‘Carnival is the control of a space by people who do not have control of it normally’… It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, if you have a carnival where people take over the streets … it is an important event and a dangerous event to any government.’ —Michael De La Rose, British Author.
To most tourist spectators, Carnival in the Caribbean is essentially an exotic event from Europe. Christians celebrated this time as a prelude to the restrictions of Lent; involving fancy dress, drink, frenetic music, dancing, often scantily-clad people cavorting in the street. The colonised people and slaves later adopted the customs.
And yet, the essence of Caribbean Carnival is much more complex; it is really a rich canvas painted by the local people of colour over the centuries, and a tribute to the black cultural diaspora. Carnival was originally a pagan custom with roots in ancient Rome and ancient Egypt; so in a sense it has come full circle as a cultural event with African roots.
In Jamaica and the Bahamas, during the 18th century, the slaves were only allowed open celebrations of any kind immediately after Christmas; and they celebrated from 26th December with the street masquerades called Jonkannu, or John Canoe. This celebration derives its name from the French ‘L’Inconnu,’ or the unknown (masked) man. Jonkannu celebrations involved groups of masqueraded slaves who gave themselves mighty themes and names linked to mythology, heroes, rulers and Native American tribes. They also had self-styled Kings and Queens.
Carnival as Afro-Creole Culture Building
Around the same time, in the 1760s, white and French creole colonists introduced Carnival to Caribbean colonies and to New Orleans. The colonists celebrated with indoor masked balls. The best known instance was in Trinidad, which then exported itself back across the world to the United Kingdom in 1965 in the shape of the Notting Hill Carnival, and so returned to the Old Continent almost two hundred years later in a new, reinvented version of itself.
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In Trinidad, Carnival’s first day, or Jouvert, from the French Jour Ouvert (Open Day) started in the early hours of Monday and consisted of the Canne Broulees (burnt Sugar Canes) parade, eventually known as Canboulay. Whites and Creoles re-enacted the slaves’ missions from one plantation to another to stop burning canes. They dressed and actually made themselves up to resemble black African slaves, carried burning torches and long sticks, and sang.
After emancipation, however, the newly freed Afro-Caribbean population re-inverted the inversion. They embraced their former masters’ class-conscious celebration and turned it into a street masquerade, or ‘Mas.’ The Black Caribbean population now mocked the mockers, re-enacted the Canbulay, and in doing so appropriated it. They added enthusiastic stick-fighting dances, or Kalinda, and the singing of Caiso, or ‘joyous songs,’ by female street singers known as Chantwelles, or ‘singing birds.’
The Kalinda soon turned into a local event in itself, an actual real street fighting discipline, and Kalinda contests and champions flourished. Training for stick fighting eventually blended and morphed into Cricket training, almost a century later.
Soon after, Carnival in Trinidad became more of a street affair, appropriated by the lower black social class. It became known as Jamet Carnival, or, according to the Anthropologist Richard D Burton, the ‘Carnival of the Plebs.’ The street people organized it as an expression of irreverence and also a chance for the more deprived population to express its discontent. Authorities banned stick fighting and Carnival celebrations were subject to curbs from the 1850s to almost the end of the 19th century.
The Afro Caribbean Time-Travelling Court
Carnival continues as a mirror of social trends and aspirations of the Black Caribbean culture that nurtured it.
Caiso became Calypso, and, just like in Carnival’s parades and New Orleans’ Krewes, Calypso’s musical stars gave themselves mighty, powerful and highly symbolic stage-names: Conqueror, Destroyer, Roaring Lion, Pharao, Black Prince, Duke, Mighty Sparrow, and so on.
Calypsonians are irreverent and, not unlike the European court jesters of old, are able to speak truth to power. Celebrants speak many true words in jest, or, indeed, in Calypso lyrics. Equally, during Carnival, from Trinidad to Jamaica, Brazil, New Orleans, Venice, Nice, and London’s Notting Hill; ancient warriors, Native American Chieftains, modern politicians, Kings, Queens, mythological figures and deities of old mingle, parade and cavort through the streets side by side to the sound of drums, steelpans and joyous singing.
Carnival is also a focus and a mirror for Caribbean and Afro-American society and its contradictions and conflicts. In the post war period, Steel Pans took over from Stick Fighting as the new means of sublimated posturing; both against each other as against those who represented authority, such as the police, for example. Carnival floats came to represent more and more political themes and eventually, in the 1960s and 1970s, Black Power and African Pride subjects.
A Tale of Two Women and One Vision
The immediate post WWII period also saw the crucial movement of Caribbean migrants into the United Kingdom aboard the Empire Windrush in 1948, when the old colonial power asked its then subjects in the Caribbean for help to rebuild itself after the devastation of the war.
Ten years later racial tensions caused riots in the UK and, here again, Carnival came to the rescue as a colourful social glue.
Two London women, Claudia Jones and Rhaune Laslett, separately managed to conjure up a mighty vision of cultural and social harmony by organizing a social event the magnitude of which they probably would not have predicted: the Notting Hill Carnival.
Both women worked as committed social activists: Claudia Jones was of Trinidadian descent and a Communist, and Rhaune Laslett was a former nurse and a social worker from the East End of London, of Russian and Native American descent.
One envisioned a cultural celebration as an empowering, interactive street event, one more of an English Fete with cultural bonding.
Crucially, both had in mind social solidarity through cultural celebration. Though they never actually knew each other, their combined vision survives and uplifts thousands to this day. Here are once again the ingredients of Carnival, which produced something new from the old, across space and time.
As a reveller puts it:
‘The Carnival did more to bring whites and blacks together than anything else..nothing had ever seen so many people gather at ease than at the Carnival….We’ve got to express a new way of relating to the host society, and there also was this need to express anger..to control anger which Carnival could do that as well…’
The Notting Hill Carnival has endured controversy and racial tension, but people celebrate it to this day in London every August Bank Holiday (the last weekend and Monday in August), and each year it is bigger than ever. Carnival is a true allegory for the Black Diaspora, the Afro-Caribbean cultural journey across space and time, and above all human endurance.