The Origins and Evolution of Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago

Written by Candice Maharaj

Image: Melton Prior, Carnival in Port of Spain Trinidad, 1888, Illustrated London News.

Carnival is a festival that is celebrated annually during the weeks leading up to Lent. It is a period of celebration that involves music, costumes, processions, feasting and a lot of alcohol. Traditionally, during Lent people had to abstain from any festivities and rich foods such as meat, alcohol, and fats; so they would use the preceding weeks to prepare by using up all the food they would not be able to eat and throwing lavish parties to make up for the coming period of austerity. Carnival was also used to engage in behaviour one would not normally display without worrying about consequences. Participants would often take advantage of the anonymity provided by masks, costumes and crowds to be as carefree – and sometimes as lewd – as they wanted. Subverting social norms was a significant theme in traditional carnival celebrations. Costumes would often mock authority or upper-class culture, and would even depict the devil. Carnival celebrations look different in every European country, however, the most marked differences came about when it was introduced to the new world by European settlers.

Carnival celebrations in Trinidad and Tobago are world-famous and attract visitors from almost every country. Carnival lasts for months and culminates in two days of massive, vibrant celebration: the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Prior to that, there are weeks of competitions, parties, concerts and a special day just for children known as ‘Kiddies’ Carnival.’ Carnival began in Trinidad in the late-eighteenth century when French planters, slaves and free people of colour from neighbouring islands were encouraged to immigrate to Trinidad by the Spanish Cedula of Population Edict of 1783. The white settlers and free people of colour held elaborate masquerade balls before the Lenten season began and the slaves, who could not take part in the celebrations, would observe them, often through windows, and decided to hold celebrations of their own. Their celebrations were held at the same time as the burning and harvesting period for sugar cane, and consequently became known as ‘cannes bruleés and eventually ‘Canboulay.’ The celebrations would include dancing, singing, costumes and mockery of the people who held the masquerade balls. One such form of mockery was the character called ‘Dame Lorraine.’ The Dame Lorraine costume would mimic the formal dress of the French women, and include exaggerated padding in the chest and rear along with wildly elaborate hats and fans. This costume was initially worn by men but as time passed, more and more women began to wear it. Over time calinda, or stick fighting, became part of the celebrations as well, and it was eventually adapted to be more of a dance than an actual fight.

An indispensable feature of Canboulay was calypso music which was used to mock the plantation owners and slave masters, and as a form of secret communication between slaves. They calypso rhythm developed from West African Kaiso music and the words were sung in French Creole. The development of calypso over the years led to the emergence of soca music which is now the main soundtrack of modern carnival. Soca is a form of calypso that has absorbed influence from reggaeton, dancehall, R&B, hip-hop and house music, among others.

After the emancipation of slaves in 1838, Canboulay became even more important as a symbol of freedom and defiance. The former slaves conducted their celebrations in a bolder, louder manner and this sometimes led to riots. The British colonial government responded to the riots by outlawing drumming, masquerading, stick fighting, singing in public and the practice of all African based religions. However, they had actively been trying to suppress these things for a while prior to their official actions. This did not stop the African people and they continued to find ways to celebrate. Since drumming was outlawed, they needed to find another way to keep making their music. They started using bamboo sticks in ‘tambu bamboo’ bands. When the British government outlawed this as well, they began using small biscuit tins. Some musicians eventually noticed that the constant hammering on the tins produced variations in the sound and decided to experiment with larger oil drums. Thus, the steelpan was born. The colonial government tried to suppress this too, but fortunately they were not successful. The steelpan became, and still is, a major part of carnival celebrations in Trinidad and its influence has spread across the world.

The arrival of indentured labourers from India in the late-nineteenth century had a profound effect on Carnival as Indian influence was introduced to the celebrations. Chutney soca is a form of soca developed in the 1900s by Indian Trinidadians and based heavily on Indian music styles. Chinese, Syrian and Lebanese immigrants were also instrumental in shaping Carnival celebrations as well as Trinidadian culture as a whole.

Modern carnival looks quite different from Canboulay but most traditional elements are still very much alive. Calypso is still played and sung, traditional costumes are still worn, and stick fights still take place. However, these traditional practices are no longer the focus of the main celebrations. Nowadays, the costumes are like the ones found in Brazil’s Carnival. This is called ‘pretty mas’ and the traditional costumes are called ‘ole mas.’ Calypso and steelpan music are played less than soca music but they are still beloved, and have competitions and events dedicated to them.

