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The Roots of Carnival


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  Finding the dates for Carnival, is a hunt for its roots. Obscured through the thickets of time, by the growth of imagination that has spread its colourful renderings through islands, and now to continents, we tend to forget that it had a beginning.

  It is not the place of these pages to describe what carnival is today. Others have spent more time at this, and the effort at hand here is only to briefly look into the past to remind us from whom, and by what paths, and when the ideas of Carnival may have come to these islands of Trinidad and Tobago.

  We are aware that Carnival is a pot-pouri of cultural expressions, drawn mainly from European and African antecedents; but practised within the proscribed confines of Western religious beliefs. This just means that the point-in-time we use to express our Carnival, is set by the clock of religious practice, and is tied to the Easter observances through the string of Lenten fasting that begins on Ash Wednesday. We may party before, but must stop on the day of fast. A Catholic tradition.

  It was the Spanish and French who brought to these islands Roman Catholicism, and it is perhaps the province of the Spanish and French historians to first establish whether and when a similar festival of Carnival may have existed in their cultures; prior to, or after, Columbus made first landfall in the Caribbean in 1492; and later on to Trinidad in 1498 when the island began its new-world history under the banner of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.

  Carlton R Ottley expresses a parallel view where he writes:

  (2)Carnival had come to Trinidad sometime in the 1780's with the arrival of the flood of French immigrants. It is true that the Spaniards did celebrate with disguise balls before that, but, the beginning of the festival such as known today, may be said to be a product of those early French men and women who sought refuge here towards the close of the [18th] century.

  Carnival would have also been much influenced by customs and traditions pursuant to the pioneer populace of the Caribbean as a whole, and would have evolved through ideas and experiences dispersed throughout these local island regions. It is here now, that our local historians may find its links; and the more that tie this festival to the Portuguese at the South in Brazil; and through the explorers and privateers that plied the sea lanes that went North, to take it to the wetlands of the Mississippi.

  Though Carnivals beginnings may have been tenuous through the 16th and 17th Centuries, some roots must have been there for it to have spread in so fertile a manor to the Caribbean, Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans alike. As to whether Carnival started somewhere in the West Indies, and then spread further afield; or as is more likely, to have evolved in different ways simultaneously; may only add to the debate as to its origins.

  However, what is clearly evident, is that the character of these Caribbean islands is each so very different. Populated and pioneered by different cultures, in different mixes, over different timelines, under different conditions of wealth, health, religion and stewardship, that in consequence, the carnivals that have evolved in each, are all so different. Though the festive-spirit may be similar; elements of tradition, tone of satire, the style of display, representation of characters, whit of portrayal, size of costumes, number of participants, emphases of events, step of dance, beat of music, instruments played, lyric of songs and decorum of participation; all mix to set different dimensions in displays of creativity that combine to form the festival we call carnival.

  Carnival has evolved strongly in Trinidad and Tobago; islands a little freer, through history and circumstance, than many of their Caribbean neighbours to the north. Carnival here today, at this juncture of the 21st Century, is a major island-wide event. We still hunt to find its roots.

  Carlton R Ottley again gives us a glimpse of some early carnivals in Trinidad; at the turn of the 19th Century.
  Some additional extracts are shown to provide notes on some practices at Christmas, that then led up to the event of Carnival.

  (1)Although [Lieutenant Colonel Thomas] Picton [Military and Civil Governor or Trinidad - 1797 to 1802] had dispossessed the free coloured people of many of their privileges, they remained free to take part in all the many festivities especially carnival, which to Trinidadians of the early 19th Century was the culmination of an annual season of great jollification and unrestrained merriment.
  The season was heralded with the mustering of the companies of militia...

  Simultaneous with the calling out of the troops martial law was annually declared on December 23rd... ...[138]...

  Martial law ended on January 8th, but the festivities once started went on without interruption. The wealthy of the city [Port of Spain] kept open house for their country cousins. There was a succession of balls, dinners, picnics, in all parts of town.
  The country was deserted. Everybody came to town. Trinidadians both ended and started their year with festivities. In the intervening months no opportunity was missed to celebrate the occasion whatever that might be. ...[139]...

  (2)The last night of martial law was the occasion for the grand ball at Government House, when the elite of the land, jigged and polkaed and waltzed, to the strains of the music supplied by the band of the 3rd West India Regiment, at the time stationed in the island.
  Under the Spanish regime, the free coloured people were among those who attended balls at the Governor’s residence, but with the apparent determination of all British Governors from Picton onwards to support the French aristocracy in its fight to keep the coloured inhabitants in their places, they were excluded from these balls much to their anger and disgust.
  Be that as it may, the festivities of Trinidad went right on undiminished until the carnival season was heralded in. This was the stimulus for the greatest exertions in the provision of gay diversions and complete abandon. ...

