Rituals of resistance: the Canboulay Riots re-enactment

Each year, with drums and fire, Trinidad re-enacts a struggle for emancipation. Ray Funk and Jeffrey Chock witness this renewed tradition

Captain Baker and his police grapple unsuccessfully with the townspeople determined to celebrate the Carnival. Photograph by Jeffrey ChockChanting to the beat of drums, celebrants re-enact Canboulay. Photograph by Jeffrey ChockColonial authorities argued that it was dangerous to carry flambeaux through the streets of a town still largely built of wood. Photograph by Jeffrey ChockPlaywright Eintou Springer addresses the Canboulay crowd Playwright Eintou Springer addresses the Canboulay crowd. Photograph by Jeffrey ChockThe crowd watches the pre-dawn performance on the streets of Port of Spain. Photograph by Jeffrey Chock

At 5 am on the Friday before Carnival, on a dark street in downtown Port of Spain, over 100 performers re-enact and celebrate the Canboulay Riots. For an hour each year, hundreds of Carnival fans are entranced as they sit in bleachers and watch what has become – given its starting time and location – a very unlikely hit on the Carnival season during the last several years.

The pageant portrays the local populace’s successful efforts in 1881 to resist the push by the colonial British government to suppress Canboulay celebrations on the streets. It combines flambeaux, stickfighting, African drumming, tamboo bamboo, a parade of traditional Carnival characters, the chanting of “Five, Five, Five in the Morning” and the story of the riots of 1881. The ritual now marks the start of the Carnival “weekend” that runs to the Las’ Lap of Carnival the following Tuesday.

The celebration of the Canboulay Riots, the pageant that now starts Carnival, is not an old tradition that has been celebrated for decades, but in, a sense, is an “invented tradition”, a very recent attempt to create a link to the past. Scholars look to such new traditions to see how they can be used to retell history in a new way, may have a political or cultural impulse, and, through recreation of the past, act to shape the future. The idea of a re-enactment originated about a decade ago with John Cupid, who has been a guiding force in shaping Carnival in Trinidad for many decades, through his work at the National Carnival Commission and in other capacities.

There had previously been short presentations related to the riots by Malick Folk Performers, as part of street parades in Laventille for Emancipation Day in August. Cupid conceived the idea and started working with Norvan Fullerton and Tony Hall, who work in theatre and supervise visiting students from universities in the United States. Local traditional Carnival groups and characters were invited to participate, and every attempt was made to make this new celebration as inclusive as possible – so the visiting American students took on the role of the British soldiers and officials.

The first efforts, with a short script by Tony Hall, focused on the street fighting, groups coming from the various streets to gather and prepare to fight with Capt Baker and his forces, and the capitulation speech of Governor Freeling, who suggested his only concern was that fire should not stop Carnival. When the student actor, in pompous, fake British accents, intones, “I wish to tell you that it is entirely a misconception on your part, to think that there is any desire on the part of the Government to stop your amusement,” the crowds always react with outrage. As the kalenda song of the times, “Mama We is People Too”, proclaimed, the incident was not about fire, but cultural expression and the government attempts to stifle it.

Hall remembers they first conceived the production from the point of view of that young girl up in the tree trying to understand the complex events unfolding before her – shouts, chanting, half-seen in the dark, blows and blood, attacks and retreats.

The celebrations took a new direction in 2004 when Eintou Pearl Springer, a member of the Regional Carnival Committee, created an extended script. A retired librarian, she has devoted herself to poetry, theatre, and education, seeing the arts as a primary way to build cultural consciousness. She saw the Canboulay Riots as a seminal event in the history of Carnival.

Springer revised the script into a full three-act version. Performed by the award- winning Malick Folk Performing Company, it won the Best Village competition in 2007. It was mounted again by Malick at Queen’s Hall in January 2008, directed by Louis McWilliams, the artistic director of Malick, who teaches at the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of the West Indies, and is one of the country’s most experienced directors.

Springer has become increasingly involved in the management and incorporated the members of her Idakeda production company in the pageant. It kept growing as more performing groups were added, including the Centre of Creative Arts at UWI, Indian Walk Cultural Performers, Cap-de-ville Folk Performers, Caratal Youth Kreation, Embacadere Travellers, Neptune School of Drums, and the Malick Folk Performers.

