Trinbago Pan

"Out of pain this culture was born"

Pan aficionados
Pan aficionados

By Gerry Kangalee
August 21, 2008

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The above quote from David Rudder's kaiso, "Dedication", a magnificent praise song to Pan, sets the scene for understanding how and why Pan arose and developed. The story of Pan is a narrative of pain and of triumph. It is a story of the fierce contestation taking place in the cultural gayelle between the Canboulay (Cannes Brûlées) and the Mardi Gras – a reflection of the class struggle that has raged from the post-Cédula genesis of modern Trinidad and that is still raging today. It is a discourse on the playing out of the contradiction between oppression and resistance, which is at the heart of West Indian history. A lot of grand claims for a humble instrument/movement created by a class of "downpressed" yet resilient survivors!

Out of the pain of slavery, indentureship, colonialism and imperialism and through continuing resistance to the causes of that pain, the working class in a tiny polyglot island in the Southern Caribbean created and shaped a culture central to which is this transcendent phenomenon called Pan - at once an instrument and a movement. The story of Pan, therefore, is a story of a movement of people up from forced labour, through colonialism and the false dawn of petty bourgeois nationalism toward genuine emancipation/human liberation.

The foundations of modern Trinidad were laid in 1777, when a moribund Spanish empire, unable to defend itself against the predations of the British in the Caribbean, moved to settle Trinidad (the gateway to South America) which had been a colonial backwater for three hundred years. Unlike the rest of the now Anglophone Caribbean which had already developed slave-based sugar-growing plantation societies, some for more than one hundred and fifty years, Trinidad had just a few hundred inhabitants who operated on the edge of the empire and had neither economic nor strategic value.

The Spanish governor of Trinidad Manuel Fálquez in May 1977, held discussions with Roume de St. Laurent, a French planter based in Grenada, about encouraging immigration of French planters and their slaves into Trinidad. These French planters in Grenada and other Francophone islands which had been ceded to the British in 1763 after the Seven Years War were eager to move to Trinidad to get away from the British and to benefit from virgin territory and more land than they planted in their "home" islands. By the middle of 1777, planters and slaves began to arrive in Trinidad. By 1779, 523 free settlers and 973 slaves had settled and received land grants, among them Maurice de La Peyrouse, whose name still lives in the La Peyrouse cemetery in Port of Spain. In November 1783, the Cédula de Población was officially promulgated.

At the heart of the Cédula were provisions for settling the land. Any Roman Catholic national of a state friendly to Spain, who came to Trinidad and took the oath of allegiance to Spain, would be entitled to free land. White males or females were entitled to a personal allotment of about 32 acres of land with an additional 16 acres for each slave imported. Free Blacks and free Coloured settlers were entitled to half the allotment of the Whites. Between 1783 and 1797 when the British captured Trinidad, mostly French speaking planters and their Patois (Kwéyol) speaking slaves poured into the island from the rest of the Caribbean, although there were also Corsicans (Cipriani), Spaniards, Irish and a motley crew of other Europeans, free Blacks and free coloureds.

It must be borne in mind that the French revolution broke out in 1789 and the Haitian revolution in 1791. The two are intimately connected. African slaves in the Caribbean were not averse to liberté and equalité. The titanic struggle of the Haitian people for freedom triggered fresh waves of immigration into Trinidad, agitated the slaves throughout the region and led to anarchy and chaos in the streets of Port of Spain as Republicans opposed Monarchists and spies and saboteurs infested the landscape. After the British conquest these were joined by Venezuelan revolutionaries, in particular Francisco de Miranda, who, with a wink and a nod from the British, used Trinidad as a base from which he attempted to overthrow Spanish colonialism in its Venezuelan version. Trinidad became a frontier society with contempt for authority and a tendency towards braggadocio and picaresque behaviour, characteristics which, some insist, it has since retained.

After the British conquest in 1797, Hislop and Monro, two military governors, continued the system of land grants, but on an ad hoc basis, because the Spanish Cédula had obviously lapsed. Of course, there was much corruption in land distribution. Englishmen, with or without slaves, received land. By 1812: settlements and estates were springing up in South, Naparima, Couva, Carapichaima, Caroni, Chaguanas, Savonnetta, Diego Martin, Arouca, Maraval, Carenage, St. Ann's, Laventille, San Juan, Santa Cruz, Maracas and other areas. Some recipients of land were free coloureds with no slaves or just one or two. The majority of free Blacks and coloureds were small holders, domestic servants or skilled artisans. There were also a few free coloureds who were owners of large plantations and many slaves, particularly in Naparima where by 1813, coloureds possessed 35% of the estates and 30% of the slaves.

