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Commentary: Tracing the origin of Trinidad's Carnival to Grenada
Published on April 22, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Arley Gill

How is it that Carnival, a festival that is so strongly influenced by the French, found its nursery on an island that was never colonized by the French?

From the time I read Joachim Mark's fervent and bold assertion that Grenada gave Carnival to Trinidad, I could not help but agree with him.

 Lawyer Arley Gill is a magistrate and a former Grenada minister of culture
Mark, an educator, history buff and a great historical archivist, has since gone to the Great Beyond. I read his assertion as a college student and his thesis has remained with me all those year. And, from time to time in my perusing through carnival history literature, I will come across passing comments on the issue that will strengthen Mark’s argument.

Let’s apply some reason, logic and historical facts as we try to determine how carnival – with its strong French influence (European origin) – could find its Caribbean nursery in a place never, ever colonized by the French. We’re talking about Trinidad.

Trinidad was colonized by the Spanish and then the British. The French never had the good fortune of laying its hands on the oil-rich Caribbean country.

The word “carnival’, as most of us now know, comes from French “carnevale”. Many centuries ago, the Catholics of Italy held a wild costumed festival right before the first day of Lent.

Because Catholics are not supposed to eat meat during Lent, they called their festival “Carnevale”, which means “put away the meat”. Thus, the word “Carnival” was derived there from; to us, it means “farewell to the flesh” – the last hooray before the Lenten season begins.

Moreover, J'ouvert, Canboulay, Dimanche Gras and other French-based words continue to be associated with Carnival as we know it in the Caribbean.

Early carnival practitioners

There is no doubt that the early practitioners of Carnival in the Caribbean were the French planters and their enslaved Africans. That is well documented and one can uncover sufficient evidence in the literature on carnival.

Michael La Rose, in his essay “Carnival Origins”, notes that “carnival first came to Trinidad with the French Catholic plantation slave owners during the 1700s”.

La Rose further writes: “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”.

And there is more from writer Christopher Curley. In a paper titled, “A Brief History of Carnival in the Caribbean”, he notes that, “Historians believe the first ‘modern’ Caribbean carnival originated in Trinidad and Tobago in the late 18th century as a flood of French émigrés brought the masquerade tradition with them to the island....”

Michael Anthony, the celebrated Trinidadian historian and author, in his seminal work, “The Carnivals of Trinidad and Tobago from Inception to Year 2000”, states as a matter of fact, that “The people who brought the Carnival to Trinidad began arriving around 1785, and they came here as a result of what is known as the ‘Cedula of Population for Trinidad’. This was a decree by King Carlos of Spain in 1783.”

Anthony goes further to explain, “....and the key island to cite here is Grenada. Grenada, which had been settled by the French in 1650, was captured by the British in 1762 during a bitter struggle against the French in the Windward Islands. The French settlers in Grenada remained very uneasy under British rule, and one of them, a planter called Roume De St Laurent, came to Trinidad in 1777 to see if he could like it well enough to settle here.”

This “Cedula of Population for Trinidad” was proclaimed by the King of Spain on the 24th of February 1783. Roume De St Laurent, the Grenadian planter, after meeting with the Governor of Trinidad and the Intendant at Caracas, traveled to Spain to meet with the King himself to sell his ideas on how French planters – not just in Grenada but throughout the Windward Islands – could make their home in Trinidad.

The ‘Cedula’ involved tax exemptions, and free grants of land and other incentives to encourage people to come live and invest in Trinidad. The new Governor of Trinidad, Jose Maria Chacon, was given the responsibility of implementing the project. And it was implemented in 1784.

Michael Anthony says: “The French settlers and their slaves from the Windward Islands began to crowd into Trinidad”.

Of course, the influx of new settlers did not come only from Grenada but also from Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Dominica, St Lucia and St Vincent. Lots of these immigrants settled in Laventille, Cascade, Carenage, Blanchisseuse and Champs Fleur.

18th century revolutions in Grenada and Haiti

As well, the French Revolution that began in 1789 would have caused French revolutionary republicans in the British territories to flee to Trinidad for refuge, since the Spanish were neutral in the war.

