History of the Caribbean Carnival – By Michael La Rose

The following information was provided by Michael La Rose

What is Carnival?

Caribbean Carnival is the creative and artistic expression of dispossessed people. The Caribbean Carnival has been transported to North America and Europe through the migration of Caribbean peoples. Carnival originated as a pagan festival in ancient Egypt which was subsequently celebrated by the Greeks and then the Romans. The popular festival was adopted by the Roman Catholic Christian church in Europe as the festival of Carne Vale. The Carnival festival was transported to the Caribbean by the European slave traders. They excluded the African slaves from the festival and had lavish masquerade balls. On emancipation the freed African slaves of the Caribbean transformed the European festival forever into a celebration of the end of slavery. The Carnival festival had a new cultural form derived from their own African heritage and the new Creole artistic cultures developed in the Caribbean. It is the Caribbean Carnival that is exported to large cities all over the world.

The word Carnival is made up of two Latin words, carne, meaning flesh and vale, meaning farewell. In the Catholic calendar carne vale, farewell to flesh, is a feast celebrated on the Sunday (Dimanche Gras), Monday (Lundi Gras) and Tuesday (Mardi Gras) before Ash Wednesday and marks the beginning of Lent and fasting.
The Caribbean Carnival consists of masquerade, dance, music and song. It is unique as a festival as it incorporates the fine arts, street theatre, artistic and musical social organisation, spectator participation, political commentary, spectacle and fantasy.

In Britain Mardi Gras is Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day. Carnival was originally a pagan spring festival celebrated by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. The Carnival was adapted by the Catholic Church in Europe.

There is Carnival in Europe today, mainly in Catholic southern Europe in Spain, France, Italy, Portugal and southern Germany (Bavaria), Carnival in Venice being the most well known. There is a history of similar festivals and events in Britain itself that have been suppressed and destroyed by a long line of British rulers. The festivals that were pagan in origin were thought to encourage absenteeism and disrupt the work ethic. These festivals still persist, especially in the South West of England in Devon, Cornwall and Dorset.

We are all familiar with images of Notting Hill Carnival in London or the West Indian Parade in New York. They are of masquerade (costumes), music, dancing and happy people. But what is behind the masquerade? There is a rich history, culture, language and a lot of hard work and struggle. The Caribbean Carnival described here is a celebration of the end of slavery as well as an affirmation of survival. Carnival is where Africa and Europe met in the cauldron of the Caribbean slave system to produce a new festival for the world.

The four elements of Carnival are song, music, costume and dance, which translate as calypso/soca, steelpan, mas (masquerade), and ‘wine’ (dance) in the Caribbean Carnival. Trinidad is the island in the Caribbean with the most developed and well-known Carnival. Wherever the Trinidadians go they transplant their Carnival culture. Carnival first came to Trinidad with the French Catholic plantation slave owners during the 1700s. It consisted of indoor masked balls and was an exclusive, high society event.

The African peoples were brought to the Caribbean as slaves from countries in West and Central Africa that stretch from Senegal to Central African Republic, and include countries that are now Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Benin, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Congo, and Central African Republic. Those brought to Trinidad as slaves, also carried with them their own strong masquerade traditions, music and songs, which were used for celebration and the rituals of life, e.g. birth, death, puberty and marriage. This was especially strong with those who were Yoruba (Nigeria), as their strong civilization and religious structure dominated.

The Yoruba were the last to be taken as slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean because of the strength of their armies, civilisation and organisation. With a strong culture coming late to the Caribbean slave islands, they dominated the religious, cultural and artistic life of the Caribbean Africans. The structure of Yoruba religion starts with the one God, Olodumare and messengers between God and man called Orishas, like Yemenja and Shango, who were prayed to by pretending to pray to the Catholic saints. Prayers to Shango were to shrines with the statue of the Catholic Saint Peter. In this way African culture, specifically Yoruba culture, could survive the murderous cultural and religious oppression of the slave masters. Under slavery these Caribbean peoples developed a new culture, using the European framework and adding West African elements to it. An example of this was the forerunner of the present day Carnival, a festival called the Canboulay.


The Canboulay was a night-time procession whose original purpose was to gather the slaves together and march them to neighbouring sugar cane plantations to put out fires. The burning canes or cannes brulées (French) was Canboulay in the local Creole language. The popular Canboulay consisted of a procession with lighted torches (flambeaux) accompanied by singing, dancing and drumming. The West African call-and-response and satirical songs were sung by a lead singer, the Chantwelle, and the chorus by singers called the Lavué. The drumming was typically provided by accomplished drummers from the Yoruba religion called Shango or Rada (Trinidad) or today Orisha in Trinidad. There were also stick fighters armed with three foot long bois or staves made from the wood of the Poui. Their fierce Kalenda songs and dances provided a sense of confidence and bravado. It would be the Kalenda stick fighters who would later physically defend the Carnival.


After emancipation in 1834, the white planters abandoned the Mardi Gras Carnival and the streets were taken over by the former slaves. Carnival was now a celebration of the end of slavery and included all the elements of the Canboulay with a masquerade that mocked the antics of their former masters as well as being a reminder of the evils of slavery. The European Mardi Gras would be forever transformed by the Canboulay Carnival of the former slaves.

There were many attempts by the now British colonial authorities to suppress and abolish this new type of Carnival. These took the form of a virulent media campaign and laws that tried to control the times of the festival. Licences were required for certain masquerades, they banned the use of drums and flambeaux and controlled the numbers of stick fighters. The people struggled, fought and died to defend their Carnival festival. One famous victory was the defeat of a Captain Baker and the special police brought to the island from England to suppress the Carnival in 1881.

These Canboulay riots established the existence and survival of Carnival forever. In Trinidad today Carnival is celebrated every year on the two days before Ash Wednesday. It starts in the darkness of the early morning on Sunday (Dimanche Gras) with drums, whistles and the beating of iron. People wear masks and daub themselves with mud or oil. Crudely made satirical costumes are portrayed. This start of Carnival is called Jouvay from Jour Ouvert (French), meaning daybreak and is the historical remnant of Canboulay.

Michael La Rose can be contacted at George Padmore Centre, 76 Stroud Green Road, London N4.

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© Charleston Carifest 2023