It is said about Trinidadians that if we are not celebrating carnival, we are preparing for it. Trinidadians laugh at the comment but it is not entirely untrue. Musicians need to prepare to release new music in time for the next Carnival season; costume designers need time to come up with and produce new costumes in time for ‘band launches’ which usually happen as early as July; event organisers start planning months in advance and people start getting into shape from the beginning of January. There are entire workout programs dedicated solely to carnival preparation.

Today, Carnival is less about religion and more about culture. It is a time for people of all ethnicities and religions to come together to have fun. Many participants are not doing it because they are preparing to give anything up afterward but because they consider it a national holiday and a fundamental part of their culture. The celebration is made sweeter by the knowledge that it is ours. We fought for it, changed it and added to it until it became something unique and unmistakably ‘Trini.’

Celebrating Twenty Years of the Human Rights Act 1998

Written by Candice Maharaj

Friday 9 November 2018 marked the 20th anniversary of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA). The Act incorporates the content of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law. Additionally, the Act makes it unlawful for public bodies to act in a way that is incompatible with the ECHR; it requires courts to take account of decisions or statements made by the European Court of Human Rights and to interpret domestic legislation in such a way that makes it compatible with the ECHR (this is known as ‘reading down’). If this is not possible, courts must issue a declaration of incompatibility. UK citizens can petition the European Court of Human Rights when the HRA does not provide a remedy or if UK legislation violates the ECHR, but only if all domestic remedies have been exhausted (essentially, if the matter has been dealt with by the Supreme Court).

The ECHR was drafted by the Council of Europe after World War II as a response to the serious human rights violations that occurred during that time. Respect for human rights was considered important for a democratic society. The HRA protects the following rights (as taken from the ECHR):

Article 2: Right to life
Article 3: Prohibition of torture
Article 4: Prohibition of slavery and forced labour
Article 5: Right to liberty and security
Article 6: Right to a fair trial
Article 7: No punishment without law
Article 8: Right to respect for private and family life
Article 9: Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
Article 10: Freedom of expression
Article 11: Freedom of assembly and association
Article 12: Right to marry
Article 14: Prohibition of discrimination

The HRA has faced considerable criticism. Some believe that it grants too many rights, waters down justice, and allows for frivolous litigation. It has also been said that it gives the judiciary too much power to go against the will of Parliament. Supporters of the Act stress that protecting basic human rights like the rights to life, liberty and privacy is more – not less – justice. As for the allegation that it can lead to frivolous claims – a truly frivolous case would have a hard time making it to the Supreme Court, much less the European Court of Human Rights. It is not impossible, but it is unlikely enough that it does not present a real problem. It is also useful to allow courts to read down legislation that might be outdated or worded badly. Whether the courts are too free-handed with this power does not take away from the value of human rights themselves.

Over the past twenty years, the HRA has demonstrated its usefulness. In the case, DSD and NBV and The Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis [2014] EWHC 436 (QB), two victims of John Worboys (the ‘black cab rapist’) alleged that the police violated their Article 3 rights (which also encompass degrading treatment) by refusing to believe them and investigate properly when they reported their rape. They were successful, and this has changed how the police deal with all subsequent allegations of rape. In Peck v UK [2003] 36 EHRR 41, the local authority disclosed CCTV footage to the media of Peck’s attempted suicide, with no attempt to mask his identity. This was found to be a violation of his Article 8 rights. The examples of successful human rights litigation are too numerous to go into here, but they make it abundantly clear that the HRA does indeed protect people from human rights violations.

One of the biggest challenges that the HRA will face in the future is that of surveillance technology. Article 8 – the right to private and family life – provides essential protection against increasingly intrusive surveillance practices of the government and large tech companies such as Facebook and Google. In today’s world, these issues affect everyone. Article 8 could also protect people from other EU countries living in the UK from potentially aggressive immigration policies. Another legal concern is whether UK citizens will be able to rely on the European Court of Human Rights in the future. The ECHR exists in a completely separate legal system from the EU but there have been calls for the UK to bow out of the Convention in favour of a ‘British Bill of Rights’. This would not only prevent UK citizens from accessing the Court, but would allow Parliament to deviate from and potentially restrict ECHR provisions.

On the 20th anniversary of the Human Rights Act, it is important to reflect on its value and the nature of human rights themselves. The point of human rights is to allow everyone to live safer and more dignified lives. It does place limitations on governments – but is this a silly inconvenience? Or is it a welcome provider of protection against potential abuses of power? Whichever side of the debate one might fall on, it is undeniable that human rights protect everyone, and when your rights are violated, the Human Rights Act gives you the right and the ability to do something about it.

