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Bacchanal in Carnival came from Emancipation—Historian

Published: 
Friday, August 1, 2014

The nudity, misbehaviour and bacchanal which characterise modern Carnival celebrations are not that different from what was seen at post-Emancipation celebrations. So said historian Prof Bridget Brereton during a lecture on Emancipation and Carnival, the second in a series being hosted by the Carnival Institute and the National Library and Information Systems. The lunchtime lecture took place at the VIP room at the Grand Stand, Queen’s Park Savannah, on Wednesday.

Brereton, along with comedian and talk show host Dennis “Sprangalang” Hall took the audience on a journey to the past, linking events to the present. In her lecture, Brereton said though Carnival had started in Trinidad in the late 1700s as a Roman Catholic European festival, by the mid- 1800s it had been completely taken over by Africans and infused with their music, dance and even element of satire as they mocked the former slavemasters. “I really think one can only see T&T Carnival as the coming together of two carnivalesque traditions, a merger of two carnivalesque festivals,” Brereton said.

She said there was an obvious link between Carnival and emancipation. While both Europeans and African slaves had their own celebrations, it was the European influence which placed the festival in the context of a pre-lenten one, she said. “From Africa came a very vibrant and important masking. Full-body masking was much more traditional of African. “This tradition was spiritual and the Africans also brought their moko jumbies, bush and animal costumes,” Brereton added. The African influences specifically entered Carnival through the Canboulay celebrations, when freed African slaves mimicked and mocked the treatment of slave masters during the pre-Emancipation period, she said.

By the 1880s Carnival had become a symbol of freedom and not merely a frivolous festival of excess, Brereton noted. Hall, in an extempo address, paid tribute to great calypsonians of the past and described Carnival today as one which had nothing to do with freedom or emancipation. “Carnival today is about who playing what, which is different from when it was about celebrating freedom with everybody,” he added.