The festival dates back to the 18th century, and the influx of French Catholic planters – both white and free coloured – their slaves, and free blacks in the 1780s. The white and free coloured both staged elaborate masquerade balls at Christmas and as a “farewell to the flesh” before the Catholic Lenten season, with each group mimicking the other in their masking and entertainment. The West African slaves of these planters as well as free coloureds had their own masking traditions, and held festivities around the burning and harvesting of the sugar cane (this was known as cannes bruleés, anglicised as Canboulay or Camboulay). For each group, masks and mimicry were an essential part of the ritual.
After the emancipation of slaves in 1838, Canboulay became a symbol of freedom and defiance. In response, the British colonial government outlawed drumming, stickfighting, masquerading, African-derived religions (like those of the Orisa faith and the Spiritual Shouter Baptists or Shango Baptists), and even tried to suppress the steel pan – but was never able to stamp out what has become a hallmark of Trinidadian identity.
This masking and mimicry merged over time with the calinda – or stick fighting accompanied by chanting and drumming – and rituals of Canboulay to become a jamette – or underclass – masquerade. After many a battle with the British colonial government, who kept trying to ban drumming, masquerade, and even the steel pan – the festival eventually found a home on the Monday and Tuesday before Lent, and was adopted as a symbol of Trinidadian culture during the independence movement. Here is a clip of the Canboulay Riots Re-enactment which happens each year in Port of Spain, Characters from the earliest Carnival include the pis-en-lit, who walks around in a nightgown waving a chamber pot, and the Dame Lorraine, a man in a dress with enormously stuffed bosom and bottom.
Trinidad Carnival is many things – music,...