Searching for Meaning in the Political Bubble: Donald Trump and Maurice Cowling

Written by Luke Neill

Much has been written about the daily routine of Donald Trump. In particular, after the recent release of various White House documents regarding his lists of meetings and appointments, this has revolved largely around the several hours of ‘executive time’ that Trump has each day. What is ‘executive time’? If you believe Michael Wolff, author of the bestselling Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, this time is spent in bed with three televisions, cable news, and cheeseburgers but, more importantly, he is on Twitter.

Technology allows Trump to broadcast every thought he has to his 55 million followers. The 55 million then spread his thoughts to several billion more. This may seem obvious, but it is important to remember the disturbing fact that the thoughts of one man on his bed with a cheeseburger can instantaneously change the face of global politics. Even more disturbing, is that one cannot help but see each of Trump’s tweets as spontaneous exports of a mind totally infatuated with his own personal conflicts and the settling of vendettas. Michael Wolff’s book, and many other news sources, show that the inner workings of the White House are in turmoil. The overwhelming majority of the tweets that Trump produces as a result seem to involve thoroughly personal disputes, a constant wrestle for control over his inter-personal rivalries. Michael Wolff has been criticised for exaggeration and fabrication of certain claims. But for many, this does not matter. What Wolff writes just reaffirms what we have already witnessed for ourselves and what has been confirmed by more direct sources: that the current White House is governed by pride, self-interest, deception, vendettas and coercion. If the inner workings of the White House are no more than this, how, then, do we reconcile with the fact that far from representing the will of the people, Trump is working solely in his own self-interest?

Maurice Cowling, the eminent British political historian, would have the answer. Writing in the second half of the twentieth-century, Cowling was of the view that politics was a closed-off bubble in which social forces have no influence. Ideology and the recognition of social forces in politics was simply the spinning of rhetoric to disguise self-interest and lust for personal power. By extension, he thought that political history should be studied solely through the intrigues and personal motivations that lead people to pursue offices and policies. This was part of a fundamental assumption that the only people who can truly understand politics are the politicians themselves. We can never possibly conceive the multiplicity of factors that comprise the workings of government, and therefore we cannot label politics as anything more than the incontrovertible domain of the political class. In its simplest form, Cowling’s political history was a study of those who ‘mattered’.

Maurice Cowling is an extremely controversial historian. By dispelling the idea of politics as any sort of ideological clash, Cowling proved anathema to the wave of post-war historians who subscribed to the Marxist view of history as a perpetual class struggle between oppressed and oppressing groups. The rise of other ways of writing history, such as ‘history-from-below’ or microhistory, also placed great emphasis on the place of the individual in history, and how a ‘bottom-up’ approach is the best way of examining political and cultural change. Many of Cowling’s contemporaries refused to endorse his approach. A. J. P. Taylor called him a ‘very dangerous man’, and his books were quietly banished from Oxford reading lists in the 1970s.

But the most interesting thing about Cowling is less his approach, but more his appeal. In the 21st century Cowling has made somewhat of a comeback – which says a great deal about the kinds of attitudes we have towards politics in the modern age. He presents a very pessimistic diagnosis of human nature: that politicians are driven entirely by their own ambition and that its ideology is simply its rhetorical mask. This chimes well with our current political climate. Despite Cowling’s deeply anti-liberal outlook and the controversy that he created through his many other polemics, we must nevertheless recognise his thoughts on politics (or ‘high politics’ as it came to be known) as a result of not only the expansive research that he did to reach those conclusions, but also the natural state of distrust that we find for politicians which was relevant both in Cowling’s time and ours. By entertaining Cowling’s view of this ‘political bubble’, whether we want to agree with it or not, then Trump, and Trump’s Twitter, is its clearest manifestation.


Image: Cover of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury (2018),  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images )

Research Seminar Review of ‘The Cartel: A model for socio-political organization in Archaic Greece’

Written by Lisa Doyle

This lecture by Professor Gunnar Seelentag took place on 17 October 2018. In what was quite an information-heavy presentation, Professor Seelentag informed us of his objective to understand the emergence and development of political institutions in seventh and sixth centuries BC, and the role the dynamics of competitive behaviour played in the process. His approach to this topic was to employ the socio-political model of cartel formation, in the hope that this model will explain various manifestations of institutionalisation in different fields.

He began with a description of the necessary building blocks needed for cartel formation, drawing on the theories of G. Simmel in describing decision-making situations where several participants influence each other and where competition is a means to make social connections. Seelentag argued that the socio-political environment of polis was home to such conditions. I would suggest, however, that this theory is applicable not only to the archaic polis, but indeed to many other civilisations and cities throughout antiquity.

