The History of the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival

Carnivals signify a togetherness and unity of people within the community and with people from the neighboring ones. For every culture, there is a specific type of celebration, complete with their own unique events, costumes, music and much more. This is what makes one carnival unique from another. Among all these is one of the carnivals that not only brings together the country’s own people, but rather people from other nations as well: the Trinidad & Tobago Carnival.

The Carnival in Trinidad is believed to have started sometime in the 1780’s with the arrival of the French immigrants. These French immigrants are believed to have been brought to the country by their need for refuge and land. Little did they know that they would be the pioneers of what would be one of the greatest annual celebrations of the world.In 1776, the king of Spain issued a Cedula of Population, which opened the island to colonization by the French.

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A second Cedula was released in 1783, and thus, the French started moving in. The French, along with some Africans and other “free-coloreds”, decided to make settlement in the land. It was here where they brought their festivities and their way of celebrating.In 1797, Trinidad was captured by the British and was made a crown colony of Great Britain.

After colonizing Barbados and Jamaica two centuries before, they also began colonizing Trinidad.“In this era, the period between Christmas and Lent was marked by great merrymaking and feasting by both the French and English. Historians of the nineteenth century wrote about the balls, fetes champetres and house to house visiting engaged in by the white upper class.These Carnival celebrations from 1783 to 1838 were dominated by the Caucasians.

Africans and “coloreds” (persons of mixed race) were forbidden by law to participate in street festivities with the upper class. Although most of their privileges were taken from them by the governor-generals, they were given permission to do their celebrations nonetheless. They were allowed to take part in the festivities which to Trinidadians of the early 19th Century was “the culmination of an annual season of great jollification and unrestrained merriment.Thus, the street parades began in 1839.

For more than 100 years since then, though, the celebration was done separately in the area: one each for the upper and the lower classes.The upper classes held their masked balls in the great houses of their sugar estates during the nineteenth century.  The made their celebrations on stages. These lasted on until the 1950’s.

The lower classes, on the other hand, which included the free blacks and emancipated slaves, did their celebrations in the streets. These are associated with their tribal customs.When the Africans were freed and allowed to join the whites in their celebrations, however, the whites ended their own festivities, not wishing to mingle with the Africans. These Africans, then, were left to celebrate on their own as they engaged in masking, dancing, stick fighting, mocking whites and reenacting scenes of past enslavement.

“The ruling classes withdrew from Carnival for most of the latter half of the nineteenth century. It took another forty years before they rejoined the street masquerade. They restricted their participation to house parties and club dances and fancy balls. From these balls, the Carnival Queen Show and the Dimanche Gras productions emerged.

During the first 50 years of the 20th century, the carnival flourished. Because of the World Wars, many influences came to the country. Also, because of the lack of resources, many were inspired to be creative and make their own instrument, those of which today are important elements in the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. Musical instruments such as the pan were invented.

In fact, the pan is only musical instrument in the world that was created in this era. It was created from oil drums in 1946 by native Trinidadian Winston “Spree’ Simon. The creation of this musical instrument led other natives to create varieties of the steel drum. Along with the guitars and cellos, the first bands were formed.

These “Steelbands” became trademarks of the carnival, as the tropical sound reflected the upbeat feel of all the festivities. Competition didn’t arise until 1963, when the steel drums were introduced to other cultures. Thus, the Pan/Jazz Festival was created as part of the Carnival. This competition led to a burst of even greater culture mixing together as competitors from all over the world joined the contest.

Later in the century, the Carnival experienced a few obstacles. The festival underwent financial difficulties. The Pan culture, though, continued to flourish. Changes also happened as the women’s liberation, ad marketing of mas bands, the popularity of synthetic fabrics, emergence of the entrepreneurial producers and performers, and other events took place.

All these influence the spread of the Carnival to other nations. All people who want to get a feel of the Carnival come to the festivities, and in turn, they give their own “twists” to the events, which makes the festival a hodge-podge of different cultures. This has made Trinidad and Tobago a stronger nation with even stronger ties with other nations. With all the crises in the world at present, it is a relief to know that certain events that can still take place—events that unite people of all races and colors as one.


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