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, colour, movement; but above all, it is the spectacle of the masquerade. Thousands of costumed revellers transform the landscape into a visual fantasia. But for those individuals whose imagination, craft and passion created legends, the decades following World War II were a golden age for costume design. Some of the most influential names in costume design include: TRADITIONAL CARNIVAL CHARACTERS
The stories behind the traditional Carnival characters lend meaning and significance to these unusual portrayals. Often an individual plays one specific persona year after year and is familiar with the traditions associated with that role. The custom is usually passed on orally to family members or other interested persons. According to Elma Reyes, some of these portrayals were performed as “mas' for money“ (16). The masqueraders would offer entertainment in the form of humour, songs or skits in exchange for money. In some cases threats and scare tactics were used to coerce bystanders into giving them cash. Some of the best known characters are as follows:
The baby doll character was portrayed mainly in the 1930's, but is still seen every year at Ole Mas competitions. The masquerader portrays a gaily dressed woman, decked out in a frilled dress and bonnet. In her arms she carries a doll which symbolises an illegitimate baby. The masquerader usually stops male passers-by and accuses them of being the baby's father. She would then demand money to buy milk for the baby. This character was sometimes portrayed by a man who would speak in a high-pitched voice. BATS
The bat costume is normally black or brown and fitted tightly over the masquerader's body. The headpiece covers the head entirely, with the player being able to see through the mouth, or lifting it up to his forehead. It is made of swansdown with papier-maché face, teeth, nose and eyes. Leather shoes with metal claws for toes are normally used. Ordinary shoes can also be adapted by attaching of long socks,...