Bois men and women ushered in the start of Carnival weekend by sharing ‘licks’ to their colonial oppressors in a pre-dawn re-enactment of the Canboulay riots yesterday.
The thunder of African drums, the cries of chantuelles and the flicker of flambeaux lit up the Piccadilly Greens in East Dry River, Port-of-Spain where the riots took place in 1881.
“Bois man in the road in the morning!” the actors chanted as they readied for battle.
The annual Carnival Friday play relived the rebellion mounted by descendants of freed slaves against a crackdown by the British governor general on their kalinda, or stickfighting and drumming ritual.
“Today we taking a stand!” one rebel shouted in the darkness. “We go fight to the death or live as free man!”
The play climaxed with baton-wielding soldiers barrelling through a crowd of barefooted male and female rebels armed only with kalinda sticks.
In a preamble to the re-enactment, playwright and director of the Centre for Creative and Festival Arts at UWI St Augustine, Rawle Gibbons, explained why the piece of Carnival theatre is so important.
“It establishes our history, our spiritual roots of the Carnival, and it establishes and consolidates community,” he told the audience of locals and visitors.
“It reminds us of who we are and what we are about. It allows us to recommit to the ideals of Carnival which were essentially, to give us the right to be human.”
Gibbons explained the masked Pierrot Grenades who featured in the re-enactment played a key role in keeping the descendants of slaves connected to their heritage.
“These people had no inheritance. They had no property. They had no return passage. They had no links to their past in that way, directly. What they had, as you will see, is their bodies which they refused to submit to oppression. They had the will and the determination to fight and they had the imagination to create a space in their own image and likeness and dreams,” he said.
Hundreds of spectators crowded into the stands and behind barricades along Piccadilly Greens, considered the cradle of modern-day Carnival celebrations.
Pierrot grenades told the audience about ordinances issued by the colonial government in 1844 which prohibited anyone from wearing masks except during the two days of Canboulay.
In 1849, the government switched the Canboulay celebration from August to the days just before Lent, which coincided with European carnivals.
The actors lamented that more than 40 years after slavery ended, they were still stifled by unemployment, inadequate access to education and poor living conditions. The frustration proved to be a powder keg that ignited easily once the governor tried to stop their Canboulay.
Waving his gloved hands and sporting a powder-white wig, the actor portraying the colonial governor, Captain Arthur Baker, tried to make peace with the rebels after the riots.
“The only objection was the fear of fire, and nothing else,” he said of their flambeaux, summoning his best English accent. “I was not aware of the importance you attached to your masquerade.”
Nearly 240 years later, that masquerade is the expression of freedom on the Monday and Tuesday before Lent begins.