Carnival's role in Trinidad and Tobago's labour history

Masqueraders of Peter Minshall's Mas Pieta perform at Victoria Square, Port of Spain on February 25, 2020. File photo -
Masqueraders of Peter Minshall's Mas Pieta perform at Victoria Square, Port of Spain on February 25, 2020. File photo -

The labour history of Trinidad and Tobago is more reflective of its reality than just its laws and regulations although even they reflect it in a way far deeper than ordinances only hint at.

It has not been a happy one. From a tribal beginning with the Taino culture, a tough sustenance existence, surviving through extended dry season droughts when fish could be the main or only source of food. Through hurricanes, earthquakes, raids from other equally hungry tribes, life, as the man said, could be: “nasty, brutish and short.”

Then the people in the big boats came from foreign.

They were greeted with awe and welcome, assumed by the people to be god-like, full of knowledge and wisdom that would bring blessings, benefits in abundance and new knowledge to share.

They are still saying that, aren’t they? And we are still assuming they must mean it, coming from 40 degrees north as they do, don’t we?

They were indeed bringing new things: smallpox, syphilis, medical technologies that could control and cure (which is what they always said) new gods to worship according to the ones in black robes, and knives and guns and more guns by which they could control.

Then began the cycles of coercion, slavery, forced labour of many other different kinds, abduction of children (for their own good, of course) who would be used and abused, especially the well-formed and nubile ones.

Things didn’t change all that much for women. They had always been subordinated to the will and use of men who were larger and stronger and dominated, if I read Kim Johnson’s account of the indigenous people correctly.

It was nature’s way, wasn’t it? That is why they were used for procreation and nurturing so the tribe could increase even when the men went out to fight the other tribes. When the other tribe won, the women were just given, or traded to another tribe, and the race would go on.

Women were good for other stuff too, like nutrition and pottery and designs of beadwork. And they passed on the instinct to love and to nurture.

Over time when there was peace, the creative genes in men, more than warriors, always had time for evolving and expression.

Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at Harvard, in Trini terms wrote about “the smarts” inherent in human brains.

They are: spatial, used for building things; naturalist: agricultural, and horticultural; musical: composition, “choirs of angels;” logical/mathematical what the minister calls “science”; existential: understanding what life is all about; interpersonal: leadership/diplomacy/politics; kinesthetic physical abilities/rhythm/“ball sense;” linguistic: the ability to communicate in different languages; and perhaps the rarest of all: intra personal. As the prophet said: “know thyself.”

The purpose of education is to encourage, develop and expand these. The wise encourage them, not rigidly control or suppress them. People – parents, religious leaders, politicians and our education system often try to, though. They use whatever is at hand.

The re-enactment of the Canboulay Riots of 1881 at Piccadilly Greens, Port of Spain on March 1, 2019. - JEFF K MAYERS

But there is always a pushback.

First it is small, sneaky and insidious, then it becomes braver and more open, then, when it is repressed and met with force, large and violent.

All of those were manifested in the Trini workforce before emancipation. No one gives up power willingly. Troops were called in. That was in the old days when labour learned that they could fight back through violence or withholding labour.

Power no longer needs weapons to control. No, notably only the dispossessed use those…as sign of helplessness from those who know no other way.

True power uses medical technology, economic sanctions, religious dictats, false “facts” or social media blocking access to public spaces or amenities.

Back in the mid-1800s workers lacked guns or access to media, so they used brains. They retaliated with what hurt most: laughter, innuendo, satire and ridicule.

Ole mas’ was one of their most effective weapons. Kaiso carried the news. Newspapers can moulder and decay, but the words of Gypsy’s Sinking Ship, Sparrow’s Jean and Dinah, Delamo’s Vote Dem Out or this year’s Devon Seale’s Triple G just go on.

Satire has been used since early Greek times to show foolishness or vice in humans, organisations, or even governments – it used sarcasm, ridicule, or irony often to effect political or social change, or to prevent it. It worked. It still does.

Trinidad, with a depth of understanding and wisdom seldom understood, found a way to discharge all the pent up mass energy, anger and resentment against authoritarian exploitation and suppression, that virtually all people experience under authoritarian regimes.

While still lawful, mass action energised with the excitement of real danger, the promise of exploding, the merging of the sacred and the profane was born in the core of the people and burst into life. It was called Carnival and before this year, nothing but polio had been able to stop it. Mas in May prevented riots.

Based on Cannes Brulee, on devil mas, the edgy chaos of sailors ashore, on the lost art of the menacing bats, the midnight robbers: the power and the glory of “in your face” street mas.

It was followed by genuinely creative cultural and historical mas produced by the talent, research, and hard work of committed and passionate workers who did not need coercion to produce.

Like Atlantis, Carnival has arisen every year up until now, when it is being put in expensive observation cages for the sole pleasure of those that can afford it.

True mas, "Minshall mas," went underground pre-covid19 so as to enable sex mas, under the guise of a revolt against the centuries’ long suppression of female sexuality, to be cleverly manipulated and once again controlled into a devalued exploitation of it.

Did you never wonder why most mas is played by women these days? Or why so many designers of bikini or “patch” mas are male? Why the power over the tribe, as it did with slavery, uses cheap resources to produce its wares? Interesting.

Does no one want a return to real categories of mas: historical, high-tech, designer mas or even religious mas? The kind of mas that made Trini Carnival the greatest show on earth, not the skimpy repetitive cheap copy of Rio it sadly devolved into?

Where has Trini culture gone? Do we need a referendum to return Carnival to the people?


"Carnival’s role in Trinidad and Tobago’s labour history"

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