  (2)There are several eye-witness accounts of Trinidad carnival of the early 19th century. These are of great importance in understanding the significance of this festival in the life of the islanders today.
  An English officer, in 1826, wrote to a friend: "I wish Bayley you had been here in the time of the carnival. You have no idea of the gaiety of the place in [141] that season. Ovid's metamorphoses were nothing compared to the changes that took place in the persons of catholic Trinidad. High and low, rich and poor, learned and unlearned, all found masking suits for the carnival. A party of ladies having converted themselves into a party of brigands assailed me in my quarters and nearly frightened me out of my wits. I was just going to cut and run when Ensign... who was with me, not knowing the joke, and thinking they were so many devils come to take him before his time drew his sword..."
[From these pages: Carnival Monday 6th February 1826]
Illustrated London News
carnival_in_the_19th_century_by_melton_prior_3c.jpg - 38352 Bytes
Carlton Robert Ottley - Page 143A 
  Another eye-witness account of carnival of that time runs thus: "I was residing in Trinidad during the carnival, which commenced on Sunday, the 7th March at mid-night. I had seen the carnival at Florence, at Syra in Greece, and in Rome; and was now about to witness a Negro masquerade, which from its squalid splendour, was not unamusing, cheapness being the grand requisite".
  "The maskers paraded the streets in gangs of from ten to twenty, occasionally joining forces in procession. The primitives were Negroes, as nearly naked as might be bedaubed with a black varnish. One of this gang had a long chain and padlock attached to his leg, which chain the others pulled. What this typified, I was unable to learn; but, as the chained one was occasionally thrown down on the ground, and treated with a mock bastina - doing it probably represented slavery".
  "Each mask was armed with a good stout quarter-staff, so that they could overcome one half more police than themselves, should occasion present itself. Parties of Negro ladies danced through the streets, each clique distinguished by bodices of the same colour. Every Negro, male and female, wore a white flesh coloured mask, their wooly hair carefully concealed by handkerchiefs; this contrasted with the black bosom and arms was droll in the extreme".
  "Those ladies who aimed at the superior civilization [142] of shoes and stockings, invariably clothe their pedal extremeties in pink silk stockings and blue, white, or yellow kid shoes, sandalled their sturdy legs. For the men, the predominating character was pulinchinello; every second Negro at least, aiming at playing the continental jack-pudding. Pirates were very common, dressed in Guernsey frocks, full scarlet trousers. and red woollen cap with wooden pistols for arms. From the utter want of spirit, and sneaking deportment of these corsairs, I presumed them to have come from the Pacific. Turks also there were and one highlander, a most ludicrous figure, a caricature of the Gael, being arrayed in scarlet coat, huge grenadier cap, kilt of light blue chintz, striped with white, a most indescribable philibeg, black legs of course, and white socks bound with dirty pink ribbon". [143B]
[ From these pages: Carnival Monday 8th March 1886 - See Note 1 ]

(1) Chapter 22 - Trinidad militia   Military law proclaimed each year…
(2) Chapter 23 - Ball at Government House   Carnival   Description of disguises

Slavery Days in Trinidad: A social history of the island from 1797 - 1838
© Carlton Robert Ottley (From Tobago) 1974 - Printed by Syncreators Ltd - Trinidad

Note 1 - It seems quite ironic that the reference material that these Carnival Dates pages are using to qualify certain historic dates, should now come under scrutiny through the very method for which these pages have been (in part) designed; and for the first time at that!

The letter that Ottley uses here, but undated for it’s year, is revealed by these pages to be dated 1886; by having a day-date for Carnival Monday of the 8th March.

Ottleys’ history is listed as A social history of the island from 1797 - 1838.
It would appear a little odd that he may have been using a letter, a little out of context to his stated dates. In truth, it really does not matter here; and we are very pleased that he has included it in his book, where it appears in the penultimate chapter.

All we can say is that; Ottley may or may not have known the date of the letter, but at the end of the day WE do; or do we?

Yet another irony appears here, but this is more of a coincidence.
[Lets run around and stick him in the eye!]
    The date Carnival Monday 8th March or Easter Sunday 25th April (it does not matter which you chose, because they are both tied together by an iron rod; mathematically speaking that is) just happens to be:
  • One of the two most extreme that arise as the latest possible for a Carnival/Easter date; ie. falling late in the year.
    [It would be THE latest possible; were it in a leap year]
    [Its opposite would be the most extreme that arise as the earliest possible Easter date - 22nd March]
  • One of the 4 rarest possible Carnival/Easter dates.
    [Outside of which occur/repeat between 2 to 4 times per Century]
  • In the ~600 years of dates processed for these pages, it occurs only 6 times, or roughly averaging once per century.
    [Which it actually does]
In order of available dates, Carnival Monday 8th March or Easter Sunday 25th April occurs in the following years:
1734*, 1886, 1943, 2038, 2190 and 2283
[None of which are leap years]

So which is it? 1734* or 1886?
Or did we get all the dates wrong in the first place?
Your shout

[ * = The debate seems unending. Quite apart from the discussion as to whether the letter fits the period 1734 or 1886, with 1886 seeming the most practical choice perhaps; another issue arises with respect to the date 1734 as well, which may mean that it could be invalid.
The date 1734, although accurate in terms of the mathematical foundations on which it is determined, carries a Limitations and Cautions warning; as an historical understanding of the dates of adoption of the relevant calendars to the period and region apply. ]

  26 June 2001 - tobagojo@gmail.com


The usual Oooops! Disclaimer

  This disclaimer applies to all The Carnival Dates Project - Trinidad & Tobago documents that indicate the dates Carnival Monday, Carnival Tuesday, Ash Wednesday and/or Easter/Sunday.

  For whatever reasons you are using the above mentioned dates, you are advised to please consult other sources to verify these dates. Neither Jeremy G de Barry, nor any contributors indicated on these documents, nor the host facilitators to these documents, may be held responsible in any way whatsoever, if these dates are incorrectly calculated or applied. The user assumes full responsibility for the consequences of using this information.

  Have a nice day

The Carnival Dates Project - Trinidad & Tobago   
The Roots of Carnival
  © 2001: tobagojo@gmail.com - 20010625 - 1m20071228 - 2m20140615
Historic Update: 17 July 2001; Last Update: 18 June 2014 06:40:00 TT
Processed by: Jeremy G de Barry
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