In 1816, another thread was woven into the tapestry of Trinidad society when demobilised Africans who had served in the British army during the War of 1812 between the British and the Americans were settled in the Company villages in Moruga, Hardbargain and New Grant. These "Merikin" soldiers were slaves in the USA who were promised their freedom if they fought for the British. Each head of household was granted 16 acres. They did not speak Patois, were not Roman Catholic in religion, were proud of their free status and developed into a land owning free peasantry and eventually entered the civil service and the professions.

Later, demobilised soldiers of the West India regiments were settled in villages between Arouca and Manzanilla. These were largely West Africans who served in the British Imperial Army. They included a company of Muslim soldiers who settled in Manzanilla, built mosques and tried to keep their culture alive. Dr. Brinsley Samaroo, the Trinidadian historian has done extensive research on these Muslims. It seems that the Jamaat al Muslimeen had their spiritual ancestors in the nineteenth century.

Another tributary in the Trinidadian stream was former Mandingo slaves, who were manumitted and who, under the leadership of Jonas Bath, pooled their resources and bought the freedom of enslaved members of their group. By emancipation in 1838, they were involved in trade, money lending and agriculture. They owned cocoa estates and pre-emancipation they owned slaves and houses in Port of Spain.

From this account of the early settlement of Trinidad, it becomes clear that Trinidad was initially and largely settled by other West Indians. This pattern of immigration continued after Emancipation and throughout the nineteenth, twentieth and into the twenty first century. Another pattern that becomes clear is that not all people of African origin in Trinidad were slaves. Some were even slave owners, particularly those of mixed race, although the free coloureds at no time received more than five percent of the land grants. A third pattern that can be discerned is that racism was a foundation element in the settlement of the country viz discrimination in land grants.

Another group that settled in Trinidad during the nineteenth century were Venezuelan pyongs, largely of Afro/Amerindian extraction. They opened up the Northern valleys to cocoa cultivation on behalf of the Francophone plantocracy, planting and tending the cocoa trees until they matured and then they moved on. They brought Parang music to Trinidad and their music had a heavy influence on the Calypso music of the early twentieth century as can be heard in the music of the great Lionel Belasco. Brian Lara and Dwayne Bravo are descendants of this group.

After emancipation in the 1830's, there was a period of frenetic importation of labour to keep the plantation society alive. Small amounts of workers came in from Madeira and from China, although some Chinese came in 1806, but most of them died out. In the 1840's the planter class turned to India for labour. Interestingly they also imported labour from among Black Americans, from other West Indian islands and from West Africa. Many people do not know that there were indentured Africans in Trinidad. Many of them were sourced from non-British slave ships, Britain having abolished the slave trade in the early 1800's, mounted raids on other European and American slave ships and brought their human cargo to Trinidad as indentured servants.

But, as is well-known, the most successful immigration scheme was the importation of labour from India. Between 1845 and 1917 143,000 Indians came to Trinidad. Less than one in four returned to India. The descendants of this group have had a strong and growing impact on the social, economic, political and cultural topography of modern Trinidad.

It is surely not coincidental that in its relationship with the Indians, British colonialism contested as fiercely as with the Africans on the cultural front. Just as they attempted to suppress the Canboulay, the British expended much energy and resources in attempting to suppress the Hosay until the great massacre (the Muharram/Hosay) was perpetrated against the Indian masses in 1884. This story is as deserving of historical and literary analysis and elucidation as the story of the struggle of Canboulay to grow and prosper. It is also not co-incidental that at the heart of the unease with both the Canboulay and the Hosay was the question of the drum!

This cauldron of ethnicities, classes, languages and worldviews, in a situation of colonial oppression was the foundry within which the distinctive culture of Trinidad was forged (from the love of liberty).

