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.’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: