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Mardi Gras in Trinidad and Tobago, Caribbean islands of carnival

Posted in Historical articles, Leisure, Music, Travel on Sunday, 1 January 2012

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This edited article about the Caribbean originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 889 published on 3 February 1979.

Trinidad carnival, picture, image, illustration

A colourful carnival in Trinidad

The toe-tapping rhythm of steel bands set everyone dancing. Nearly 60,000 revellers, many wearing garish fancy dress, jostled, jived and jumped through the streets to the blaring music. Excited children and their parents, businessmen and officials, the old and the young were all there for the fun and excitement of the carnival.

This was Mardi Gras time in Trinidad, the Caribbean holiday island, where gyrating to the samba, calypso and conga comes as easily as swimming in one of the island’s turquoise lagoons.

The celebration of Mardi Gras every Shrove Tuesday begins the previous Sunday – Dimanche Gras – when the festivities last all night long. After the King and Queen of Carnival are chosen, parties blossom and the dancing and merry-making go on until the sun peeps over the edge of the ocean.

Then they pour on to the streets for Jour Ouvert and, for two days, bands of masqueraders vie for the title of Band of the Year. The streets of Port of Spain are jam-packed as the carnival tableaux go on parade. It is a heady, fantastic atmosphere with worries and inhibitions cast aside as the entire population luxuriates in undiluted pleasure.

By Wednesday it is all over. A heavy silence following the deafening rejoicing falls across the island. The only reminders of three days of fun are torn and discarded costumes and tattered bunting, remnants of an entire year’s work.

But Trinidad is not just the land of carnival. The history of the island, discovered by Christopher Columbus on 31st July, 1498, is steeped in blood and violence. It has heard the boom of the buccaneer’s cannon and the clang of the cutlass. It has known foreign domination, suffered the misery of slavery and slowly aspired to nationhood in the 20th century.

Since 1962, Trinidad and its neighbouring island of Tobago have enjoyed independence as a member of the British Commonwealth. Today, it is a thriving, prosperous island with a magnetic appeal for thousands of tourists who dip enthusiastically into its past and picnic on its spectacular beaches.

It was on Columbus’ third voyage that he sighted the island and named it Trinidad – or Trinity – after the three peaks which dominate a southern range of hills. At that time, the island was inhabited by Carib and Arawak Indians who later became virtually extinct. Thirty years passed before the Spanish decided to settle on the island. It was not until towards the end of the 16th century that they founded San Jose, eleven kilometres inland from the present capital of Port of Spain, and set up a government.

During those years, the island was repeatedly under attack from the French, Dutch and English, including Sir Walter Raleigh, who razed San Jose to the ground in one of his operations.

Trinidad did not prosper under the Spaniards and life sank to a low ebb, with poverty stalking the island for many years. It was not until 1780 that the outlook began to brighten.

A Frenchman, M. St. Laurent, who had visited the island, reported to the Madrid government that the soil was extremely fertile. The result was that Spain issued a proclamation offering large tracts of land to Catholic settlers from any country on very favourable terms. Hundreds of farmers, mainly French driven from Haiti and elsewhere by the repercussions of the French Revolution, poured into Trinidad. Within 15 years the population rose from a mere 300 to 18,000.

But war was again to disturb the idyllic waters of the Caribbean – and it developed out of a street brawl caused by a French privateer insulting a British sailor in Port of Spain in 1796. The British sailor hit out, a fight flared, with British naval officers coming to the rescue of their comrade.

The next day, a British captain landed a force of men in a “show the flag” operation. There was no conflict – but the incident formed one of the grounds on which Spain declared war against Britain a few months later.

The next year, a British expedition under Sir Ralph Abercromby and Admiral Harvey sailed from Martinique to capture Trinidad. The Spaniards refused to engage the British fleet. Instead, they destroyed their own ships lying off the island of Gasper Grande in Chaguaramas Bay: their admiral actually strewed resin and sulphur on the decks of his own three-decked warship. A few days later the Spanish governor surrendered without a fight to Sir Ralph. In 1802 the cession of Trinidad was confirmed by the Treaty of Amiens.

With the end of slavery in 1834, many of the freed negroes turned from the sugar plantations to farm their own smallholdings. To meet the labour shortage, Britain introduced a system of engaging indentured labour for three-year periods, mainly from India. Between 1845 and 1917, some 150,000 migrants entered Trinidad from India, China and Madeira and the population shot up to 330,000.

Today, oil production is one of Trinidad’s leading industries and an important source of revenue. Three refineries handle crude oil imported from Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.

Tourism is another big natural money spinner for Trinidad and its neighbour, Tobago. These two most southerly islands in the Caribbean offer dark green tropical rain forests where the scarlet ibis nests, tempting beaches fringed with palm trees, the orchid as a flower to be seen everywhere and an amazing bird life. Indeed, on the outskirts of Port of Spain, hummingbirds are a common sight. The poinsettia, which has a doubtful life in Britain, grows as a hedge in Trinidad with its red leaves appearing from December to February. It is natural that it should be called the Christmas Flower.

To the south of the island lies the mysterious Pitch Lake. Scientists believe that this vast volcanic crater filled up with crude oil seeping through the cracks in underground rocks over hundreds of years. Wind, rain and sun turned it into pitch, which Raleigh used to caulk his warships. In fact, over the past 30 years about 10 million tons have been exported to asphalt roads all over the world, including our own motorways.

Nearby villagers, however, claim that Pitch Lake was created when the Good Spirit ordered the volcano to engulf an Indian tribe as a punishment for killing humming-birds.

Tobago is really just a holiday island, 40 km long by 7 km wide, only 20 minutes flight away. A short distance offshore is Bird of Paradise Isle, which was named after 26 pairs of those beautiful birds from New Guinea were released there in 1909 and flourished.

Another Tobago offshore island is Buccoo Reef. Here at low tide, the lukewarm water is only one metre above the coral, which swarms with myriads of fantastically-coloured fish.

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