That year also saw the pageant outgrow its original location on Duke Street. The increasing interest, larger audience and difficulty in seeing as the production increased in length also led to the move around the corner to Piccadilly Greens, a traditional judging spot for Carnival mas. In 2009, then Minister of Culture Marlene McDonald was quoted in the Trinidad Guardian as extolling the virtues of the pageant and the need to take it to San Fernando. “This symbolic ceremony recalls the very beginning of Carnival and more of T&T deserve an opportunity to experience it.” The whole troupe went down in 2010 to a venue on Coffee Street in San Fernando, just outside the Skiffle Bunch panyard. As in Port of Spain, the turnout was tremendous and both the crowd and the media called on it a major success.

In 2010, the re-creation was taken in more new directions. Springer also decided to change the name to Kambule, the Kikongo word for “procession”.

The Canboulay Riots pageant continues to change and evolve every year. Historians may quibble about the historical accuracy of the text as it has evolved, and the incorporation of later Carnival traditions, but in a pageant this matters little. Taking the event to San Fernando proved very popular, and the mayor and others have declared that it should become a regular event there as well as in Port of Spain. What new directions it will take are yet to be seen, but its popularity and place in the Trinidad Carnival seem assured.

The fires of freedom  

The importance of the Canboulay Riots has come to be recognised in major studies of the history of Carnival and general historical treatments of Trinidad. As leading scholar JD Elder noted, “Canboulay is basically a ceremony symbolising cane-burning that Africans of Trinidad devised to celebrate their ‘freedom from slavery’ in 1838.” For Elder, Canboulay represented a ceremony of resistance in which African dance, theatre and music combined in street theatre as part of Carnival, with stick fighting, drumming, singers and flambeaux.

The celebration by the lower classes in the mid-19th century was looked down upon by the upper classes and was seen as undignified and worse, especially running through the streets in the middle of the night carrying flaming torches – dangerous, in a town of wooden structures. A new police chief, Captain Baker, had come to see it as his mission to stop it from occurring.

A first-hand account of what happened in 1881 was passed on to Elder and cultural researcher Lennox Pierre by someone who was there as a child up in a tree watching as the riots unfolded:

“And the old lady told us how there was an old patois woman at the front of the band [who called out to Captain Baker] just about where All Stars [steel orchestra] have their headquarters now. And at that signal the fellows light their torches and start up the drums and went for Baker. The story that she gave me … was that the Canboulay revellers swept the ground with the police.”

The police retreated, and after the nighttime violence, Canboulay continued during the day on Monday. Governor Freeling stopped the police and, in an unusual move, came and addressed the public, and allowed them to continue their celebrations. His efforts had the intended effect. His proclamation calls on them to play mas “with union, peace and loyalty” and urges them to “Remember the pains His Excellency took in coming to our market square to ask you to play peaceably.”

The playwright’s point of view

Eintou Pearl Springer explains: “My play Kambule pays tribute to our warrior ancestors of the mas and brings their achievements to the attention of the entire society. The Carnival that we now take for granted was fought for by the former enslaved of the barrack yards, not only in Port of Spain but also in the east and south of the island. The riots of 1881 in Port of Spain were, however, the most significant.

“In the light of the bombardment of all our youth with alien images and cultures, Kambule says to our young people that you have much to claim and you have much of which you can be proud! Kambule reminds us that the African created a great deal despite enslavement. In the gayelle of existence, those ancestors fought inch by contested inch to clear a space for the manifestations of their culture…whether remembered or forged in the crucible of the environment to which they had been forcibly transported.”

Further afield

Yolanda Lezama-Clark, one of the directors of the Brooklyn Carnival Committee, saw the 2010 re-enactment and invited Springer to New York for the Labor Day weekend for a new staging. This event was the focal point of Dimanche Gras, staged outside the Brooklyn Museum.

Springer performed a traditional African invocation to the ancestors for the whole Dimanche Gras itself before the festivities began. For her, these efforts are “about rituals of remembrance and reclamation for African people to deal with the sense of self-loss” arising from a legacy of slavery and the many issues they still face.