Carnival: A History

Trinidad Carnival..... An ebullient celebration of life, color and the artistry of a people. Its richness can only be explained by the diversity of the races that inhabit these two islands. The genesis of Carnival has been attributed to the influx of French settlers who came with large numbers of slaves to Trinidad in the late eighteenth century.

In those days Carnival was generally a period of festivities that was celebrated from Christmas Day to Ash Wednesday. During this period the white elite took to visiting each other in their carriages and promenading through the streets in costumes representative of their European connections.

The Carnival originated in southern Europe with the Roman feast of Saturnalia, a midwinter celebration of birth and renewal, and the inversion of the norm. It developed during the Middle Ages into the Feast of Fools, in which the pretensions of the medieval Catholic Church were scurrilously mocked. The Church, unsurprisingly, did its best to suppress the festival, but in long run assimilation proved more effective, and Carnival was incorporated into the Catholic faith as a final binge (carne vale = farewell to flesh) before the fasting period of Lent.

Nobility, priests, friars, postillions and brigands were popular subjects, as were the slaves themselves. White women wore the mulatress dress which was the "good" garment of colored women at that time, men emulated the field hands. Thus disguised they attended parties, banquets, balls and country fetes.

The slaves had the last laugh though as they played the part of their white owners at every opportunity and today it is the African influence that is predominant in Carnival, although each successive wave of immigrants has lent its own particular stamp to carnival.

Ethnic contributions to Carnival are evident right throughout the fabric of the celebration. The inclusion of tassa drumming in modern Carnival observance, for instance is an excellent example of cross-cultural fertilisation. Of indian religious extraction, tassa drumming in Carnival was ironically introduced by a first generation chinese immigrant who was a well known bandleader in the fifties.

Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago must be experienced to fully appreciate the richness and the depth of tradition. There truly is no other festival that integrates and unites peoples from all walks of life in a celebration that celebrates the harmony, diversity and creativity of a people. The faces and influences that represent and have shaped Carnival can clearly be identified as the masqueraders give life to the various interpretations of the spirit of a nation.