Canboulay was a lot more than just a Carnival band brought out by emancipated Africans in 19th century Port-of-Spain. Canboulay was their re-enactment of Cannes Brulees, a brutal practice that they endured during their enslavement.
Slaves—men, women and children from different sugar cane plantations—were often forcibly awakened and herded half-naked by drivers and overseers with cow horns, conch shells and blazing torches. They were driven at any hour of night with blows from sticks, clubs and whips, sometimes across strange, rough terrain in order to put out raging cane fires, cut and salvage canes before the heat of the fire soured the sweet cane juice. These fires had to be rapidly extinguished to avoid economic disaster for the planters. For them it was a loss of vested interests but for the slaves it was a violent, painful, brutish, experience.
After emancipation in 1834, Africans continued to remember this custom. They called it Canboulay, derived from the French Cannes Brulees or “burning canes,” and they started to act out what they remembered of it during
Emancipation and Carnival celebrations. Bands would rampage through the narrow streets of Port-of-Spain blowing horns, conch shells, carrying lighted torches, cracking whips, brandishing sticks, beating drums, jumping up, dancing and chanting African and patois songs.
Cannes Brulees was now being re-enacted by its former victims in the close confines of Port-of-Spain, the colony’s capital city and seat of Government. The impact of this wild spectacle on the genteel urban citizens and the colonial authorities must have been terrifying for they lived in constant fear of violent revolt and retribution from the enslaved Africans. The loss of the French colony of San Domingue (Haiti) to slaves was always uppermost in the minds of British West Indian planters and colonists who were fearful that the same fate might befall them.
The British colonial authorities acted swiftly to put down what they saw as a dangerously volatile situation. They banned the beating of drums and carrying of lighted torches in the city, citing the dangers of fire as Port-of-Spain had been burnt several times before. They sent out the constabulary to confiscate all whips, sticks and other weapons. They lost that battle but not before the redoubtable Captain Baker had his name carved into the annals of stick fighting in Trinidad as the only white constabulary officer to stand up to bands of stickmen at that time.
Records from those times show that these Cannes Brulees re-enactments were deemed riots by the colonial authorities and were systematically “put down.” Emancipation celebrations were also gradually “discouraged.” In time the practice of Camboulay slowly disappeared even from the annual Carnival masquerades. Former African slaves and elder people passed on; tribal memory faded.
What was not lost, however, were the results of the social interactions that took place between those slaves from different plantations, who met for the first time while putting out cane fires. Some of them found long-lost relatives and countrymen; others reunited with shipmates who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the same slave ship. Several of them made friendships, found spouses and started families that laid the foundations for post-emancipation
African communities. The descendants from some of these families exist today and can trace their roots back to ancestors in the plantation era.
Both the old 19th century performances of Camboulay and the original sugar plantation ritual of Cannes Brulees have now been almost completely forgotten. They survive only in a few records and in a watered-down version of Camboulay that is sometimes performed during the current political revival of African Emancipation Day observances.
Understanding our rituals and their meanings are important and central to our well being and to navigating our way forward as a people.
Audley Sue Wing