traditions of Carnival are extensive and sacred. There’s so much beauty and complexity, but also roots in colonization and resilience. There is an element of thanks we must give amongst the parties and dancing. Had it not been for those who put their foot down and continued the traditions despite the attempts to suppress them, there would be no yearly celebration we all look forward to.
While this year might be looking different, it’s important we keep the festivities alive, even if it’s at home or in our backyards. After all, there is so much for us to be proud of— and that’s not up for debate!
Curley, Christopher. “Cultures Combine to Make Carnival in the Caribbean.” TripSavvy, www.tripsavvy.com/brief-history-carnival-in-caribbean-1488004.
Discover Trinidad & Tobago, et al. “Trinidad Carnival: the Birth & Evolution.” Discover Trinidad & Tobago, 30 Apr. 2018, www.discovertnt.com/articles/Trinidad/The-Birth-Evolution-of-Trinidad-Carnival/109/3/32#axzz6S8NlfO8D.
Ray Funk | Issue 108 (March/April 2011). “Rituals of Resistance: the Canboulay Riots Re-Enactment.” Caribbean Beat Magazine, 14 May 2020, www.caribbean-beat.com/issue-108/rituals-resistance#axzz6SEvneyIj.