Next, he explained the main traits of cartel-formation in Archaic Greece. Firstly, Seelentag made a point of emphasising the socio-political mobility of the time. However, when he moved on to clarify the criteria for inclusion into the cartel, things got a bit confusing. In an effort to explain these specific criteria, he claimed that they were fluid and subject to change. This gave off the impression that there were indeed no set criteria at all. This problem was also reflected in his description of the appropriate size of the cartel. His explanation was thus; when an individual is successful in entering into a cartel, he wants to secure his position in the group and close the circle after himself in order to limit the size of the cartel. But, in order for the cartel to maintain a competitive stance, it needs to be large, with the right amount of members. From my perspective, one part of this statement negates the other.

As he proceeded with his description of the traits of cartel formation, the primary sources Seelentag utilized seemed, at times, a bit random. His evidence ranged from Homer to Herodotus, Theognis to the Tomb of Megas. Although these examples seemed to illustrate his points, I feel there could have been more structure in how he chose to present his evidence. As his objective with this subject is to write a book, perhaps that will be a good opportunity to do so. For the purposes of this research seminar, however, the presentation was a little confusing.

As the discussion progressed from cartel formation, through to the structural instability of the cartel, and finishing with the signs for cartel co-operation, one came away with the impression that his theory may certainly be applicable to the poleis of Archaic Greece, but that it is not unique to Archaic Greece. Perhaps, in his development of this research, Prof. Seelentag will establish a more secure correlation with the archaic polis.


Image: View from Philopappos Hill in Athens — Acropolis of Athens

Review of ‘On Five Dollars a Day’ by James W. MacNutt

Written by Toby Gay

Rather like the 1957 guidebook with which the work shares its name, James W. MacNutt’s On Five Dollars A Day can be appreciated for being an exceptionally precise and intimate tool with which to explore over 20 European cities, albeit instead of the work of fiction it presents itself to be. Macnutt’s descriptions of towns like Istanbul bring to life the world of the late photographer Ara Guler, and of ancient artefacts such as the bust of Queen Nefertiti in the Neues Museum in Berlin, which are remarkably vivid, bearing in mind that the author has not visited them in 50 years. Combined with this, his extensive knowledge of the history of the places he visits, and his astute awareness of the contemporary political and social climates in each of the countries, make him a role model traveller.

    In West Germany, the author visits the notable and (still) war-torn cities of Bonn and Cologne, before reaching the infamous concentration camp of Dachau. Interestingly, he is immensely disappointed by the lack of clarity in the museum and how the ‘whole site had been cleansed’, with rooms repainted to cover the worst of the horrible conditions in which the Holocaust victims had been tortured and murdered. Surprisingly, this is true. It took another three years after MacNutt’s visit (May 1965) for the West German government to acknowledge the protests of former prisoners and reverse the refurbishments which had been made to the camp to house refugees in the post-war period. The now famous memorial sculpture by Nandor Glid was only erected at this time, more than twenty years after MacNutt’s compatriots liberated the camp. However, and despite MacNutt’s tainted observations after coming across a Neo-Nazi family in Lübeck, West Germany was remarkably quick to come to terms with its problematic past, introducing Stolpersteine to the streets of its cities and agreeing to pay reparations to Israel in 1953.

    However, as Jan Werner-Mueller pointed out in the Guardian in 2010, little has been done to come to terms with the crimes committed in East Germany, a state which existed from 1949-1990, and which the author visits in this book. While his anecdotes about being harassed by East German border guards and witnessing the stark contrast in living standards between the East and West are nothing new, the account of how he was spied on for the entire duration of his stay is fascinating. This account also helps bring to life the eerie quiet and disintegrating Big Brother society of East Berlin.

    Macnutt’s trip to Turkey proved to be less stressful, but just as interesting. With difficulty, he purchases a Turkish lira on board his ship from Turkey to Greece, a testament to the political tension between the two counties at that time over the expulsion of Istanbul Greeks in the early 1960s, and the struggle over the control of Cyprus. On arrival in Istanbul, the author mistakenly comments on the ‘middle phase of its history when it was called Byzantium’, but proceeds to enjoy various misadventures with the ethnically diverse locals, involving alcohol, money and masseurs. Due to economic migration and conflict in the Black Sea region over the last 50 years, Istanbul has now regrettably lost much of this diversity, making this work a valuable portal to the past.

    On the downside, Macnutt’s pedagogy often turns to pedantry as he concentrates on minor superficial details and information readily available in any rudimentary history book (or Wikipedia). He also turns to prudishness as he reacts to the sexual revolution unfolding around him in Belgium and Holland in particular.

