A Brief History of Carnival in the Caribbean

Caribbean Carnival has mixed roots in African culture and Catholicism

Trinidad and Tobaga Carnival
••• Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago. Donald Michael Chambers/Getty Images

Once Christmas season is officially over in the Caribbean, it's time to dig out your dancing shoes and start thinking about Carnival, that hedonistic celebration that culminates on Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. (In the United States, that day and this celebration are known as Mardi Gras.)

If you are planning a trip to the Caribbean in February or March, when Fat Tuesday falls depending on the year, you can catch this raucous celebration that's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Trinidad, its original home, is the still the biggest and wildest party, but there are many other islands where you can experience Carnival, almost year-round.

Roots of Carnival

Carnival in the Caribbean has a complicated birthright: It's tied to colonialism, religious conversion, and ultimately freedom and celebration. The festival originated with Italian Catholics in Europe, and it later spread to the French and Spanish, who brought the pre-Lenten tradition with them when they settled (and brought slaves to) Trinidad, Dominica, Haiti, Martinique, and other Caribbean 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 say they believe the first "modern" Caribbean Carnival originated in Trinidad and Tobago in the late 18th century when a flood of French settlers brought the Fat Tuesday masquerade party 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 resulted in Carnival's transformation from an implanted European celebration to a more heterogeneous cultural froth that includes traditions from all ethnic groups contributing to the celebration. 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.

These three elements—dressing in masquerade, music, and dancing—remain central to Carnival celebrations. It happens at elaborate balls (the European tradition) and in the streets (the African tradition), with costumes, masks, feathers, headdresses, dancing, music, steel bands, and drums all part of the scene, along with raucous behavior

A Moving Tradition

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 now 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.  It's the same Carnival tradition but held at a different time.

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 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 visitors 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 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.