The French brought their Mardi Gras to Trinidad. This was celebrated by the White and Coloured émigrés. Their carnival season began at Christmas when martial law was declared, grand masked balls took place, with the adoption of fictitious roles, masking in the streets etc. Interestingly, French planters often adopted the role of negre jardin or field slaves and French women adopted the role of coloured women, in the words of one commentator, "pretending that their husbands desired them as they did their mulatto mistresses." While the free coloureds suffered great discrimination at the hands of the British rulers they stood with the planters in expressing their Frenchness through the carnival which became a celebration of Catholic, Latin culture, an occasion steeped in sexual fantasy, a great bacchanal, when the illusion first arose that all ah we (White and Coloured "Frenchmen/women) is one.

Of course, the historical record does not elucidate, as well, the festival of the enslaved Africans. What is clear is that the traditional West African masking and festival making morphed under the conditions of plantation slavery into the Canboulay which was to dominate the carnival after emancipation until it was forced into retreat in the closing years of the nineteenth century when the Mardi Gras gained the ascendancy.

The Canboulay, after Emancipation ritualised the burning of the cane, what with the lighted torches, the "bands" of ex-slaves, the songs of defiance and rebellion, the stick fighting and at the heart of it all, the drumming.

The fear of the African drums by the slave owners throughout the Americas is well-established. The struggles of the planters and their colonial state to keep the ole niggers and the coolies in their place had as a central point of contestation the attempt to suppress, failing which the attempt to sanitise cultural expression at the core of which was the drum.

Throughout the nineteenth century the ruling classes attempted to control, suppress and clean up not only Canboulay but also Hosay. There were numerous attempts to stop Hosay through the use of the police and even British marines. It is certainly not coincidental that in the 1880's there were the Canboulay riots and also the Hosay massacre of 1884. The colonial government and the plantocracy understood the awesome power of cultural expression to invigorate and sustain the oppressed people of the Caribbean in their struggle for freedom and self-determination.

The nineteenth century is a tale of uprisings by the ex-slaves and as the century wore on increasingly by the plantation Indians. There were laws passed to restrict and strangle the festivals of Canboulay and Hosay, to ban the drums, to eliminate "obscenity" and "uncivilised behaviour" and the masses resisted. Over and over they had to wheel and come again in their struggle to suppress the Canboulay, because the carnival for the African masses came to represent their struggle against oppression and their capacity to carve out their own space.

After Emancipation the ex-slaves joined the carnival with such force that the ruling classes fled from the scene. By the 1840's, Canboulay was tacked on to Carnival with street parades beginning immediately after midnight on Carnival Sunday. There was a lot of ridicule aimed at the upper classes, including satire and parody. This obviously is the genesis of the ole mas as we know it. There were also bands that played out the experience of slavery. One spokesman for the upper classes described a carnival scene in 1858 thusly: "commencing with the orgies on Sunday night, we have the fearful howling of a parcel of semi-savages emerging God knows wherefrom, exhibiting hellish scenes and the most demoniacal representations of the days of slavery." The tone of the previous quotation conveys the loathing and fear that the ruling classes held for the people's mas'. Carnival was limited to two days and public masking was prohibited. Influential ruling class voices called for the banning of carnival altogether.

Attempts to interfere with the carnival were met with fierce resistance throughout the nineteenth century and from the 1840's to the 1880's, the jamettes, the underclass, the invisible slum dwellers gave the carnival their peculiar flavour and established much of the ritual we accept and act upon today. According to one commentator the carnival became dominated by "singers, drummers, dancers, stickmen, prostitutes, matadors, bad johns...makos and corner boys, that is to say, the jamette class." There was, according to cultural researcher and journalist Kim Johnson, "no question of gay abandon here...the anti-heroes of Western culture were celebrated, the Indians and robbers, devils and imps, vampires and irreverent and ribald sexuality, for example in the transvestite 'pissenlit' masque and the matadors 'habit of throwing open their bodices and exposing their beasts."

As far as the masses were concerned Carnival was certainly not about colour, but about claiming hegemony over the spaces where they could exercise whatever power they had carved out for themselves within the framework of a paradigm characterised by the whip, the jail and the warship.

According to the late J.D. Elder, the seminal Tobagonian anthropologist and tireless Carnival field researcher, "The White upper class...condemned the Africans (as pagans) for entering carnival, a Christian religious ceremony. On this basis cannes brûlées was deemed a savage pagan ceremony - in a Christian Catholic society. This to them was heresy for which Africans were persecuted cruelly for years."

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