What’s behind the raucous pre-Lenten rite? An intrepid scholar hits the streets of Trinidad to find out.
When Northerners think of the caribbean, Trinidad isn’t usually the first place that comes to mind. Until recently, Trinidad had few tourist-oriented hotels or restaurants, and its crime rate is so high that visitors are advised not to venture outdoors wearing watches or jewelry, and definitely not at night. What Trinidad does have is carnival—a centuries-old blowout reputedly so wild and intense that it makes Mardi Gras look like a Veterans Day parade.
I had a reason beyond hedonism for making the trip. I’d spent nine years researching a book on the carnival tradition, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. Prehistoric rock drawings suggest that costuming and group dancing date back to the Paleolithic. In the 19th century, Western explorers found it going strong among indigenous peoples worldwide, including Polynesians, Inuits, West Africans, Australian Aborigines and villagers in India. In Europe, however, it had been suppressed when Protestantism and the Counter-Reformation wiped out most public festivities, which, over the years, had become flash points for popular unrest.
The European experience in Trinidad is a case in point: 18th-century French settlers brought the tradition of a pre-Lenten festival, in which they found it amusing to dress up and dance like their African slaves. The slaves found it even more amusing to use the confusion of carnival as an occasion for uprisings. Long after the slaves were emancipated by the British in 1838, the colonial administration continued to fight the now-Africanized carnival piece by piece—banning, at one time or another, drums, masks and dancing in the streets.