Making Sense of the 1879 Carnival Riots
Dr. Fraser- Point of View
February 25, 2022
Making Sense of the 1879 Carnival Riots

In the issue of Searchlight of February 11, I had reflected briefly on the carnival riots of February 11, 1879, 143 years ago. In this piece I will try to make sense of what happened on that day.  It is necessary to reflect on the colonial society of that time to provide a context for understanding what transpired then.

Today we see carnival as an important aspect of our culture but leave it at that. What is really culture? Broadly defined it is the totality of ideas, customs, and social behaviour of our people, involving the arts, beliefs, and institutions. It bonds and defines us as a people and is the anchor that holds us as we interact with the global community. And that is as much as it means to us. It is something we are prepared to commercialise and even bastardise for the tourist dollar. But in the 19th century, the colonial authorities took it seriously. To colonise a people, they recognised that the people’s culture was the most formidable obstacle. So, priority was given to destroying their culture and convincing them that British civilisation with Christianity as its base was really in their best interest. They tried to stifle the religious beliefs, language, and songs of the people that they never understood.

When the slaves in Haiti broke their shackles and freed themselves, the planters and colonial officials set about banning the  beating of drums which they used to communicate with each other. But it went beyond the beating of drums. They concluded  that once they destroyed their culture and convinced them of the superiority of theirs then they were in a position to control them indefinitely.  Their hostility to the Shaker religion and its eventual banning was part of that story. It was believed that the Shakers were active participants in the 1862 riots that had crippled the estates on the north- eastern side of the country.  During slavery the slaves  lampooned them in song, but they never understood.

The Barbados “West Indian newspaper” in reacting to the riots wrote that masquerading was a custom introduced from Trinidad, “connected with the license permitted during the carnival in Roman Catholic countries”. Carnival in Trinidad had its base when after 1783 French creole planters and their slaves, followed by immigrants from a number of other countries were invited to populate the country and assist with the development of the sugar economy. The French planters brought their aristocratic life- style that included balls, concerts, dinners, and fetes, organised during the carnival season that ran from Christmas to the day before Ash Wednesday. Following emancipation, the carnival festivities were taken over by the emancipated and became an affair of the streets with their own African style, including songs and dances. Immigrants from the other Caribbean colonies including St. Vincent who flocked to Trinidad were active participants in their carnival and were even used as scapegoats for the 1881 carnival riots. One writer said about Trinidad that efforts to censor and control carnival and East Indian and creole festivals were driven by the fear that the festivals were “thin smoke screens for the imminent rebellion of peasants, workers and the urban unemployed”

The same might be said about St. Vincent whose people were regarded as rebellious, tracing this from the rebellion of the indigenous people to strikes on Carib country estates on the eve of emancipation and other estates after emancipation, to the 1862 riots and the activities of the Shaker people. When King Ja Ja was sent to St. Vincent on exile from Nigeria they refused to allow him to get off his ship on a Saturday afternoon for fear of the reaction of the country people who would have been at the market. Even after 1879, masqueraders who intended wearing masks were asked to make this known at the police headquarters. There was indeed fear of the peasants, working class and unemployed who were participants in carnival activities at that time. The ballad “The Retreat of the Police in 1879” clearly reveals the tensions in the society by paying homage to John B leading his heroic band.

The control they had during slavery no longer existed as the emancipated moved away from the estates. Edward Laborde gave the official view, “The lower orders of the population are very excitable. Their passions are soon grounded and by the most trivial causes when they become reckless in their actions, and for a time uncontrollable. . . “

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian