On a recent radio programme with Bert Francois, I expressed the view that the history of St. Vincent and the Grenadines is a history of struggle and resistance. Vincentians sometimes made their actions speak louder than their voices. To reinforce my point, I singled out instances in its history when protests and struggles stood out. Among those was the Carnival Riots of February 11, 1879, that is 143 years ago to this day. Regulations passed on February 7, 1872, by the Governor-in-Council stated that; 1) “No person after being warned by the Police not to do so, shall by shouting, singing, or playing any instrument, cause annoyance to any inhabitant or passerby in any street- 2) No person shall in any street wear any mask.” In an article for the Carnival Magazine of 1987, I wrote the following: “our colonial masters, ever conscious of the force and power of a people’s culture, had spared little effort to degrade and stamp out certain dominant forms . . . So it was that in 1872 Carnival was banned. The lieutenant Governor (acting) in defending that move stated that it was the custom of the “lower orders of the people” to dress in ‘Fantastic attire’ and wear masks, parading and dancing through the streets with sticks or whips “with which they struck at any persons passing by.”
In 1879, however, the Vincentian people decided to revive their festivity at any cost. Revellers appeared on the streets on the evening of Saturday, February 8. Arrests were made on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. At about 7 p.m. on Tuesday evening (February 11) the riots started when people assembled between “Pauls Gate and the Green”. Policemen who had been summoned, had to beat a hasty retreat to the accompaniment of stones, sticks and bottles. The Lieutenant Governor, himself, was not spared, when on Wednesday after an emergency meeting of the Executive Council, he was ferociously attacked by some three hundred to four hundred persons.”
What I found most interesting was a ballad in the newspaper that was roasting the police as they ‘beat their hasty retreat’. Unfortunately, I am unable because of its length to reproduce most of it. It is entitled “The Retreat of the Police 1879”
“Saw Ye those masquerading Raids, which shook St. Vincent’s troubled state?
Saw Ye the Magnates from their beds, Awake and tremble at their feet? See! The Maskers grim advancing to harmonious measures dancing John B proudly leading them Lo! From the lanes of Bottom Town, the gathering storms of battle flown, Dutch courage speeding them.
The Jolly lads, from Rum Shops freed, Dash fearless on through thick and thin, while answering alleys as they speed, loudly re echo to their din, Within the Barracks at the Bay, Protective forces snugly lay, Forming our Civic guard. The arms! Quick March! The sergeant cries, with nimble steps, but down cast eyes, Leaving the Ordnance yard.
The heroic band its Captain leads, Along the Bay up Middle Street, Forward, Hurrah! Each Masker speeds, His boon companions to meet, Go leave said Van your frantic joy. And stop such discordant noise. (‘Van’, apparently a reference to the Chief of Police) Offence to ears polite! Will ye oppose the advance in vain, Of brave and sturdy Policemen” My trusty men strike light.
A Masker bold has crossed the way, he sprawls their nimble feet below
But what cared they if dead he lay
For forward, onward still they go. The surging crowd revengeful grows,Dark passion resting on their brows, Hard blows and Words so high, did strike the rude Plebeian rock, that sparks were kindled by the Shock, And light did flash from every eye. . .
Again they wheel- their nimble feet, The devious way now quickly trace,Down Middle Lane along Back Street, The Rioters pursue the chase! The Police ran! Why skulled the brave, Awake! St. Vincent honor save, From the fury of the blast! Stem the storm at Paul’s gate walls, Rise! Ere government for ever falls, Up ere the Chief breathes out his last . . .
We rather think since Van was floored, And scarce escaped from his betters, He’ll boast no more, poor arrant coward, who put down the masqueraders , What will repay the pleasant, Of dear St. Vincent’s unknown Band, “Let those who love this pretty Isle, Their homes from vice and folly guard”
It says something when R M Anderson in his Handbook noted that “nearly every respectable male in Kingstown was sworn a Special Constable.” Tells what they thought of the masqueraders! Certainly not respectable!
Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian