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Correcting Canbou-lies and Canbou-lying

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

I thought I was done with Carnival 2013 last week but, like Michael Corleone, just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in. It started with press reports of the Canboulay re-enactment: it’s being touted as fact and attendance is growing. Then the CNC3 news on February 8 featured the organiser saying it was the “only African thing in Carnival,” and it “reminds African people they have something to defend.”


Since people might actually believe this, I feel obligated to present the facts about Canboulay today, and examine the Carnival delusion more generally next week. My main source is the Hamilton Report, commissioned by the Government, published in the Trinidad newspapers (Fair Play, November 16, 1881). The facts go like this:
1. The Canboulay riots were not about freedom, “black resistance” or any purpose other than criminality. Many rioters weren’t even Trinidadian. The “bands,” as they were called, were mainly criminals from the other islands. As John Cowley’s book Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso notes, no other Carnival celebrations in Port-of-Spain were molested by police.
2. The riots were not planned by the rioters; they were instigated by middle-class Creoles. A few days prior, flyers appeared in Port-of-Spain saying Capt Baker had no authority from the governor to stop the bands. Merchants testified they were told of an attack on the police days in advance. This attempt at subverting the police was precipitated by the supporters of two Creole civil servants who’d been prosecuted for stealing from the Government.
3. The Government/police were not “defeated” by brave African warriors. The police were ambushed and the governor was misguidedly merciful—reinforcements could have been summoned to fire on the crowd. Once the situation got hairy, the townspeople (probably including those who’d incited the riot) begged the governor to intervene.
4. While the 1881 riots were criminal, there were “disturbances” which more closely approximate a “defence” of the Carnival traditions in 1859, during Keate’s administration.
5. As to the “African” nature of the riots, this is the vilest falsehood of the whole re-enactment. There was strong African race consciousness in Trinidad at the time and several distinct groups of African origin. American soldiers who sided with the British during the War of 1812 lived in the Company villages in south. About 6,000 Africans freed by British anti-slave ships, who had arrived between 1841 and 1861, who had never been slaves, and who preserved their culture, lived as a group apart from the Creoles.


From Cedros to Tunapuna lived the respectable Creole working classes and peasantry—teachers, artisans and farmers. All these groups upheld Victorian values, and were loyal to Crown and Queen. (CLR James describes them in Beyond a Boundary.) They would have been appalled at being identified with the rioters.


In Port-of-Spain were the ambitious middle and upper-class black and mixed-race journalists, small business owners, clerks, and lawyers, who were obsessed with the colonial Government and their own status. And below all these were the illegal immigrants who formed criminal gangs. To say any groups outside the underclass saw themselves as even related to the rioters is monstrously ignorant.


The integrity of Hamilton’s report arises—especially the bit about the middle-class instigation. Henry Schuller Billouin, publisher of Fair Play (November 28, 1881), wrote that Hamilton had perpetrated “a false and wicked incrimination of the people and their representatives” who’d given evidence.



He blamed Baker (whose wife and children were subsequently attacked in the streets) for overstepping his authority: “In 1881 as in 1880 Captain Baker’s action was not only inexpedient, but illegal,” as he had “wantonly and illegally attacked inoffensive people.”


But in Fair Play a year earlier (February 12, 1880), you read: “Much praise is due to Captain Baker for this satisfactory result (of putting out the bands’ torches) as great preparations had been made by various bands for their usual fights.” The year before (March 6, 1879), Fair Play had editorialised: “We are glad to see the unanimity of opinion that now prevails with regard to the necessity of putting down the brutal rowdyism and gross indecence (sic) which for a long time past have made an abomination of our annual Carnival season.” 


The explanation: not schizophrenia, but hypocrisy. Billouin (like many Creole agitators) had no compunction about lying to and about the Government and using the black underclass for political advantage. It wasn’t the first or last time. In the early 1870s, there were reports of “Education Disturbances” to protest the reform the education system, and Billouin was implicated in inciting labourers. 


Billouin addressed the crowd in 1881 after the governor. And he was also pals with the fired Borough Council members in 1898 who used the press (and calypsonians) in the weeks preceding to incite citizens to the Water Riots in 1903. 



So if the Canboulay riots are illustrative of a tradition, it’s the one of the over-ambitious, unscrupulous Creole middle and upper classes using the black underclass as blunt instruments. The PNM institutionalised this, using the same (illegal immigrant) underclasses as their 19th-century progenitors used them, as thugs and shock troops in the 1958, 1961 and 1966 elections and during the first decade of the 21st century.


Of course, one event can take only so much responsibility. But the Canboulay re-enactment is part of a contemporary pattern of deliberate historical distortion for electoral advantage, and creating social chaos and division. The fundamental “message” of the Canboulay re-enactment is inaccurate and malevolent. It is aimed at enraging the black poor, and fuels the chaos we live in every day. It should be not be supported by state funds, or endorsed by educational institutions.


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