The population in Trinidad in 1783 was 3000 when the Cedula was proclaimed. By 1797 there were more than 16000 people in the colony of Trinidad: 2,000 whites, 4,500 coloureds, 10,000 slaves and 1,000 Amerindians.

Grenada had some difficult times in the late 18th century. The island was captured by the British on March 4th, 1762, by Commodore Swanton and was formally ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Paris on 10th February, 1763.

In 1766 Grenada experienced a severe earthquake. One year later, in 1767, there was a significant slave uprising. Then in 1771 and 1775, not for the last time, the town of St George was burnt to the ground.

Through all this, the French found the Spice Isle irresistible. And they recaptured Grenada between the 2nd and 4th of July 1779, before Grenada was finally restored to the British with the Treaty of Versailles on the 3rd September, 1783.

Then, to top it all off, in 1795 in Grenada there was the Fedon Rebellion.

The Fedon Rebellion is widely regarded as the second most significant upheaval in the Caribbean after the Haitian Revolution; and, definitely, the most significant and sustained revolutionary effort in the British Caribbean in the 18th century. Although, if you are a CXC history student, you will never know it, since Caribbean examiners have always maintained that the skirmishes in Barbados, Berbice in Guyana and in Jamaica, were more significant.

The Grenada rebellion, led by Julien Fedon, lasted for about 15 months and Grenadians nearly kicked the British out of the island, even before the Haitian revolutionaries defeated the French and established the free and independent Republic of Haiti in 1804.

All these upheavals in Grenada contrived to make more French planters leave Grenada with their assets (slaves included). Additional groups of French fled Grenada after the British regained control of the island following Fedon's adventure. ‎

Against this background of the migration to Trinidad of large segments of Grenada’s French-speaking population – white, black and coloured – there is no doubt that these Grenadians played a significant role in bringing Carnival to Trinidad. It will be over-zealous to say that they were the only ones. But, I proffer that they were more significant than French Catholics from elsewhere.

Trinidad, from the days of the first inhabitants of Grenada (the Kalinago or Caribs), has always been a natural destination for Grenadians. The Kalinagos and the French Grenadians were followed in the 1900s by more Grenadians who went to Trinidad in droves during the oil boom and the early economic development of the twin-island republic. Some, like Buzz Butler, became famous and extremely influential.

So, in retrospect, it’s clear that the migration of French Grenadians in the late 1800s was no accident. It was just the natural thing to do and part of a pattern that can be traced through centuries of people-to-people exchange, Grenada/Trinidad relations, and governmental ties between the two countries.

Remember, the island of Tobago was once administered as a Windward Isle. Indeed, one cannot help but wonder that if the colonial history was a little bit different there might not have been a Trinidad and Tobago, but some other makeup and Grenada and its Grenadine islands would have been part of that menu. And with that thought, I admit publicly that former Trinidad Prime Minister Patrick Manning was spot on when he articulated a vision of closer political and economic cooperation with the smaller islands like Grenada and St Vincent.

Grenada’s role in sustaining T&T’s masquerade

But, let’s get back to the issue of Carnival. Grenada did not just give Trinidad Carnival and left it there.

Grenadians, through sheer inadvertence and migration, played – and continue to play – a dynamic role in sustaining the Carnival.

The greatest calypsonian of all time – Dr Slinger Francisco, Mighty Sparrow – was born in the Grenada west coast village of Grand Roy, St John, where you will also find the roots of that famous British racecar driver, Lewis Hamilton.

Sparrow still maintains the record (held jointly with Mighty Chalkdust) for capturing the most Calypso Monarch titles in Trinidad and Tobago.

There are other famous Grenada-born calypsonian like the Mighty Bomber who won the Calypso Monarch in 1964 in Trinidad; and Valentino who is referred to as “The People’s Calypso Monarch”.

And it doesn’t end there. For business savvy and pure genius, the most celebrated calypso and soca entrepreneur the world has ever seen is none other than William Munro, who founded the Kingdom of Wizards calypso tent. Later, he also established Spektakula Forum.

