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Tobago Carnival

Carnival in Tobago
By: Gideon Maxime
Source: Unmasked: The History and Traditions of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival
NCBA Magazine
Publication 2009

Carnival in Tobago has always been different in scope and design to the Carnival of Trinidad. The island’s history of colonization and development has been the main reason for this difference.Tobago was unified with Trinidad in 1889 and by this time Tobago had already developed an identity of its own.

The role of the churches particularly the Anglicans, Moravians and Methodists played a major role in the development of the Tobago society These religious groups developed close relationships with the slaves as they conducted the only social services available to the labour on the plantations. Beyond their social duties to the slaves, the missionaries in Tobago were actively involved in the religious conversion of the freed slaves. The Anglicans, Methodists and Moravians established Sunday Schools and taught religious knowledge in the late 1880s. So unlike Trinidad, the Roman Catholic Church in Tobago was not active and therefore, the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church including Carnival were also absent up until the early 1900s.

There are records in the National Archives that show from 1903 there were only small tokens of Carnival bands in the capital Scarborough. This was soon changed by the end of World War I when many Tobagonians returned to the Island from Trinidad bringing with them the expressions of Carnival.

Beyond 1919, Carnival in Tobago became more recognizable as there emerged, for the first time, disguised bands of Indians, Bats and Stickmen.

The Carnival on the streets during the 1920s saw masqueraders entertaining the various estate and business owners in exchange for food and drink. This period also gave rise to calypso competitions and early calypso tents emerged built modestly with thatched coconut branches and lanterns.

The Carnival movement in Tobago, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s, declined and not surprisingly during the Second World War. This was, however, short-lived with the return of the Tobagonians who worked with the Armed Forces of the U.S.A.

Carnival in Tobago took on a new life at the end of the World War II. In the early 1960s, Shaw Park was the scene of many shows. In 1962, there was a Queen of the Bands competition and calypso contest. Miss Isa Yeates portrayed Cleopatra from the band Alexander the Great which won that year’s competition for Queen of the Bands.

However, it was observed as early as 1967 that there was a heavy influx of Tobagonians leaving to go to Port-of-Spain for Carnival. The Carnival Development Committee in Tobago organized a mammoth programme of celebrations in order to keep Tobagonians in Tobago. The Committee felt that this would curb the exodus to Trinidad. At this time the Carnival Development Committee was headed by Mr. Basil Pitt.

The J’Ouvert celebrations that year had more than 6000 persons on the Streets. The Jaycees created history on the Island when they staged their bomb contest for the steelbands.

Over the years there have been many Mas-men who have contributed to the Tobago Carnival. They include Wilton Nancis, Lionel Hazel, Curtis Brooks, Alston Henry, Louisa Clarke, Ashworth Hazel, Norma Young, Albert Powder and Vernon James.

With respect to Calypso, Tobago has produced many singers who have made their mark internationally. They include Calypso Rose, Lord Nelson and Tobago Caruso. But others such as Johnny King, Axe Back, Michael Baker, Shadow, Tigress and the late Lady B, have all made outstanding contributions to this art-form.

But overall in comparison to Trinidad, Carnival in Tobago is not the islands’ foremost cultural extravaganza.

Instead, the Heritage Festival which begins during the second week in July and ends on Emancipation Day each year, showcases the true culture of the people of this sister-isle.