The Canboulay and the related band fighting and disorder weren't the only aspect of the "Jamette Carnival" that respectable folk in Trinidad disapproved of. Just as bad, or maybe even worse, were the traditional masques that were regarded as vulgar or downright obscene. It was the Victorian era, and any public depiction of sexuality was considered out of bounds by the upper and middle classes of colonial society.
During the Carnival days in the 1870s and early 1880s, bands of jamettes roamed the streets making "indecent gestures" and singing "lewd" songs (in Patois). There were also traditional masques with explicitly sexual themes. The most notorious was the Pissenlit—literally, piss in the bed, usually translated "stinker". It was played by masked men dressed as women in long transparent nightdresses; some carried "menstrual cloths" stained with "blood". Their dance was a rapid shifting of the pelvis from side to side and back and forward; they sang naughty songs; there was a lot of sexual horseplay, including a poui stick held between the legs.
Besides the Pissenlit, the jamette bands often featured masked women in the traditional French Antillean or Martinique dress; some were "ladies of the street", who exposed their breasts from time to time during the Carnival. The men, dressed to kill, danced and strutted through the streets speaking to bystanders in sexy tones and propositioning women. Speaking for respectable society, the newspapers were outraged "by exhibitions which are not only neither amusing nor entertaining, but are decidedly unchaste in character and demoralizing in tendency" (1874). "It were better to deny recreation to outlawed ruffians", another editor huffed, "than to have pollution and obscenity exhibited naked before the eyes of our wives and daughters" (1877).
Transvestism—men dressing as women and vice versa—and accompanying horseplay were very common, both as part of the Pissenlit masque and individually. "As for the number of girls masked and in men's clothing", wrote one editor in 1874, "we cannot say how many hundred are flaunting their want of shame. As many men, also generally of the lowest order, are in like manner strutting about in female dress, dashing out their gowns as they go".
It's clear from the reams of press comment in the 1870s that nothing about the Carnival scandalised respectable people as much as this kind of openly sexual masking and "gender bending". Victorian Trinidad was, at least among the upper and middle classes, a prudish society; "decent" women were supposed to be ignorant of sexual matters and easily shocked by any public display of sexuality. People in the upwardly mobile middle class, mixed-race and black, were especially anxious to disassociate themselves from "obscene" goings-on by the "lower orders" during the Carnival.
And so, at the same time as the Canboulay and the band fighting were put down by police action, the "obscenity" in Carnival was also tackled. In the early 1890s, after the successful ban on Canboulay, the newspapers called on the police to stop public indecency. The Chief Justice claimed in 1893 that the Carnival was a disgrace: "in two days the whole year's work of the clergy and the schoolmasters was destroyed".
In response to the pressure, the Carnival regulations for 1895 added a new clause: it was illegal for persons to appear masked "in the dress or costume commonly called and known as Pisse en Lit". As a result there was said to be much less indecency in the 1895 Carnival, very little transvestism, and only a handful of obscenity arrests.
The way was clear for the "respectable" classes to enter (or re-enter) Carnival, and for the festival to develop slowly into a "national" event. Clear signs of this can be seen between 1885 and 1900. In 1885, the year after the ban on Canboulay was implemented, a newspaper noticed a "relatively large number" of decent people appearing masked in the streets. In 1888, there was a small band of courtiers on the streets who were clearly "gentlemen in the midst of the surging mass of coarser masqueraders, with a lady among them".
Upper-class maskers revived the pre-Emancipation traditions of house to house visits before Carnival, with music and "practical jokes", and fancy dress balls—the governor gave one just before the 1888 Carnival, in 1895 the elite of San Fernando attended a similar affair on Carnival Tuesday night.
By around 1890 businessmen had begun to realise the commercial benefits of Carnival, especially for stores selling clothing and the like. College boys and store clerks began to organise bands. In the late 1890s, Mr Ignacio Bodu, a Borough Councillor and a patron of Carnival and calypso, organised competitions for "pretty" bands in Port of Spain, in order to improve the festival's "moral tone".
So the "Jamette Carnival" was purged, controlled and remade, allowing for the "social incorporation" of the upper and middle classes into the festival. But only once the Pissenlit had been put down. And even then, as we all know, the tension between Carnival's "wild" elements—including violence and "obscenity"—and the push to control and sanitise it would continue all through the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries.
* Bridget Brereton is Emerita Professor of History at UWI,, St Augustine, and has studied and written about the history of Trinidad and Tobago, and the Caribbean, for many decades.
The original article can be found here: http://www.trinidadexpress.com/commentaries/_Stop_the_Pissenlit_-139413863.html