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It’s Carnival time again in SVG

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We have really to keep reminding ourselves that Carnival has been with us for quite a long time. I say this because there are some young folks who are under the impression that Carnival started here in 1977 and we, of course, often promote it as such. But even more than that I am convinced, after looking repeatedly at the Carnival display/promo at the Roundabout, that the gentleman who referred to it as ‘Satanic’ has absolutely no knowledge of the evolution of Carnival and what the features and costumes were like in the past.{{more}}

I do not know when Carnival started in SVG and have seen no references anywhere to its origin here, but I know that it had been in existence by the early 1870s. We have accepted Trinidad as the home of Carnival and, especially in the case of SVG, that country has had a strong impact on and to a large extent shaped our carnival over the years. Carnival in Trinidad started with the French Creole planters/elites. French planters from Martinique, Guadeloupe, Grenada and SVG found refuge in Trinidad following the proclamation of the “Cedula of Population for Trinidad” that was issued in 1783 by the King of Spain. This proclamation gave people of the Catholic faith the right to settle in Trinidad. Following the British conquest of some of the neighbouring territories, the French planters who feared discrimination under the new regime decided to move to Trinidad.

The French creoles celebrated Carnival (‘Farewell to the flesh’) with masked balls at their homes, with a lot of splendour and ceremony. The slaves, still subjected to slavery, imitated their masters in their slave quarters, but at some point before emancipation, some of the freed blacks did take the activity on to the streets. With emancipation in 1838, the streets became the home of Carnival celebrations as the emancipated turned it into something unique to them, with African rhythms and drums, and so 1839 is regarded as the date of the first Carnival there.

Migration to Trinidad, following emancipation, established certain connections and influences. This was seen particularly with the calypso, since some of the early songs were actually taken to Trinidad by some of the migrants. The Vincentian Carnival riots of 1879 preceded the more celebrated Canboulay riots in Trinidad in 1881. While in Trinidad concerns were raised about the use of lighted torches, in SVG the use of masks left the establishment uneasy. Forty-one years after slavery the planters’ fears about activities by the freed people that were not under their control had not been erased. The Acting Administrator Edwin Laborde did report to Lieutenant Governor Dundas that in 1872 wearing a mask on the street became a punishable offence. He said that it had been the practice for many years for “the people to dress themselves in fantastic attire and wearing masks, to parade and dance through the streets with sticks or whips in their hands, with which they struck at any persons passing by…”

In 1879, when reports were made of persons masquerading on the streets despite the ban, the Acting Administrator ordered the Chief of Police not to permit its revival. The Administrator was firm with this and informed persons who had come to seek his permission to continue their masquerading that it was against the law and that the police had been given instructions not to allow it. The people were determined to continue. On the Tuesday evening, things got out of hand, with the police having to make a hasty retreat when confronted by sticks, broken bottles and stones.

The Administrator was forced to circulate copies of the proclamation banning the masquerading and proceeded to swear in about one hundred and twenty-one Special Constables. For this he was attacked by an estimated number of 300 to 400 persons who pelted his carriage. The situation had gotten completely out of hand.

So, Carnival is not new. It has evolved over the years and seemed to have paralleled the type of activities in Trinidad. This was, to a large extent, facilitated by the availability of two Trinidadian Radio stations here and by the easy communication between Trinidad and SVG, as boats sailed regularly, carrying produce and bringing back other things. Baha (King Baha), who had been Calypso Monarch here for the years 1951, 1952 and 1953, had indicated to me many years ago that Trinidadian calypsonians did visit some of the local calypso tents and he recalled, in particular, Kitchener and Killer visiting. Today, we complain about the vulgarity that presently exists, but we have to remember that Carnival cannot be seen in isolation and that the kind of society we have would influence the kind of Carnival that we produce.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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