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The Canboulay Riots riots by the descendants of freed slaves on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago against attempts by the British police to crack down on aspects of the celebration of Carnival. The riots occurred in February 1881 in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and in the southern cities of San Fernando and Princes Town in February 1884 causing loss of life. The riots are still commemorated today and canboulay music is an important part of the music of Trinidad and Tobago notably the use of steel pans which were the descendants of percussion instruments banned in the 1880s. The "chantwell" or chantuelle who was also an integral part of the celebrations was the forerunner of the calypsonian and later soca music.
Origins of the riots
Carnival was brought to Spanish Trinidad by French planters via Martinique in the 1770s. The British authorities disapproved of the festival because of its bacchanalian overtones, but the festival was popular with the bulk of the free population on the island.
The festival was transformed when the island's slaves were freed in 1834 as a consequence of the passage of the Abolition Act by the British Parliament in 1833. The emancipated slaves first celebrated their freedom on August 1, the anniversary of their emancipation but soon participated in Carnival instead.
As part of this transformation, they started carrying burning sugar canes or "cannes brulees" which were soon called "canboulay."The carnival soon featured ribald dancing by men and women in masks. The people would also gather in "kaiso" tents where a "chantwell" or lead singer would lead them in song to vent their feelings. "Kaiso" music has its origins in West Africa and was brought over by the slaves who (in the early history of the art form) used it to sing about their masters
The Carnival was often marred by clashes between groups of revellers carrying sticks and lighted torches. While the confrontations started in song duels between the chantwells, they often worsened to physical violence. The British authorities banned carrying sticks and torches in 1868 due to a clash between two groups. However, this ban was not enforced for some years.
Captain Arthur Baker became the head of Trinidad's police force in the early 1880s and was determined to end the canboulay as a threat to public order. In 1881, Trinidad's police force clashed with revellers in Port of Spain who had banded together against the police. This caused resentment amongst the ordinary people of Trinidad who valued the festival despite the clashes.
Due to the feelings of the population, Governor Sir Sanford Freeling confined police to barracks in order to calm down the situation. However, when Freeling was recalled in 1883, Baker sought to crack down at the canboulay in the southern cities of San Fernando and Princes Town during the carnival of 1884.
In Princes Town, the masqueraders attacked the police station after magistrate Hobson decided to confine the police to barracks because the crowd was too large. After Hobson was felled with a stone, the police opened fire on the rioters killing a youth and seriously wounding two others causing the crowd to flee.
There were also serious clashes between police and rioters in San Fernando during Carnival but the police gradually won the upper hand.
Impact on Caribbean culture
After the riots, the Carnival became more restrained. The bottle-and-spoon joined drums as percussion instruments. In the 1930s, steel pans became widely used and this music was popularised throughout the world when the US Navy set up a base in Trinidad and US sailors took the music of the "panmen" to the US and hence throughout the world. Steel pan music remains an integral part of Canboulay music contests.
The chantwell became a calypsonian in the 1920s and calypso became widely popular throughout Trinidad and the Caribbean in the 1930s. Harry Belafonte, a Jamaican-born artist, became hugely successful throughout the world with his 1956 "Calypso" becoming a million seller. During the 1960s, calypso was merged with Indian music and later soul and funk to become soca.
The Canboulay Riots are an important part of the history of Trinidad and Tobago and are still celebrated today as Carnival
- 1984 article by Michael Anthony on the Canboulay Riot
- Anthony, Michael (2001). Historical Dictionary of Trinidad and Tobago. Scarecrow Press, Inc. Lanham, Md., and London. ISBN 0-8108-3173-2.
- Article by Brian Wong on the history of Carnival including the Canboulay riots
- Excerpt from Professor Shannon Dudley's Carnival Music in Trinidad