The Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is an annual event celebrated on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago is the most significant event on the islands’ cultural and tourism calendar, with numerous cultural events leading up to the street parade on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. It is said that if the islanders are not celebrating it, then they are preparing for it, while reminiscing about the past year’s festival. The heart of the musical celebration has been calypso. In recently times, soca has replaced calypso as the most celebrated type of music. Costumes, stick fighting and limbo competitions are also important components of the festival.
Spain and England at different times both claimed Trinidad as their colonies. Under British rule, the French settled in Trinidad, bringing with them their slaves, customs, and culture. By 1797, 14,000 French settlers came to live in Trinidad, consisting of about 2,000 whites and 12,000 slaves. Most of the native peoples (often called the Amerindians) who were the first people to live in Trinidad, died from forced labour and illness.
Carnival was introduced to Trinidad around 1785, as the French settlers began to arrive. The tradition caught on quickly, and fancy balls were held where the wealthy planters put on masks, wigs, and beautiful dresses and danced long into the night. The use of masks had special meaning for the slaves, because for many African peoples, masking is widely used in their rituals for the dead. Obviously banned from the masked balls of the French, the slaves would hold their own little carnivals in their backyards — using their own rituals and folklore, but also imitating their masters’ behaviour at the masked balls.
For African people, carnival became a way to express their power as individuals, as well as their rich cultural traditions. After 1838 (when slavery was abolished), the freed Africans began to host their own carnival celebrations in the streets that grew more and more elaborate, and soon became more popular than the balls.
Today, carnival in Trinidad is like a mirror that reflects the faces the many immigrants who have come to this island nation from Europe, Africa, India, and China. African, Asian, and American Indian influences have been particularly strong.
Carnival arts offers a dynamic tool for self-expression and exploration, a tool to seek out our roots, a tool to develop new forms of looking at the world and its cultures, and finally, a tool to unite the world, to discover what we all have in common, and to celebrate what makes us different.