The story of Trinidad Carnival is really many stories, and there’s no end of ways to tell them.
There is the story of the 18th-century French planters who introduced masked pre-Lenten balls to the island, and of the African slaves who parodied their masters’ revels in song and dance. There is the story of the celebrations that broke out at the end of slavery in 1838, spontaneous assertions of freedom that worried the upper classes in their grand houses. Every year, these celebrations were recreated with noisy disorder, more than a hint of the subversive, and, occasionally, violence; later in the 19th century, confrontations with the police (culminating in the infamous Canboulay Riots of 1881) and furious press campaigns almost led to a complete cancellation of the annual Carnival festivities.
But most revellers channelled their energy into creativity: characters like the bat, the pierrot grenade, the midnight robber, and the devil — many of them deliberately mocking or threatening — evolved from the early parodies, informed by ancestral memories of rituals and rhythms that survived forced removal from Africa. Alongside these characters, “pretty mas” — the masquerade of attractive, colourful costumes — also thrived. Around the turn of the century, the first prizes for costumed bands were sponsored by the merchants of Port of Spain, and the festival slowly grew more respectable.
The Victory Carnival of 1919, celebrating the end of the First World War, was the first to include a competition at the Queen’s Park Savannah, which was to become Carnival’s centre stage. In the 1920s and 30s the first bands designed on historical and biblical themes appeared, with names like Good Samaritans, Philistine Warriors, and Sultans of Jerusalem. With their lavish costumes and attempts to present a truly theatrical event, they were precursors of the work of legends like George Bailey and Harold Saldenah.
Yet during these years Carnival remained a divided phenomenon. While thousands of masqueraders took over the streets of Port of Spain, the upper classes continued to enjoy elaborate costume balls at private homes and at the Trinidad Country Club. When they ventured out on Carnival Monday and Tuesday it was in decorated lorries, from which Trinidad’s elite, dressed as Arthurian or Elizabethan courtiers, waved down at the crowds.
Between 1941 and 1945, at the height of the Second World War, Carnival was suspended. When the festival finally returned, things had changed. Masks, banned during the war, had mostly disappeared; the numbers of spectators and revellers had increased; and costumes inspired by tales from history and literature were more ambitious than ever. One man in particular, Wilfred Strasser, created some of the most vivid masquerades in the history of Carnival, astonishing in their artistry. His Statue of Lord Harris (1947) and One Penny (1948) are still talked about by people fortunate enough to have seen them.
But the most significant change in these years was the integration of the lighter-skinned mas of the Country Club with the darker-skinned mas of the streets, as the island’s always-fluid colour lines shifted and faded. In Trinidad, as in the rest of the world, the war had wrought major social changes. A spirit of nationalism was in the air — these were the years leading to self-government and independence. Boundaries of class and race grew subtler and more complex.
The “freeness” of Carnival had always included the transgression of these boundaries — French aristocrats dressed as negres jardins (“black gardeners”), Afro-Creoles satirising society ladies in the guise of the voluptuous, petticoated Dame Lorraine. Now, in the 1950s and early 60s, as the masquerade of the streets grew more artistically ambitious — and as Carnival came to be seen as an essential component of national heritage — the Country Club revellers strayed from the confines of their private pageants, swelling the size of the pretty mas.
The introduction of an official band of the year competition in 1955 stimulated the creativity of the new breed of Carnival designers. Traditional crafts like copper work and wire-bending were supplemented by experiments in fibreglass and plastic moulding; fabric, feathers, and sequins were imported in vast quantities to supply the mas camps where thousands of costumes were assembled.
This was a new Carnival for a new era. A golden age of pretty mas, unprecedented for colour and creativity and sheer spectacle, had begun in the early 1950s, lasting till the late 1980s. Like every new age, this one had its heroes, and in the first rank were the designers whose imagination brought Roman centurions, Zulu warriors, and Chinese dragons to the streets of Port of Spain, brought the constellations of the zodiac down to earth, and sent fancy sailors into space.
The story that unfolds in the following pages is the composite story of 13 of these golden age designers. Many other talents, deserving of credit and celebration, are not included; the full story of Carnival design could never fit in the pages of a single magazine. But these 13 are all indisputable masters of the mas, responsible for the look and feel and scale and movement of modern Carnival. Their collective story of artistic evolution is also a story about Trinidad and its changing identity, about where we were, where we are, and how we moved between the two. A story that does not yet have an ending.
Meet the artists
- The historian: Harold Saldenah, 1925–1985
- The monarch: George Bailey, 1935–1970
- The copper man: Ken Morris, 1924–1992
- The king-maker: Cito Velasquez, born 1929
- The man of the people: Irvin McWilliams, born 1920
- The admirals: George “Diamond Jim” Harding, 1915–1999; Jason Griffith, born 1927
- The fun-lovers: Edmond Hart, born 1923, and Lil Hart, 1930–1991
- The artist: Carlisle Chang, 1921–2001
- The globetrotter: Stephen Derek, born 1952
- The showman: Wayne Berkeley, born 1940
- The dramatist: Peter Minshall, born 1941
- Bikinis, beads, braids: Epilogue & Credits