A Brief History of Carnival in the Caribbean

Caribbean Carnival has mixed roots in African culture, Christianity and slavery.

••• Clown costumes at the St. Kitts National Carnival. © St. Kitts Tourism Authority

Once Christmas season is officially over in the Caribbean, it's time to dig out your dancing shoes and start thinking about Carnival.

Carnival in the Caribbean has a complicated birthright, tied as it is to colonialism, religious conversion, and ultimately freedom and celebration. The festival originated with Italian Catholics in Europe, later spreading to the French and Spanish, who brought the pre-Lenten tradition when they settled (and brought slaves to) Trinidad, Dominica, Haiti, Martinique, and other islands.

The word Carnival itself is thought to mean "farewell to meat" or "farewell to flesh," the former referencing the Catholic practice of abstaining from red meat from Ash Wednesday until Easter. The latter explanation, while possibly apocryphal, is said to be emblematic of the sensuous abandon that came to define the Caribbean celebration of the holiday.

Historians believe the first "modern" Caribbean Carnival to have originated in Trinidad and Tobago in the late 18th century, as a flood of French emigres brought the Masquerade tradition with them to the island, although Fat Tuesday celebrations were almost certainly taking place at least a century before that.

By the beginning of the 18th century there were already a large number of free blacks in Trinidad mixed with French immigrants, earlier Spanish settlers, and British nationals (the island came under British control in 1797). This allowed for Carnival to transform from an implanted European celebration to a more heterogenous cultural froth.

With the end of slavery in 1834, the now completely free populace could outwardly celebrate their native culture and their emancipation through dress, music, and dancing.

From Trinidad and Tobago, Carnival spread to many other islands, where the tradition fused with unique local cultures – salsa showcases on Antigua, for instance, and calypso in Dominica.

Some celebrations have moved off the Easter calendar and are celebrated in the late spring or summer.

In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, there is Vincy Mas – a carnival initially held in the days before Lent, but moved to a summer celebration. Vincy Mas includes street festivals, calypso and steel drum performances, and most famously, Mardi Gras and J'Ouvert street parties and parades. 

In Martinique, travelers can check out Martinique Carnival, which takes place in the days leading up to Lent and consists of both local and tourist carnival events. Particular to Martinique is the "King Carnival" celebration on Ash Wednesday that includes a massive bonfire in which "King Vaval," the "king of Carnival" is made out of reeds, wood, and other burnable material and then burned as an effigy in celebration. 

In Haiti, locals and tourists alike can celebrate "Haitian Defile Kanaval," one of the larger carnivals in the Caribbean islands that extends across multiple Haitian cities. This carnival celebration takes its Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, celebrations seriously, with feasts, costumes, music, and all kinds of frenzied fun. 

In the Cayman Islands, Batabano, one of the youngest carnival celebrations in the Caribbean, is a popular May event that celebrates African history in the Caribbean, as well as the success of the present and future Cayman Islanders.

"Batabano," interestingly, is a nod to the tracks that local sea turtles leave in the sand when they move from their nests to the beach – a term some speculate was chosen to represent the growth of the Cayman Islands over generations. 

If you want to plan a trip to Carnival, the original destination, Trinidad, is the still the biggest and wildest party, but there are many other islands where you can experience Carnival -- almost year-round!

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