Origins of the riots
Trinidad’s carnival dates back to the 18th century, and the influx of French Catholic planters from the French Antilles – both white and free coloured – their slaves, and free blacks in the 1780s. The white and free coloured both staged elaborate masquerade balls at Christmas and as a “farewell to the flesh” before the Catholic Lenten season, with each group mimicking the other in their masking and entertainment.
After the emancipation of slaves in 1838, it became a symbol of freedom and defiance. This asking and mimicry merged over time with the Calinda – or stick-fighting accompanied by chanting and drumming – and rituals of carnival to become a jamette – or underclass- masquerade. The festival was transformed when the island’s slaves were freed in 1834 as a consequence of the passage of the Abolition Act by the British Parliament in 1833.
The emancipated slaves first celebrated their freedom on 1 August the anniversary of their emancipation but soon participated in Carnival instead. As part of this transformation, they started carrying burning sugar canes or “cannes brulees” which were soon called Canboulay. The
Carnival soon featured ribald dancing by men and women in masks.
The people would also gather in “kaiso” tents where a “chantwell” or lead singer would lead them in song to vent their feelings. The “Chantwell” or Chantuelle who was an integral part of the celebrations was the forerunner of the Calypsonian and later Soca music.
“Kaiso” music has its origins in West Africa and was brought over by the slaves who (in the early history of the art form) used it to sing about their masters. The British authorities disapproved of the festival because of its bacchanalian overtones, but the festival was popular with the bulk of the free population on the island.
The Carnival was often marred by clashes between groups of revellers carrying sticks and lighted torches. While the confrontations started in song duels between the chantwells, they often worsened to physical violence. The British authorities banned carrying sticks and torches in 1868 due to a clash between two groups. However, this ban was not enforced for some years.
Captain Arthur Baker became the head of Trinidad’s police force in the early 1880s and was determined to end the Canboulay as a threat to public order. In 1881, Trinidad’s police force clashed with revelers in Port of Spain who had banded together against the police.
This caused resentment amongst the ordinary people of Trinidad who valued the festival despite the clashes. Due to the feelings of the population, Governor Sir Sanford Freeling confined police to barracks in order to calm down the situation. However, when Freeling was recalled in 1883, Baker sought to crack down at the Canboulay in the southern cities of San Fernando and Princes Town during the carnival of 1884.
In Princes Town, the masqueraders attacked the police station after magistrate Hobson decided to confine the police to barracks because the crowd was too large. After Hobson was felled with a stone, the police opened fire on the rioters killing a youth and seriously wounding two others causing the crowd to flee. There were also serious clashes between police and rioters in San Fernando during Carnival but the police gradually won the upper hand.
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