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Carnival – the time Vincentians stood up for their right to masquerade


We are regarded today as a listless people, unable or unwilling to defend our rights, but throughout history, our people were quite prepared to stand up for justice and to defend their rights. The Carnival Riots of 1879 was one such occasion. These preceded the Trinidad riots of 1881, following similar attempts to restrict masquerading there. The circumstances surrounding ours were described in detail by Acting Administrator Edward Laborde.{{more}}

“I regret to have to report serious disturbances in the Town of Kingstown in this week, in which the Police were beaten by the mob and the Town for many hours was quite unprotected.

2. The disturbances arose in this way. Many years ago it was the custom for the lower orders of 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. Several serious disturbances occurred from this masquerading; and after many attempts it was successfully suppressed in 1872, where wearing a mask in any street was made punishable as a petty offence.

3. Having heard that some persons had been seen masquerading in the streets in the evening of Saturday the 8th instant, I sent for the Chief of Police on the Monday morning and told him he was not on any account to permit the revival or continuance of it. I told him to instruct the police to warn the persons, that wearing a mask in the streets was contrary to law, and to take in custody, for the purpose of ascertaining their names and places of abode, any persons appearing in the streets in masks.

4. A number of people having heard the warning by the Police came to me in the evening of that day to request that I would grant them permission to carry on masquerading in the Streets. I told them it was expressly forbidden by the law; and that it had been forbidden because the maskers under cover of their masks considered themselves licensed to insult and even to wantonly assault passersby, to frighten horses and to commit many other wanton acts of annoyance, their mere presence in the streets induced the gathering of mobs of idle followers who obstructed the streets and in that way and by their loud vociferations and wild gesticulations were a source of annoyance to the inhabitants and of danger by the frightening of the horses to travellers on horseback or in carriages. I concluded by telling them that the Police had been instructed to stop every person appearing masked in the Street in order to ascertain their names and residence and I advised them to go to their homes quietly.

5. The Police arrested some of the masqueraders on the Monday evening, ascertained who they were and let them go. On the following morning (Tuesday) similar arrests were made. The Police thus identified some of the masqueraders against whom proceedings have since been taken in the Police Court.

6. When darkness set in, a little after 7 o’ clock on Tuesday evening a dense mob gathered between Paul’s Gate and the Green, and they attacked with sticks and stones the few Police Constables who were patrolling that part of the town. The Chief took out all his available force, with batons to rescue his men who were being beaten. The mob in front attacked these with sticks, while from the rear and from the sides stones and broken bottles were hurled at them. The Police were driven back and the Chief, finding they were overborne by numbers, ordered them to retire to their barracks. He remained in the street at some distance from the mob; when suddenly the cry arose “there is the Chief! Kill him! kill him.” Stones and broken bottles were thrown at him and he was struck down. The mob surrounded him, and he was knocked down several times. Some friendly hands were fortunately among the mob and they dragged the Chief within the gateway of a house in which he sought safety. The mob vented their rage on this house, and continued to throw stones at it until they learnt that the Chief of Police had escaped through the back of the premises and by another street.

7. I was not apprized (sic) of this serious disturbance of the Peace, nor did I hear anything about it until 9 a.m. on the Wednesday morning. I then immediately proceeded to Town and heard the report of the Chief of Police. I summoned the members of the Executive Council who met me at 11.15.

8. The Chief of Police attended and made a verbal report of the occurrences during the previous night (as above related) and he produced to the Council two Placards which had been discovered in the morning posted in the Town. One of these was evidently the writing of a Person not illiterate but who desired that the writing should be taken to be that of an illiterate person. It contained denunciations and threats against me and against other Officials, and both it and the second Placard threatened firing of the Town and scenes similar as they said “to the confederation riots in Barbados”. A third placard had been stuck up but it had been rendered illegible in the attempt to take it down.

(To be continued)

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.