The admirals: George Harding & Jason Griffith

"Diamond Jim" Harding and Jason Griffith: The kings of fancy sailor mas reigned over their surreal genre for 60 years

  • Fancy sailors on stage at the Savannah. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Jason Griffith in the late 1980s. Photograph courtesy Jason Griffith
  • "Diamond Jim" Harding in the early 1990s. Photograph by Jason Griffith

George “Diamond Jim” Harding, 1915–1999 & Jason Griffith, born 1927

Traditional sailor mas dates back to the late 19th century, when British and American warships paid regular visits to Trinidad, and crewmen on shore leave were a common sight in Port of Spain. Later, around the time of the Second World War, its popularity was boosted by the large American naval presence.

The original mas was a realistic portrayal of these sailors ashore, complete with rolling gait, smoking pipe, and a lady on the arm. The famous sailor dance mimicked the movement of drunk, rowdy crewmen. Uniforms were white, shirts stiffly starched, and caps tilted by gloved hands. This traditional sailor costume slowly embraced other characters on a naval theme, such as the fancy sailor.

George Harding of Belmont, fondly known as Diamond Jim, was the unofficial king of sailor mas. He would laugh off such a title if he were still alive, but it was Harding who pioneered the fancy sailor genre, transforming what had been a straightforward parody into an exercise in surrealism.

As the story goes, it was not long before Carnival 1935.

On his way home with a recently purchased face mask in hand, Harding noticed the long, pointed cones displayed by an unsuspecting ice-cream vendor. Inspiration flashed. He went straight home to sketch. The original fancy sailor, with a comic, pointy-nosed mask, had been invented.

The new headpiece was a hilarious sight, and provided a good disguise for sailors wielding their trademark talcum powder (which they threw on hapless spectators — hence the saying “you can’t play mas and ’fraid powder”). But the fancy sailor headpiece evolved rapidly. In 1937, to celebrate Edward VIII’s accession to the British throne, Harding’s band, USS Mischievous, wore elaborate crown-shaped constructions. Merino cloth stretched over a wire frame could be made to represent almost anything, and soon the sailors were competing with ever more fanciful designs, from swans to fish to airplanes to elephants, lending the mas a surreal touch. From realistic naval uniforms, the fancy sailor costumes evolved into flamboyantly adorned suits festooned with swansdown, sequins, foil, tinsel, bottle caps, mirrors, and medals.

The Belmont community became known as fancy sailor headquarters. As the years went by, some of Harding’s masqueraders set sail with their own bands, competing against their former admiral. Each year’s theme was a closely guarded secret. “We even begged our helpers to brush themselves before they left the camp,” Harding recalled years later, “for fear a piece of swansdown would give away our theme.”

Harding’s creative heir, Jason Griffith, was one of those early helpers. “As a boy, I used to run away to go and see him make mas,” says Griffith of Harding. “Naturally, the first mas I ever played was with his band.”

By 1949, Griffith was ready to launch his own sailor band, USS Sullivan. In following years, he joined forces with the famous “Big Six”, Belmont’s leading individual fancy sailors, helping them perfect their Carnival presentations. In 1969, fancy sailor mas experienced a major revival, when Griffith launched Old Fashioned Sailors, adhering to the style of playful absurdity made famous by Harding, yet pushing the genre forward with themes that the original USS Mischievous could never have conceived of. In 1984, with Extra Terrestrial Voyage, Griffith sent the fancy sailor off the planet altogether — complete with “Plutonians”, “Androids”, and a portrayal of Darth Vader. “So they’re moving out into space,” mused Harding, by then retired. “I like it.”

Still firmly rooted in Belmont, fancy sailor mas is one of the few traditional Carnival genres to have retained its popularity, delighting spectators with its weird, wonderful exuberance. “At its zenith,” Peter Minshall once declared, “It is one of the most surreal indigenous expressions ever to come from this island . . . You can take the finest costumes that Picasso ever designed, and you can put a fancy sailor next to it, and say, that’s just as good!”

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