    Nevertheless, Macnutt’s ‘first foray into fiction’ proved to be an immensely enjoyable read. It is confused, rather like the world it is set in, which is a telling reminder that the Europe of today is still a much safer and more stable continent than it was not just 2000, but even 50 years ago.





Review: ‘Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents’ Series 1, Episode 1

Written by Martha Stutchbury 

BBC’S Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents aired this month for the first time since its 2017 debut and provides fascinating insight into the meaning behind Isaac Oliver’s famous portrait of the Virgin Queen, which shows her majesty’s garments adorned with eyes and ears, in a veiled reference to what the documentary refers to as a ‘the world’s first secret service’ – headed by the Queen’s ‘ruthless, cunning and loyal’ head of ‘spyery,’ William Cecil. It is because of Cecil’s network of informants, the documentary claims, that Elizabeth was able to remain on the throne for 44 years in such a politically and religiously tumultuous Europe. The first episode of this three-part mini-series from directors Durlacher and Jones outlines the increased threat posed to Elizabeth from 1570, when the Pope himself labels the monarch a heretic, effectively providing 40,000 illegally practising British Catholics with the justification for her murder. It is in this climate, the episode claims, that Cecil’s dedication is increasingly required to defuse assassination attempts on the monarch.

This episode focuses almost exclusively on Cecil’s involvement in neutralising the treasonous conspiracies of the Duke of Norfolk and Mary Queen of Scots. This is a fascinating story, maximised in its treachery by the fact that both ‘villains’ are blood relatives of the Queen herself. The documentary follows Cecil’s interception of a coded letter addressed to ’40’ at the height of religious and political tensions under Elizabeth’s reign. The documentary gains pace upon the agent’s discovery that the desired recipient for the letter is the Duke himself planning to, we eventually discover, marry Mary and invite the Spanish to overthrow the monarch, with a view to establishing himself as King. When Elizabeth learns of this, and refuses to sign the death warrant of the Duke, her cousin, the programme highlights Cecil’s hierarchy-subverting determination to protect the queen, by addressing his secret role in the distribution of a news pamphlet to the public, publicising the details of the Duke’s treason and leaving Elizabeth with little choice but to sanction the execution of her kin.

Over-dramatisation significantly decreases the validity of the piece, and seems unnecessary to the viewer in light of the story’s already compelling narrative. In an attempt to construct theatricality from the archival footage in the documentary – cited as being chiefly from the British Library, the ‘Cecil Papers’ at Hatfield House, National Archives and the National Portrait Gallery, the principal characters of Cecil and Elizabeth are reconstructed by actors. Cameras trail the two figures in slow motion as they pass along shadowy corridors or smell flowers in the palace gardens (with this particular activity being depicted more than once). These scenes are often accompanied by feverishly paced violins, adding dramatic – and sometimes tiresome – weight to the documentary’s production.

There is also an unconvincing focus from the ‘resident historians’ of the documentary on portraits of the period. When considering a painting of Francis Walsingham – referenced in the programme as Cecil’s equally cunning ‘second in command,’ it is claimed by one camera-ready historian that: ‘If you look at those eyes…there is no mercy there’. Similarly, a portrait of Cecil in later life, after his dismissal from the Queen’s favour in 1587 for carrying out the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, is narrated with the same sensationalism: ‘Looking at the picture, you can see how devastated he would have been,’ one narrator claims as the camera zooms in steadily on the (actually rather passive looking) face of the ex-spymaster.

Nevertheless, the documentary’s visual representation of Cecil’s informant network is creative and revealing, with lines being drawn across the screen to indicate the relationship of one character to another in the spymaster’s system. It seems an accurate assessment when one historian claims that the Elizabethan culture of conspiracy is an ‘endless labyrinth,’ and the audience are enticed by Cecil’s attempt to decipher the ‘maze within a maze’ of Elizabethan treachery. The role of individuals within the network is explored to a satisfying degree within the programme’s one-hour framework. For example, the role of ‘Cambridge’s top mathematician’ in unpicking the coded messages delivered from Anthony Babington – the nobleman responsible for the plotting of Elizabeth’s assassination – who is also questionably described as a ‘sort of young, Elizabethan, Catholic playboy’ in the documentary. Additionally, Mary Queen of Scots during her house arrest, is depicted with a detail that is undoubtedly arresting for the audience. Such a focus on minor characters successfully highlights the delicacy and deep-rootedness of Elizabeth’s reliance on her spymaster for continued protection, and, in light of this, ‘Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents’ is undoubtedly a compelling watch.


