By Bridget Brereton
In my last piece I wrote about the sources we can use to study Carnival before the 20th century, and I examined (as an example) a colonial report about the 1881 Canboulay Riots.
Today, I want to look at Carnival at the end of the 1800s, through two written sources. Both were written by upper-class Trinidadians of this era, but they held different views of the festival, and their documents differed in purpose and scope.
In 1897, EF Chalamelle published a 30-page pamphlet called Some Reflections on the Carnival of Trinidad. I don’t know who he was; but he was well educated—he writes in a flowery, very “literary” style—and may have been a French Creole living in Arima, where the pamphlet was first published.
Chalamelle was writing when the Canboulay had been abolished and Carnival as a whole, especially the more “obscene” type of mas, was coming under much stricter police regulation. But he wanted it to be entirely stamped out—no allowing it to die a “natural” death for him. Since around 1870, he believed, it had “degenerated from an innocent pastime into a foul, disgraceful and indecent proceeding” which was “unfit for a civilized community”.
Chalamelle acknowledged that Canboulay—“a savage and harassing procedure”—had been ended, and obscene costumes like the “Pissenlit”, involving men dressed in female underwear and making sexy moves, had been recently stamped out. But, he wrote, the “lewd and worthless” still carried on as before, “rowdeyism”, obscenity and crime were still basic parts of Carnival.
Above all, Chalamelle argued that Carnival had caused the “ruin” of many “respectable” (read upper and middle-class) girls and women: he wrote that he knew of “many families who have been brought to a state of degradation and sorrow upon the downfall of their daughters, who in deep repentance must own their ruin to the Carnival”.
He implies that many respectable girls used the festival to meet lovers “of low repute and inferior rank in disguise”, resulting in scandal and disgrace, and that otherwise virtuous wives had a fling, with the result that “many a household tie has been broken asunder”. In sensational prose, Chalamelle insisted that Carnival had produced “hundreds” of “ruined girls”, who could have been “virtuous mothers and wives”.
As if all this wasn’t bad enough, Chalamelle pointed to the scandalous Carnival songs (calypsoes, probably sung in Patois at this time) which insulted respectable families and “well-bred” women. Any private domestic affairs of decent families might be made “a matter for scandal among the lewd community”.
Clearly, Victorian ideas about sex, women’s sexuality, class and race clashed with the sexual theme of the Carnival, which couldn’t be suppressed even with police action against the “obscene” masques. But Chalamelle’s views were extreme, and probably not typical even within his class and generation.
Chalamelle’s pamphlet was written in order to influence public opinion and to persuade the authorities to put down Carnival.
A very different kind of source is the autobiography or memoir by Percy Fraser (1867-1951). Fraser belonged to the white Creole upper class (his father was the local historian L M Fraser) and was a public servant all his working life. In his old age, he wrote his autobiography, which was eventually published in 2007.
Fraser looks back to the Carnivals of his youth—the 1880s and 1890s—with nostalgia and affection, quite different to Chalamelle’s disgust and outrage. He agreed that the “Pissenlit” was obscene and was glad that it had been suppressed, but he lovingly described other traditional Carnival characters and bands of this era.
There were the “Schoolgirls” in short white dresses and pink pinafores, carrying slates and books; the “Marchandes” in full Martinique costumes; the doctors, surveyors, policemen, lawyers and judges, all properly dressed and with the appropriate equipment; the “Negre Jardin”, dressed in shabby clothes but skilled stick-fighters; the “Bad Cattle”, men dressed in dry plantain leaves with large bull’s horns on their forehead who terrified children (clearly an African mas); the Moko Jumbies, also African; the Bats, with elaborate and expensive costumes made of velvet and silk; the “Bouriquits”, the donkey mas accompanied by a string musical band playing Spanish tunes, and the Maypole, both introduced from Venezuela.
Fraser especially admired the Pierrot, with his elaborate costume, heavy whip and boastful speech (known in the old days as “Jagoné” according to Fraser). “A fully dressed Pierrot was an imposing sight”, Fraser recalled; “as a very young lad, I was a great admirer of the Pierrots, and together with other boys we would follow a favourite Pierrot everywhere he went”, making sure to run away when he met an adversary and a fight seemed imminent. Fraser felt that the modern version of the Pierrot of his youth, the “Pierrot La Grenade”, was a very inferior substitute, dressed in rags and lacking the former grandeur and glamour.
So Fraser loved the Carnival of the late 1800s, quite unlike Chalamelle’s jaundiced view. Perhaps this was partly nostalgia for his youth; he had a much less rosy view of the festival in the late 1940s, when he was writing his memoirs.
• Bridget Brereton is emerita
professor of history at UWI, St Augustine