History of Trinidad Carnival

More Than Just A Party

"Without question, carnival had become a symbol of freedom for the broad mass of the population and not merely a season for frivolous enjoyment. It had a ritualistic significance, rooted in the experience of slavery and in the celebration of freedom from slavery.....Adopted by the Trinidad people it become a deeply meaningful anniversary of deliverance from the most hateful form of human bondage
-Professor Errol Hill in The Trinidad Carnival, 1972.

Toronto's Caribana™, like carnival festivals in other places, is far more than just a party. It is a breaking down of the artificial barriers of society - like class, race and wealth. It is a celebration of literal and spiritual emancipation. It is also a time to turn society upside-down and take a good critical look at it.

Toronto Carnival is generally percieved to be based on Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. But where does "T&T" Carnival come from? In fact, most histories of Trinidad Carnival begin with a discussion of the ethnic and social make-up of the islands: people of African descent (both slaves and free): French plantation owners; East Indian and Chinese indentured labourers; British, Spanish and Creole settlers and the indigenous Indians. From the 1790s onwards Trinidad was remarkable for its multiplicity of racial and social groupings.

Before 1834, when slavery was abolished, Trinidad's Carnival celebrations had two aspects: the torches, drumming and other African-derived ceremonies of the slave classes, and the fancy-dress silks and satins of the European plantation owners. Often, the French monsieurs and madames would dress as fantastical versions of their own slaves, while the slaves would parody the plantation owners.

After the emancipation, former slaves, under the concealment of disguise, brought their dances, their songs and their festival traditions to the streets, recreating in symbolic ways the freedom from the cane fields. This period was characterised by the participation of the "jamette" or underclasses, and by cross-racial costumes. Archtypical characters-devils, bats, royalty, indians and death figures - were gradually refined into such traditional favourites as the Jab Jab, Jab Molassic, Midnight Robber and pierrot Grenade (versions of which persist to the present day).

Throughout the mid-19th century, the middle and upper classes were extremely uneasy with this torchlight revelry. It seemed too bawdy, too raucous, and too liable to provoke riot and violence. Various measures were taken to prohibit public disorder, especially after 1881, when police and revellers clashed in the "Canboulay riot".

As the turn of the century approached, however, Trinidad began to recognize that Carnival was here to stay. Official competitions were established, while some of the more provocative elements were suppressed. Merchants began to understand the economic benefits of an annual street celebration, and soon a wider segment of society - including people from all races and classes - were "playing Mas" (that is, dressing up in masquerade costumes).

The early 20th century saw the dawn of the great era of Calypso. the steel drum was born; a wedding of African ingenuity and the cast-off industrial waste of foreign navies. the three art forms of Trinidad Carnival - masquerade or Mas', Steel Pan and Calypso - were developed as forms of social commentary that could criticize the law, the government or society at large without fear of punishment. Competitions in all three genres elevated the skill of their practitioners, so that today Trinidad Carnival is known by many as "the greatest show on earth."

Thus, Toronto's Caribana™ Festival is a complex hybrid. It has inherited African, East Indian and European festival traditions from Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. Over the years Caribana™ has also welcomed the festival traditions of members of many other communities that are now present in Toronto, including Jamaican, Brazilian, Cuban, St. Lucian, Guyanese, Bahamian, Antiguan, Barbadian and Dominican.

Trinidad Carnival falls just before the Christian season of Lent, so that a time of excess and indulgence is balanced by a time for introspection and abstinence. Coincidentally, Toronto's Caribana™ Festival falls on the anniversary of the emancipation from slavery in Trinidad (August 1, 1834), and also on the date of a European festival celebrating the first loaf of the new year's wheat and the opening of the fields for common pasturage.

These themes of liberation and renewal are essential to the Festival, and help to explain its enduring popularity. Meanwhile, Caribana™ is still in its infancy, even as it approaches its 34th anniversary. Its potent message for the rest of the world will continue to be spread for generations to come.

Taken from Caribana.com. Please visit them for more information on: Toronto's Annual Carnival
Official website: Trinidad and Tobago Travel and Tourism
Lonely Planet: Trinidad & Tobago tourism and travel information
Discover Trinidad and Tobago (T&T): Carnival Festivals
Other Non Govt Website: Trinidad and Tobago Tourism and Travel Guides