‘Series 1: Episode 1’ (2017) Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents. BBC 2, 23 October 2017

Image: Isaac Oliver, The Rainbow Portrait, (c.1600)

An invisible historical landscape: Barcelona’s Civil War tours

Written by Josh Newmark

Image: Albggt, Placa de Catalunya,, 04/11/2018

In a country which is often described as suffering from ‘historical amnesia’ towards its Civil War and subsequent dictatorship, Civil War tours of Barcelona bring history to life where it is otherwise inapparent. For those intrigued by the Spanish Civil War, the lack of much museum space dedicated to the subject is sometimes frustrating. I plan to write another time about the reality of Spain’s pacto de olvido, pact of forgetting, but let it suffice to say that there is generally little Civil War material to be found on display around the country. All that springs to mind is the excellent Peace Museum in Guernica (the historical but seldom-visited pueblo in the Basque Country); a powerful but art-focused exhibition on Spain’s 1937 World Fair exhibit in Madrid’s Reina Sofia gallery, centred around Pablo Picasso’s own Guernica; and the meagre little displays beneath Salamanca’s well-guarded Civil War archive. Neither does the landscape generally bear much overt testimony to the fratricidal past (earlier Francoist monuments and place names have often been replaced with ostensibly neutral ones). Yet the relative lack of an official guide to sites of Civil War history offers a subtler way of encountering history.

Lacking any visible plaque or monument, the Plaça de Catalunya today is not immediately perceptible as the site where armed anarchist workers successfully repelled the soldiers sent to subdue the city. Yet having the events of 19 July 1936 recounted dramatically, while standing within the space where it took place, the space felt suddenly charged with historical energy. It became apparent that a square or other public space may be built and policed by elites, but the people of the city can infuse it with their own meaning and character, and can appropriate public space as, literally, the people’s space. Being amid the apparent order of modern-day Barcelona and the Plaça de Catalunya today, while visualising the barricades and people-power of the counter-counterrevolution, the latent potential with which history can infuse a space was brought home to me. If this was, within living memory, the site of a popular resistance to fascism, and an ensuing revolutionary upheaval, it feels as if anywhere could be. Institutions, constitutions, and the social order crumble before historical possibility. And perhaps the startling sense of historical reality was actually amplified by the lack of any official monument that might formalise or even commodify it as a place of memory.

George Orwell plays a frequent role in the Civil War tour. Arriving in Barcelona a few months after the defeated coup, his Homage to Catalonia contains a vivid description of revolutionary Barcelona, of which he opined that:

There was much in this that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. 

We were shown the Hotel Continental where he stayed upon arrival, presumably also the site where he was scolded for attempting to tip a bellboy in a society where tipping had been abolished as an artefact of social hierarchy. The attic where Orwell was posted overnight as a sniper during the May Days conundrum of 1937, in which Anarchist and Trotskyist factions violently resisted the attempts by Moscow-oriented Communists to rein in the social revolution and expel them from the Republican coalition, is also pointed out to us. With ordinary people going about their business and leisure up and down La Rambla, it is difficult to imagine George Orwell clutching a rifle and running for cover: another powerful reminder of the historical energy contained in the La Rambla in particular, and in any European street in general.

Walking in Orwell’s footsteps from June 1937 when, returning from the front line after being shot in the throat by a sniper, he had to hastily flee Barcelona to evade capture by Moscow’s agents, you realise that this is where his anti-Stalinist fables Animal Farm and 1984 were forged in the furnace of the European Civil War. Again, this space has not been overtly memorialised and commodified: it is central Barcelona au naturel – a historical landscape so startling and evocative in its very lack of choreographing as a historical landscape. Admittedly, largely unseen on La Rambla, is an unassuming plaque demonstrating the last place where socialist leader Andreu Nin was seen alive before Stalinist agents disappeared and murdered him. Nin was the leader of the Trotskyist POUM party for which Orwell ended up fighting and almost dying.

Probably the most visibly historicised site on the Civil War tour is the Plaça de Sant Felip Neri. The walls of the Church there are visibly pockmarked. Our guide informs us that for years the Francoist dictatorship maintained that this was the site of an anti-clerical massacre of priests perpetrated by the revolutionary Left – one of many which did take place during the early days of War – in keeping with their narrative of the patriotic Crusade against godless Bolsheviks. However, the pockmarks are clearly not from bullets: they are from shrapnel. In January 1938, during the siege of the city, a Nationalist bomb exploded in the square; most victims were schoolchildren, some of them orphaned refugees from Madrid. A second bomb hit as survivors were pulled from the rubble. Forty-two died. Today a tiny, plain plaque marks the site. Otherwise, the pockmarked façade is open to being interpreted or simply ignored by passers-by. This place evokes a strong, unsettling feeling: children were massacred here, and their deaths denied by a falsification of history. Yet the space is not being used to teach a lesson or erect monuments against extremism and murder: it is therefore a place to reflect on the suffering of innocent children at the cruel decisions of adults, and how we have failed to properly address that particular legacy of the twentieth century.

