Carnival is an important part of our history

By Murphy Browne Thursday February 16 2012 in Opinion
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By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)

I hear how they planning for Carnival coming

I get information bout the situation

They say they go beat people

And they don’t care bout trouble

But tell them don’t worry with me

Is a different thing 1963

Because the road make to walk on Carnival Day

Constable I don’t want to talk but I got to say

Any steelband man only venture to break this band

Is a long funeral from the Royal Hospital

From the 1963 Carnival Road March The Road sung by Aldwyn “Lord Kitchener” Roberts



Lord Kitchener, born Aldwyn Roberts on April 18, 1922 in Arima, Trinidad had returned to the island in 1963 after living in Britain for 14 years. He was one of the almost 500 Caribbean people who arrived in Tilbury, England on June 22, 1948 aboard the MV Empire Windrush.



The British government had advertised for workers from its Caribbean colonies to address its labour shortage and even offered cheap fares as encouragement. Kitch, as he was fondly called by his legion of fans, and the other passengers aboard the Windrush were the first in the wave of immigrants from the Caribbean to Britain. Jamaican poet, the Honourable Louise “Miss Lou” Bennett-Coverly, immortalized the wave of immigration in her popular poem, Colonization in Reverse



Even though the British government needed the Caribbean workers and there was work available, the White people in Britain were not happy to have large groups of Africans from their former Caribbean colonies in their midst. Kitch and his fellow Windrush passengers were treated to Britain’s special brand of racism .



Maybe that was his reason for returning to Trinidad after spending 14 years in Britain. Whatever his reason for leaving the “mother country” though, Kitch was back home in Trinidad for the 1963 carnival and was obviously sending a message with “The Road” to any and all “steelband man” who would think of ruining his enjoyment of the day.



Calypso, which is the music of Trinidad & Tobago and inextricably linked to the island’s celebration of carnival, has been used to educate and make social commentary “oftentimes laced with humorous satire on current events”.



In 1963, Dr. Francisco “the Mighty Sparrow” Slinger also commented on the “steelband man” citing the history of their “outcast” status:


Calypsonians really ketch hell for a long time

To associate yourself with them was a big crime

If your sister talked to a steelband man

The family want to break she hand

Put she out, lick out every teeth in she mouth

Pass you outcast!



In his 1972 book, The Trinidad Carnival, Errol Hill wrote: The antecedents of the calypso were the praise songs and songs of derision of West African natives captured as slaves and brought to the West Indies.



Dr. Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool in his 2001 book, Rituals of Power & Rebellion: The Carnival Tradition in Trinidad & Tobago, 1763-1962, expands on this as he compares the calypsonians to the griots of Africa:



The history of the griot tradition shows that in West Africa, in all the areas from which the enslaved Africans in Trinidad were taken, griots, as praise singers and storytellers, can be found. Among the Africans enslaved in Trinidad, there were inevitably many praise singing griots whose main role it was to praise and deride their leaders in their homelands during official ceremonies and masquerades.



Trinidad & Tobago will be celebrating the 2012 carnival next week with the accompanying steel band music, spectacular costumes, calypso and soca.



In Rituals of Power & Rebellion, Liverpool writes about the African influence and historical connection to carnival:



The Africans, native as well as creole born, as the most populous group on the island, applied their West African traditions, values and principles, which they brought to the island, to new events and experiences so that their traditions in Trinidad from 1783 to 1962 reveal continuity and change. They used their traditions and carnival practices, too, to resist the attempts by the British colonial government and the elite to oppress and control them.



Toronto’s Caribana and London, England’s Notting Hill Carnival are both modelled on the Trinidad carnival traditions. However, the history of the carnival and the African cultural connection is not usually a part of the revelry. In Toronto, for instance, although the Caribana parade is held around the same time as Emancipation Day, which is celebrated on August 1, that connection is usually missing even though slavery in Canada was also abolished on August 1.



According to Liverpool, carnival in Trinidad was at one time celebrated on Emancipation Day. He quotes from the records of a Dominican priest, Fr. Bernard Cothonay, who wrote of his experiences of the Africans’ Carnival in Carenage, a village in West Trinidad.



I told you that our Trinidad Blacks, particularly those in Carenage, are ex-slaves or sons of slaves. Following Emancipation which occurred on August 1st, 1838, they resolved to celebrate each year this day, a solemn festival for perpetual memory. This festival began at daybreak with high mass, loud music, blessed bread, a procession etc., and it continued for three days during which, in the course of festivities, there were nameless dances and orgies, remembrances of African life.



Obviously, this priest did not understand what the Africans were feeling as they celebrated their freedom from a life of being owned by other people where they and their children could be sold and where they were forced to work without pay.



History is usually told from the point of view of the powerful and privileged and that is why African history being featured during this month remains relevant since we are usually relegated to the margins of European history.



Writes Liverpool: History in the Caribbean has largely limited itself to politics, constitutions, economics and religion. In this regard, it has not changed much from traditional historiography, and English historians with their emphasis on wars, conquests, constitutional changes and the like. In the context of Caribbean history, the Carnival in Trinidad must be seen against the background of African enslavement and resistance, that took place in most Caribbean islands from around 1500 with the coming of the Europeans to the 1960s when some islands gained formal independence. It was a period characterized by violence against Caribbean peoples, who responded by political, socio-economic and cultural resistance.



During this month, when we pay special attention to our history, we do not need to imitate anyone else’s idea of what makes history and how we celebrate/commemorate that history. In writing Rituals of Power & Rebellion, Liverpool has obviously done meticulous research of his subject. As a cultural anthropologist, calypsonian and historian, he is eminently qualified to address the culture and history of Trinidad’s carnival.



The Toronto Public Library system has three copies of this book with only two available for borrowing; the third is a reference-only copy.



What are you reading this month? What is your child learning about the history of African people in school, especially during this month? If nothing is happening in your child’s school, please have a discussion with the teachers and principal. The recognition of Black History Month, African History Month or African Liberation Month, remains necessary and relevant. There are still two weeks remaining in February and the learning need not stop at the end of February.


  • steve said:

    Where can the Book Rituals of Power and Rebellion by Hollis Liverpool, be bought in Trinidad?

    Thursday July 19 at 11:38 am

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