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Carnival Riots 1879 (Conclusion)

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Here we come to the conclusion of the Administra­tor’s report and examine reactions to the riot.

“18. I have thus given to Your Excellency a detailed account of the late disturbances in Kingstown, which had their origin in the determination of a few idle and disorderly persons to revive the practice of masquerading in the public streets.

19. The lower orders of the population are very excitable. Their passions are soon groused and by the most trivial causes when they become reckless in their actions, and for a time uncontrollable.{{more}} Fortunately they are not of a sanguinary disposition or more injuries than were received would have been inflicted by the thousands of excited people who took possession of the Town on Tuesday night. With people of this character the small number of Police, with such men as can be formed into a local force, can have no controlling influence except they resort to arms.

20. I am credibly informed that on Thursday night, and since, several small vessels sailed hence crowded with people, no doubt these were the leaders in the riot who had fled. Of the nine masqueraders who were identified by the Police only 2 have appeared in the Police Court to answer the complaint lodged against them. Four only of those who assaulted the Police were arrested and they have been sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. I regret that not one of those engaged in the serious riot on Tuesday night was identified.

News about the Riot was carried in the Barbados West Indian and the Dominican. The Dominican saw masquerading among the lower classes as barbarous but felt that it should have been put down by moral means and suggested that when force is used it must be done so effectually. The Witness newspaper of the day really had some fun at the expense of the authorities. A poem, “The Retreat of the Police 1879- A Ballad in three parts, made fun of the proceedings:

“Saw ye those masquerading Raids, which shook St.Vincent’s troubled state? Saw ye the magnates from their beds,

Awake and trembled at their fate? See! The Maskers grim advancing, To harmonious measures dancing John B, proudly leading them- Lo! From the lanes of Bottom Town the Gathering storms of battle frown Dutch courage spreading thin…

But now behold the Policemen, Evade the blows of Comus’ crew, And quickly run along the Lane, Unconscious who their steps pursue, Now loud the sticks and bottles sound,

Down sink the Chief upon the ground, His scattered forces swiftly flee! In heaps the victims bite the dust, Now run who can; and he who must, Kingstown is at the mob’s mercy… Again they wheel – their nimble feet. The devious way now quickly trace Down Middle Lane, along Back Street The Rioters pursue the chase! The Police ran! Why skulked the brave! Awake! St.Vincent’s honor save From the fury of the blast! Stem the storm at Paul’s gate walls, Rise! ere Government for ever falls, Up! ere the Chief breathes out his last…

From the Chief’s face and temples fall, Earnest the masked John B pleads, His hand still pointing at his prey, The Chief no farther warning needs But to the Garden wends his way, With handkerchief to hide his face his precious head he did defend, He passed his enemies with grace And found safe shelter with a friend…

The Chief for reinforcement pleads, To quell the clamorous of the rabble, The Solemn oath a Justice reads And swears each loyal constable! The special constables rushed out And raised a loud and long huzza! Then sneaked away and hung his snout, Each discomfited limb of law…”

The Witness newspaper of February 27 had its say: “Had the interference of the Police originated in any emergency we should be the last to repise, or to offer any opinion or comment upon the propriety of the act; but when on the contrary we are assured that the strictest order and decorum were observed by the masquerading people, we cannot refrain from a candid expression of our sentiments, by asserting that the Police were the immediately exciting cause of the disturbances- and soon had they to beat an ignominious retreat.” It noted that on the Tuesday and Wednesday nights a lawless mob “had the control of the lives and property of all loyal subjects in Kingstown;” but no further disorder was attempted “notwithstanding a silly panic …created by a rumour based on some anonymous placards.” Matters were settled the paper argued “by the free action of the people.” Some had been arrested and convicted and others had taken flight to Trinidad.

In a separate item in the paper mention was made of the HMS Blanche that was requested by the authorities. The paper was interested in finding out who was going to pay for the expenses of the ‘Blanche’, having put it out of its ‘legitimate cruise’: The news item went on to say, “Fortunately the people of their own will had controlled their masquerading merriment, after inflicting a good castigation on the Chief of Police and his crew.”

Although the Dominican had asserted that the disturbances had no political significance, it was obvious that behind all of this was distrust between the masses and the authorities. The people objected to the attempt to deprive them of their masquerading, but there was much more involved at a time when Crown Colony government was coming increasingly under attack.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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