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Canboulay – The history of Trinidad Carnival comes alive

Every year Carnival lovers the world over flock to Trinidad to indulge in revelry infused with an explosion of colourful costumes, wanton festivities, soca and calypso. 

While most mas fanatics are familiar with the party side of Carnival, it’s easy to overlook the multi-layered elements of the season as well as what its origins entail.

Indeed, present-day Carnival is a celebration of island pride and freedom of expression but it’s important to remember that the festivities are deeply rooted in rebellion and the re-enactment of Canboulay Riots stands as an artistic ode to our revolutionary past. 

The re-enactment is an hour-long dramatisation of the coordinated riots that took place in the capital city.

Each year at 5:00 a.m. on Carnival Friday, hundreds of enthusiasts make their way to downtown Port-of-Spain where they watch performers act out how the descendants of freed slaves revolted against British police who attempted to shut down their Carnival celebrations. The reenactments include several elements that are the heartbeat of Carnival itself including Kalinda (stickfighting), tamboo bamboo, flambeaux, African drumming, singing and the display of traditional characters. 

Carnival during post-Emancipation held a different meaning than its celebrations during enslavement. In the late 18th and early 19th century, the planter class and free coloureds hosted masquerade balls symbolising a “farewell to the flesh” ahead of the Catholic Lenten season. These masquerade celebrations included dressing up and mimicking each other as a form of entertainment.

Following the end of slavery, however, ‘mas’ celebrations converged into that of defiance. As scholar JD Elder noted, “Canboulay is basically a ceremony symbolising cane-burning that Africans of Trinidad devised to celebrate their ‘freedom from slavery’ in 1838.”

It represented resistance and was a celebration of African dance, theatre and music by the lower classes. This was looked down upon by the upper classes who considered such behaviour undignified. British authorities attempted to suppress these gatherings from occurring, leading to many clashes revellers carrying sticks and lighted torches and police, eventually descending into physical violence.

Captain Arthur Baker was determined to end the Canboulay as a threat to public order and British authorities later banned carrying sticks and torches. In 1881, Trinidad’s police force clashed with revellers in Port-of-Spain, and in the southern cities of San Fernando and Princes Town in 1884 which resulted in the loss of lives.

Today, re-enactments serve as a commemoration of the riots and Canboulay music is a vital part of Trinidad and Tobago’s music including calypso and later soca. It also most notably influenced the national instrument, the steel pan which is descendent of the very same percussion instruments that were banned during the riots.