José Colmeiro has interpreted the prevalence of ghosts in Spanish film and literature as a cultural manifestation of the country’s evasion to engaging directly with its recent past. While more recently the Civil War and Francoist dictatorship have been in the public eye as Parliament passed a decree to exhume Franco from the massive Valley of the Fallen mausoleum, Barcelona’s Civil War tours show how much the ordinary streets of Spain are haunted, almost invisibly, by that past. But this is not an entirely bad thing. Instead of a commodified or formalised historical site, with all the expected social conventions, farcical coercion of particular forms of remembrance and societal disdain for others that go with that, it is an opportunity to really reflect on European history, and the momentous events of the past that took place in our streets and within our societies and then faded into myths, legends, and official narratives.


Orwell, George, Homage to Catalonia (London: Secker & Warburg, 1967 [1938])

Colmeiro, José, ‘Nation of ghosts?: haunting, historical memory and forgetting in post-Franco Spain’, 452 Electronic journal of theory of literature and comparative literature, 4 (2011), pp. 17-34.

Monsters, Masks & Military Mutilation: The Influence of the First World War on Early Horror Cinema

Written by Scarlett Butler

Image:  Unknown. Anna Coleman Ladd fitting soldier with restorative face mask. 1918. Photograph. Rare Historical Photos. Accessed October 30, 2018.

Suzannah Biernhoff has argued that the facial mutilation caused during the Great War was widely written about but “almost never represented visually” with the exception of medical documentation. Here I will contend that the facial disfigurement of veterans had a significant influence on early horror films which thrived in post-war and depression-era Britain and America. The horror genre is a cultural response to society’s deepest fears and traumas, and one way of taking control of the interpretations of physical deformity and thus the horror of modern conflict itself. Generally, the most enduring horror characters are those who the audience sympathises with. Despite offering a potentially sympathetic portrayal of disfigurement, as Karina Longworth has noted, the major message of these films is still that it is better to die naturally than to live on in an unnatural, undead state.

In under two weeks, it will be a hundred years since the First World War drew to a close. From our vantage point, we can see that the peace negotiations were simply a temporary and incomplete solution to the problem of European and global conflict. To overcome the trauma of 8 million casualties and 21 million wounded soldiers, in the context of two major economic depressions, a wide range of responses would be required. Even during the war itself, the streets of Europe and the United States featured many walking and wheelchair-bound reminders of the violence of modern warfare, something many people were deeply uncomfortable with. The veterans themselves expressed discomfort at the attention they received. The Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh published a magazine called Hydra in 1918 which included work by patients. In June 1918, a man described as “an inmate” of that hospital produced a poem called “Stared At” which ends: “on my tomb would be this curse, / “To be stared at.”” This evocation of life itself as a curse is a message that is repeatedly emphasised in early horror films.

The First World War inspired many figurative and abstracted mediations on humanity’s destructive instinct and the nature of modernity. Surrealism, Dada, futurism, cubism and German expressionism all offer different reactions to the massive upheavals and shocking violence of that conflict. German expressionist cinema produced what some consider the first plausible horror film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari in 1920, featuring an archetypal mad scientist or in this case asylum director, as the villain. The first Hollywood horror film premiered five years later in San Francisco and the extravagant set of this film remains preserved on Universal’s lot on Stage 28 to this day. The Phantom of the Opera (1925), like so many great horror movies since, was said to cause people to faint in their seats or walk out. In particular, audiences reacted to the reveal of the Phantom’s skull-like face. The makeup effect in this film is legendary, and was produced by the actor himself, Lon Chaney. The unmasking scene, where Erik’s captured love interests removes his mask was notoriously shocking. When his face is revealed the audience sees that Erik’s bulbous eyes sit in dark pits, his cheeks are sunken, his mouth full of jagged teeth and his nose turned up so that his nostrils resemble that of a skull. What is often noted about Chaney’s phantom is that his appearance resembled that of facially disfigured veterans. The particular shock of mechanised warfare, as represented by the facially disfigured produced what Biernhoff has called a “culture of aversion”. Joanna Bourke notes that facial disfigurement was regarded as “the worst of all” and qualified a veteran for one-hundred per cent of his pension, unlike some other injuries and amputations. This was not because it impaired function, but because it was so damaging to that individual’s masculine identity. The rhetoric of the war wounded as patriotic heroes did emerge following the war, but tended to avoid directly depicting the facially injured. Stories surrounding these men highlight a fear of confronting their appearance. Mirrors were removed and patients refused to allow their families to see them.