Lord William, as I refer to him, is revolutionary and visionary in his approach to the entertainment business. He has changed the Carnival landscape with what now is arguably the most attractive event of Trinidad’s Carnival, the Power Soca Monarch. Lord William was born and bred in the Spice.

Many other popular bards have their roots in the Spice; among them is the great Austin Lyons, Super Blue, the undisputed King of Soca – holder of nine Road March titles and seven Soca Monarch crowns.

I have read from some sources that Super Blue was born in La Potrie, St Andrew, Grenada. I cannot confirm the information; but, what is a fact is that both his parents are Grenadians. And his father, Cantay Lyons, was a shopkeeper from La Potrie.

The royal soca dynasty headed by Super continues through his daughter, Fay-Ann Lyons, a second generation Grenadian. Already, she has won three Road March titles and a title each in Soca Monarch and Groovy Soca Monarch.

I will argue that it was the Grenadian blood in her vein that enabled her to become the first female to win the coveted Soca Monarch title.

Then there is the famous Roy Cape, leader of what many consider as the greatest backing band in the history of calypso.

Roy Cape is a legend; his monumental contribution to the calypso artform is well-known. He is of Grenadian parentage and he is extremely proud of his roots.

The Queen of Calypso, Macartha Sandy-Lewis, Calypso Rose, the first woman to win both the Road March and Calypso “King” competitions in Trinidad, claims family ties in Grenada.

Singing Sandra, the only woman to win the Calypso Monarch twice in T&T, celebrates the fact that her mother is from Gouyave, St John, Grenada.

Singing Sandra is the holder of a Grenadian passport. When she performs in Grenada, she will make her pilgrimage to the historic town of Gouyave and let everyone know she is on home-turf.

Machel Montano, popularly regarded as the biggest soca star in the world, in explaining why he is such a quintessential Caribbean man, declared that he spent many of his holidays with his maternal grandmother in Grenada. This is not “pumpkin vine‎” relations.

Like Fay-Ann, Machel is a second generation Grenadian. Ella Andall, Devon Seales, Denise Belfon and Tobago’s Eastlyn Orr are all of Grenadian roots.

Moreover, young Grenada-born soca artistes like Tallpree and Mr Killa are still adding a touch of Spice to Trini mas; and Iwer George, Machel and other performers just love the Grenada “Jab Jab” music and culture.

As captivating as it may be, our Trinidadian cousins are a long way from mastering the unique “Jab Jab” rhythm and sound. That mastery, it seems, is specially reserved for those of us who have not migrated, at least as yet, to our sister isle of Trinidad.

This commentary was first published in the Grenada newspaper, Caribupdate Weekly.
Reads: 4481

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sasha pina:

i like this commentary, i learnt some new facts both historically and contempory. Tobago seems to be itching for independence, perhaps trinidad ought to let them go and welcome grenada with open arms

Hudson George:

Ella Andall was born in Chantimelle, St. Patrick Grenada. Calypso Rose mother was a Grenadain from Sauteurs, St. Patrick, Grenada.

In addition, we must not forget Small Island Pride, Sir Galba, Caruso and Lord Companero. We must always respect our Grenadian legend Johnny Rhythm for his international soca song "Let It Go." If you want see continental Africans dance calypso and soca, just play the song "Let It Go" by Johnny Rhythm.

On the other hand, personally as a Grenadian, I do not believe Grenadian like to support local artistes. Political divisions, class, jealousy, spite and lack of support for the local music industry are the negative things that killing culture in Grenada.

Within our Tri Island State of Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique, if Carriacou was bigger than mainland Grenada, we would have been more prosperous as a people. Unfortunately, mainland Grenadians are the ones making the decisions but they do not have the love for culture.

More foreigners are writing about Grenadian culture than Grenadians writing about their culture. And it seems as though there are some cultural resources still wasting in Grenada and the Trinidadians are exploiting because Grenadians do not understand the importance of culture.

Gregory Farmer:

I am of English, French and Portuguese ancestry and our family have always been involved in Carnival, and truly love it. Thank you for the clarification of the historical ties with Grenada, most enjoyable.

Gregory Farmer


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