There are no photographs and, of course, no films to show us what Carnival was like 140 years ago. Written descriptions from our local newspapers are the main sources used by Carnival scholars to get a sense of the festival, along with oral history interviews conducted in the past.
An interesting account of Carnival in the 1870s and 1880s was written by Percy Fraser (1867-1951) in his autobiography Looking Over My Shoulder, which was published in 2007. As an old man, remembering the Trinidad of his childhood, he reminisced about Carnival in Port of Spain in the 1870s:
“It started at midnight on Sunday by what was called ‘Cannes Brulées’ [Canboulay]. In those days there were several rival bands, known as ‘Diamêtre [Jamette] Bands’, who paraded the streets armed with sticks and followed by their female members, who carried the ‘ammunition’, stones and broken bottles…At midnight one would hear the horns blowing.
“This was a signal calling the bands to meet at their headquarters. There were bands from Belmont, New Town, and ‘Over the Bridge’ as East Dry River was known in those days, and from Port of Spain proper…The men paraded the streets carrying lighted torches, which they called ‘flambeaux’, and singing their songs…As time wore on, they became fighting bands, and whenever they met, pandemonium was let loose, they attacked each other with their sticks, and the women and other followers, with stones and broken bottles.”
It’s well known that the colonial authorities cracked down on the Canboulay procession between 1881 and 1884, though not without several clashes between the police and the men, the best known being the “Canboulay Riots” in Port of Spain in 1881. Fraser, who was the son of the former police chief (and local historian) LM Fraser, not surprisingly approved of this.
But he was appreciative of many other aspects of the Jamette Carnival of his youth. He described the different mas characters with real affection:
“There were the ‘school girls’, young girls dressed in short white dresses and pink pinafores, carrying slates and books; the ‘Marchandes’ dressed in Martiniquan costumes selling sweetmeats, nuts etc; then what was known as ‘Old Masks’ generally consisting of men dressed in the oldest torn up suits they could lay hands on, all the garments turned inside out; the Doctor with an old stethoscope and note book; the Surveyors, with tape measures; the Policeman wearing an old uniform regulating traffic and making arrests.
“Later on came the ‘Bats’, these costumes were very pretty and must have cost large sums to get up, velvet and silk forming the greater part of them. Then later came the Lawyers in old wigs and gowns, accompanied by a robed Judge, who held mock trials which were very amusing.”
Fraser especially remembered the Pierrots, describing their elaborate costumes in loving detail; for him as a child, “a fully dressed Pierrot was an imposing sight”, and he recalled their speeches, their antics on the street, and the “fights” between rival band Pierrots when they met. To him, the “modern” (1940s) Pierrot Grenade was “a very inferior substitute, the costume consisting of rags” compared to the Pierrots of his youth.
And though Fraser disapproved of the Canboulay, he appreciated the skill of the stickfighters in the ‘Nègre Jardin’ (Field Negro) bands: “These masqueraders were dressed in shabby clothes, but were efficient stickfighters, and it was really worth while watching them displaying their prowess.”
He also described “Bad Cattle”, an African-type animal mas, Moko Jumbies, also African, “Bouriquits”, the donkey mas accompanied by a string musical band, and the Maypole mas—the last two coming here from Venezuela.
Altogether Fraser has left us a rich description of Carnival 140 years ago.
• Bridget Brereton is emerita
professor of history at The UWI,
St Augustine, and has studied and written about the history of T&T and the Caribbean for many decades
The original article can be found here: http://www.trinidadexpress.com/commentaries/The-Jamette-Carnival-291612951.html