In particular, the use of a mask to hide the face is reminiscent of the coping strategies initially adopted to conceal facial wounds. Due to improvements in medical science many soldiers who would have died in previous conflicts survived, but survived with unprecedentedly gruesome injuries. The nature of trench warfare left the head, in particular, exposed to all sorts of potential injuries. With full facial restoration often impossible, sculptors were employed in Britain and the United States to produce masks for individual soldiers. In London the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department was founded by Francis Derwent Wood, who stated in the medical journal The Lancet that his masks had the same “psychological effect” as plastic surgery, noting that “[t]he patient acquires his old self-respect … His presence is no longer a source of melancholy to himself nor of sadness to his relatives and friends.” Besides providing these men with some self-respect, these masks were also serving to protect the public from shock. Stories, both true and mythical, of children fleeing from their disfigured fathers epitomise the true horror these men faced in attempting to regain their sense of masculinity and personhood. It is possible here to see how horror films could relate to social anxieties, both those of the injured, their families and the wider public.

     Frankenstein, the highest grossing film of 1931, kickstarted Universal’s legendary early horror films clearly spoke to a wide audience’s particular fears and fascinations. Many early horror films, like Frankenstein, were based on gothic novels of the nineteenth century. One of the key differences between the gothic and the horror genre is horror’s emphasis of disfigurement, dismemberment and the grotesque. Illustrations for the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, depict a muscular, bedraggled figure who resembles a medical sketch more than a patchwork quilt.  It was the innovative and brilliant 1931 film Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff as the monster, which produced our contemporary image of that figure. Karloff’s makeup was designed to show how the head and neck has been stitched together. They purposefully left not a bolt in his neck but remnants of electrodes where the monster was shocked into life. His left cheek is scarred and both are deep, his face is disproportionate and he can barely open his heavy swollen eyes, which serve to remind you of the deepest sleep from which he has been woken. Essentially, he bears more resemblance to the pioneering work of early plastic surgeons restoring the faces of the war wounded, than to the gothic illustrations of a Byronic corpse. What is particularly notable about Frankenstein and its sequels is the sympathetic portrayal of the monster. It is the innocent little girl Maria and the blind hermit who do not so much accept the Monster’s appearance but are actually unaware of it. Such characters are removed from social expectation by innocence, isolation and visual impairment. Whilst shooting the scene between Maria and the Monster Boris Karloff recalled that unlike stories about veteran’s children, in the case “children got it” and the girl was never afraid of his in his makeup. Although the monster did subsequently, and very controversially, throw the young girl into a lake, it is made clear that he does not really understand that this could be dangerous for her. The film’s repeated message is one of society as creating and baiting the monster, not of the monster as a maniacal villain. In comparison to other popular monsters, like Dracula, who hides his murderous impulses under a gentlemanly air and appearance, Frankenstein’s Monster’s unappealing appearance conceals his essential innocence.

Whilst this sympathetic portrayal seems oddly progressive it was tempered by the most significant message of these films. Early horror, both those featuring unquestionably evil characters and sympathetic ones, all emphasise that death is preferable to a half-life, even if that life is eternal. The conclusion of The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), one of the best Universal early horror films, displays this clearly. When the monster realises the Bride they have made him hates him, and is as unhappy as he is to be reborn he decides to blow up the laboratory with them still inside, as he does so he cries out “We belong dead!”. The Monster would not rest for long, with Son of Frankenstein being released just four years later. Perhaps this message was comforting for the bereaved, knowing that their deceased loved ones were at peace rather than living on through medical intervention.

None of these films directly confront or acknowledge the influence of the First World War on their thematic content, however I would argue that they represent a sideways confrontation of disfigurement. As early horror films both embody and subvert this ‘culture of aversion’ with various acts of revelation and unmasking without ever showing a real injured veteran, eliciting a mixture of shock and fascination that horror films still play with. In his BBC documentary series about horror films the British actor Mark Gatiss sums up the contradictions inherent in these early films. Gatiss says of the unmasking scene from The Phantom of the Opera, that “it captures the essence of being a horror movie fan. It’s about knowing you shouldn’t look but wanting to see, and then maybe getting more than you bargained for.”


Films Mentioned:

  • Bride of Frankenstein. Directed by James Whale. Los Angeles, California: Universal, Film.
  • Directed by James Whale. 1931. Los Angeles, California: Universal, Film.
  • The Phantom of the Opera. Directed by Rupert Julian. 1925. Los Angeles, California: Universal, Film.