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The Canboulay riots were riots by the descendants of freed slaves on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago 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.
Origins of the riots
Trinidad's carnival dates back to the 18th century, and the influx of French Catholic planters from the French Antilles – both white and free coloured – their slaves, and free blacks in the 1780s. The white and free coloured both staged elaborate masquerade balls at Christmas and as a “farewell to the flesh” before the Catholic Lenten season, with each group mimicking the other in their masking and entertainment. After the emancipation of slaves in 1838, it became a symbol of freedom and defiance. This masking and mimicry merged over time with the calinda – or stickfighting accompanied by chanting and drumming – and rituals of carnival to become a jamette – or underclass – masquerade. 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 1 August 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 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 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
The British government’s attempt to ban canboulay in 1881 resulted in open riots between Afro-Creole revelers and police, a turn of events that, not surprisingly, caused deep resentment within Trinidadian society toward the government’s use of power. In 1883, drumming was banned in an attempt to clean it up. This injunction came after a disturbance in the 1881 carnival, known as the Canboulay Riots. Canboulays were processions during carnival that commemorated the harvesting of burnt cane fields during slavery. It was a labor-intensive process, involving forced marches of slaves from neighboring plantations in order to more efficiently harvest the cane. The open resistance of Afro-Creole revelers, of course, redoubled concerns among government officials over this potential threat to public order and led to an alternative strategy - the banning of drumming - in 1883.
Stick-fighting itself was banned in 1884. A substitute for the drums and sticks, called tamboo bamboo, was introduced in the 1890s. A tamboo bamboo band is a percussion band used to accompany calypso songs during Carnival time. Tamboo bamboo bands consist of three different instruments, each cut from bamboo: boom, foulé, and cutter. The boom serves as the bass instrument, is usually about five feet long, and is played by stamping it on the ground. The foulé, which is a higher-pitched instrument, consists of two pieces of bamboo, each about a foot long, and is played by striking these pieces end to end. The cutter, which is the highest- pitched instrument in the ensemble, is made from a thinner piece of bamboo (of varying length) and is struck with a stick. These three types of instruments combined to beat out rhythms that accompanied the chantwells and were a staple of carnival celebrations for many years (they were gradually rendered obsolete by the steelband).
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
- "'Mama Dis is Mas': A Historical Overview of the Trinidad Carnival, 1783 – 1900" Archived 2014-12-15 at the Wayback Machine National Library and Information System Authority
- 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