CARNIVAL: TRINIDAD 1888
Image courtesy the Heritage Library Division
In 1888, Melton Prior of the “Illustrated London News", recorded the first known image of carnival in Trinidad. Prior, an illustrator, and the 19th Century equivalent of an international news correspondent, was sent by the newspaper as part of a public relations/human interest series to the major British colonies in the West Indies. Prior witnessed the carnival masquerade on Frederick Street, and detailed what he saw.
According to Bridget Brereton in A history of modern Trinidad 1783-1962, Trinidad’s society in the 19th Century consisted of four main sectors who perceived themselves as separate and distinct. The white upper class, the black and coloured middle class distinguished by education and white collar jobs, the creole working class mainly of African descent, and the Indians. The relationships among these fractions were fraught with unequal interactions, resulting in a high level of distrust, tensions and anger. This contentious relationship among the races was aggravated by the Anglicization policy and process of the British Colonial Government. It is against this background of inequality, that provides a context for the expressions of disdain and the need for distance from the masquerades can be interpreted from Prior’s illustration.
Control of Carnival
In Trinidad, during the 19th Century the authorities introduced measures to repress and control both the lower classes and the Carnival. They were seen as crude, rowdy, lazy, immoral, noisy, and they had to be contained to ensure that there was minimum loss of societal morality. These measures included proclamations to regulate the Carnival, the prohibition of dance and torchlight processions, requiring licenses to hold practice drum sessions, increasing the police presence at Carnival activities such as stick fighting, and creating ordinances such as the 1884 Peace Preservation Ordinance.
Trinidad at the time of Melton Prior’s arrival
At the arrival of Mr. Prior, Trinidad colonial society was in a state of flux. There existed high levels of racism in a very stratified society, with the authorities attempting to mould the lower class into their image of what a dignified society should be. The lower classes in turn rebelled against these restrictions, and fought to find new ways to retain their cultural norms in the face of adversity.
According to Jeff Henry in Under the Mas: Resistance and rebellion in the Trinidad Masquerade, “Prior’s illustration cleverly framed a society and revealed its subtle class and race divisions under the guise of celebration and masking”.
While Prior’s image of 19th Century Trinidad carnival is a ‘snap shot’ of the event, he illustrates
• Early traditional carnival characters that are the forerunner of the devils/jab jab, minstrels, sailors, Dame Lorraine, American Indians
• The use of masks including beards and moustaches, or painted faces to obscure recognition from the authorities
• The pleasure that persons took in the celebration of carnival, both masqueraders and spectators
• Trinidad society, and especially how the classes and races interacted with each other in a public setting
• Colonial Caribbean architecture from the buildings on Frederick Street
• The differences in how the upper and the lower classes dressed
Want more information on the evolution of Trinidad society? Read “A history of modern Trinidad 1783-1962”, by Bridget Brereton as well as Gordon Rohlehr’s Calypso and Society in pre-independent Trinidad.
Want a more detailed analysis of Melton Prior’s “First record of Trinidad’s carnival”? Read Jeff Henry ‘s “Under the Mas: Resistance and rebellion in the Trinidad Masquerade”.
Want more information on the evolution of Trinidad’s carnival? Read: John Cowley’s “Carnival Canboulay and Calypso. Traditions in the making”, and Hollis Liverpool’s “Rituals of Power and Rebellion. The Carnival tradition in Trinidad and Tobago 1763-1962”.
All of these resources and more are available at the Heritage Library Division, 2nd floor, National Library Building, Port of Spain
Brereton, Bridget. A history of modern Trinidad 1783-1962. Oxford, Heinemann International, 1989.
Cowley, John. Carnival Canboulay and Calypso. Traditions in the making. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Henry, Jeff. Under the Mas’. Resistance and rebellion in the Trinidad masquerade. Port of Spain, Lexicon, 2008.
Liverpool, Hollis. Rituals of Power and Rebellion. The Carnival tradition in Trinidad and Tobago 1763-1962. Chicago, Research Associates School Times Publications/ Frontline Distribution Int’l Inc, 2001.
Compiled by Gerada Holder, Librarian IV, Heritage Library Division