Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Battle dress and fancy dress

By Bridget Brereton
It's only October, but the newspapers have been full of band launchings for Carnival 2013. So maybe this is a good time to look at a new book on the history of Carnival in Trinidad. It's by Irwin Ottley and has the intriguing title Battle Dress and Fancy Dress An Inquiry into the Origins of the Customs and Traditions of the T&T Carnival.
In this well researched and strikingly illustrated book, Ottley asks whether modern Carnival — that is, the Carnival which emerged between the 1830s and the 1940s/50s — really had its origins in the French traditions of pre-Lenten celebrations.
There's no doubt that French settlers did bring these traditions to Trinidad in the late 1700s. We know that elite parties and costume balls, and house to house visits by groups in fancy dress, were held here in the period before Ash Wednesday. These took place in the early 1800s and up to the time of Emancipation (1834).
But Ottley thinks that these events were probably of little interest or appeal to the enslaved Africans, the majority of the population. For them, the annual celebrations that mattered were held in the period between Christmas Eve and New Year's Day.
All over the Caribbean, this was the period when the enslaved were given a few days off work and when they were allowed to blow off steam, as it were, in noisy public celebrations, dances and costumed parades or marches. Trinidad and Tobago was no exception.
Ottley argues convincingly that much of the character of the slave "Christmas Carnival" derived from West and Central African festival traditions. He describes various African Carnival-type activities recorded in the period before European colonisation in the 19th century: masking, elaborate costumes, stick-fighting, mock battles, military parades, ostentatiously dressed Kings, speechifying or eloquent oratory at festivals, drumming.
All or most of these elements were to be found in the celebrations of the enslaved people during the Christmas period. They were always noisy, public and potentially dangerous, so that in Trinidad, the Militia used to be called out to duty for the whole Christmas to New Year period in case there was violence.
In fact, these kinds of celebrations apparently went on, mainly on Sundays, from Christmas right through to Ash Wednesday. With Emancipation approaching, the authorities decided that the potential for disorder and danger to the colonial elite was too great. So in January 1833, a proclamation was issued prohibiting the wearing of masks in public until February 18 (Carnival Sunday).
This proclamation was reissued annually after 1833. So the African-derived Carnival traditions of the enslaved, previously held mainly during the Christmas-New Year period, were transferred to the pre-Lent season. Within just a few years, these celebrations "almost completely overwhelmed the European Carnival" of the local elites, in Ottley's words.
For Ottley, the Christmas celebrations of the enslaved, mostly derived from African traditions brought by them or their parents across the Middle Passage, were the true precursor of the Carnival which developed in the post-emancipation century (1830s to 1930s/40s). But there was also a second influence, almost as important: the military parades of the local Militia and troops of the British Army.
In the early 1800s, up to its abolition in 1839, the Trinidad Militia-a volunteer, part-time corps with white officers and white or free coloured/black men-was called out during the Christmas season. It held public parades and drills during this period. The uniforms were ostentatious and colourful, and there were endless officers with especially showy outfits. Even after the Militia was abolished, the presence of British Army troops garrisoned in Trinidad, plus the mainly black West India Regiments, meant that military parades continued to be frequently staged here.
Ottley argues that these parades, the uniforms, equipment and weapons on display, and the generally "martial" atmosphere, were a powerful influence on the development of Carnival. (Hence the "battle dress" of his title). Mixing with the military elements in traditional West African festivals (mock battles, parades), they ensured that the modern, post-Emancipation Carnival always had a pronounced "military" character — what Ottley calls "warrior mas" — seen in costumes, marches, mock drills, stick-fighting contests.
Canboulay exemplified this kind of warrior mas: as the opening event of the Carnival up to 1884, it was a military-type parade or march which culminated in stick-fighting contests around a bonfire. (Ottley believes that "cannes brulées", from which Canboulay is said to derive, referred to bonfires, not cane fires "canne" can be translated as stick or wood).
Later on, in the 20th century, all the varieties of sailor and soldier mas can be seen as later versions of the African type of warrior mas, but now closely associated with US naval forces which visited Trinidad before, during and after World War 2.
This interesting book makes its argument for the African derivation of most of the elements of the 20th-century Carnival in a scholarly and balanced way. There's no attempt (as we see at times) to down-play the obvious European influences on Carnival, in costuming, speech traditions, music, military uniforms and so on.
To get the book , check out metropolitian suppliers in Capital Plaza, or the Author:

Source: Trinidad Express

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