Decendents of the Caribbean Diaspora are located in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and countries that were previously colonial empires. The inhabited islands that are in the Caribbean are not only geographical regions, but also regions of the imagination, lived cultural experiences and are an interesting study in religious identity as well (Harry:2). ” Colonized by European powers from the sixteenth century, the Caribbean islands have become a mixture of cultures from Europe, Africa, and India, as well as from the original inhabitants of the islands.
Harry Goulbourne and John Solomos in there article “Ethnic and Racial Studies” says that the “History of the Caribbean has been shaped for a number of centuries now by the economic, social and cultural impact of movement of people across the Atlantic. ” Without the migration of individuals to the Caribbean, due to slavery, the making of the Caribbean world would be nonexistent (Harry:2). Emancipation is defined as the various efforts to obtain political rights or equality, often for specifically disfranchised groups.
Numerous countries and states have gone through this process during one period of time in their historic accounts. For the Caribbean Diaspora, this period was also a mark of re-development and re-establishment of economies and societies. Emancipation in the Caribbean was the catalyst for many positive steps in the future but also a setback in humanity with respect to human rights. In this paper one will examine the culture and religion of individuals in the Caribbean such as the Yoruba People and also will gain knowledge from personal family history in the islands of Trinidad and Tobago.
Throughout history, the system of slavery is primarily an institution based upon the labor of poor individuals who are forced into harsh working conditions while an elite few reap the benefits of the work of the larger masses. “African slavery in the Caribbean is a late development in the evolution of slavery in human society. ” However, for the Caribbean diaspora this all began in the seventeenth century when the European colonization of the Caribbean began to change drastically as exploration gave way to exploitation. With European colonizers looking for ways to fill their pockets, the Caribbean was stormed and eventually flooded with lavery.
With the introduction of this new oppression to the world, a major form of organized labor was created which changed the social organization radically in the Caribbean Diaspora (Klein:1). As the plantation system began to thrive and expand through the following centuries, the Caribbean became the focus of American slave centers. For instance, Thornton writes in his novel Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, that “More than half of all the Africans who were transported to the Americas in the eighteenth century went to the island colonies of the Caribbean (Thornton:317)”.
With this abundance of slaves arriving in the Caribbean, plantations developed laws to regulate the plantation system and the many slaves imported to work on the plantations. This legal control was the most oppressive for slaves inhabiting colonies where they outnumbered their European masters and where rebellion was persistent. During the early colonial period, rebellious slaves were harshly punished, with sentences including death by torture and less serious crimes such as assault, theft or persistent escape attempts were commonly punished with mutilations, such as the cutting off of a hand or a foot (Thornton:276).
Sadly, nothing could help these individuals during this time period because their voice of opinion was robbed from them once they were captured and forced into slavery. With high mortality rates, controlled lives, hard labor and poor nutrition in the Caribbean Diaspora, the African population slowly started to decrease and the rates of importation gradually started to increased. This paved a way towards the creation of new land and enterprises which in return increased the production of materials such as sugar and coffee beans.
Although, slaves were forced into a controlled environment and labor, their native language and culture was still close to their hearts. As Thornton writes, “Whatever the brutalities of the Middle passage or slave life, it was not going to cause the African-born to forget their mother language or change their ideas about beauty in design or music: nor would it cause them to abandon the ideological underpinnings of religion or ethics – not on arrival in America, not ever in their lives. ”
With this mother language, culture and religion not forgotten, slaves developed a way of communicating mongst each other and also grasped the “American way” when speaking to their masters (Thornton:317-320). Also, by keeping the memories and traditional ways of their people, Africans were able to pass their knowledge and history of their people down to the next generation which would eventually bring to life the monstrosities that really occurred during this time period. While some may deny it, slavery and the impact it had on the world is still with us today in movies, books, poetry, songs, articles, and even in the minds of the people that had experienced it firsthand.
However, although countless individuals came to America as slaves, there are also those who entered this soil via immigration. During the late eighteenth century and early to mid-nineteenth century, a mass exodus of people coming from Europe, China, Japan, Canada and the West Indies moved into the United States (Harney). This was a time for growth in the United States, often referred to as the Industrial Age. This time period was an exciting period because of the fact that there is another revolution going on in the workplace. As technology started to change and bloom, everything around it started to transform and more jobs were created.
As a result, the Industrial Revolution affected the whole stability of a nation, not only the economy. It affected the relationships between classes, and also the relationships between countries and gave those individuals who migrated over to the United States a chance at a prosperous life without slavery. With many Africans migrating to the United States there were those who decided to go back to the Caribbean and continue their traditional cultural ways. In the late eighteenth century, written reports discovered a cultural tradition of masking by Africans in various parts of the Caribbean: Belize, Bermuda, Haiti, Jamaica, the Bahamas, St. Kitts, Nevis, Guyana, Grenada, and Trinidad.
These masking activities were called by several names like gumbe, jonkonu, or kambula, however today it is referred to as Carnival. Carnival is an annual celebration of life found in many countries of the world and is an integral part of West African religious culture, intimately connected with secret societies that were gender specific (Lewis:180). Growing up in a family that celebrates this specific tradition, the history of how it began is very familiar to me from family stories and also by traveled experiences.
This tradition “Carnival” came from hundreds of years ago when the followers of the Catholic religion in Italy began holding a wild costume festival right before the first day of Lent. Because Catholics are not supposed to eat meat during Lent, they called their festival, carnevale which means “to put away the meat. ” As time passed, Carnivals in Italy became quite famous and in fact the practice spread to France, Spain, and all the Catholic countries in Europe. Then as the French, Spanish, and Portuguese began to take control of the Americas and other parts of the world, they brought with them their tradition of celebrating Carnival.
The dynamic economic and political histories of the Caribbean are indeed the ingredients of festival arts as we find them today throughout the African and Caribbean Diaspora (Liverpool). Trinidad and Tobago is a beautiful example of how the tradition of Carnival can unite the world. For in this small nation, the beliefs and customs of many cultures come together and for a brief five days the whole country forgets their differences to celebrate life! For African people, Carnival became a way to express their power as individuals, as well as their rich cultural traditions.
Today, Carnival in Trinidad intertwines the many immigrants who have come from different parts of the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, India, and China. For my family in particular, Carnival is not just an event that happens every year; it is actually a business that has been in my family for decades. Carnival was introduced to Trinidad around 1785, as the French settlers began to arrive. The tradition caught on quickly, and fancy balls were held where the wealthy planters put on masks, wigs, and beautiful dresses and danced long into the night (Liverpool:127).
The use of masks had a special meaning for the slaves in there West African culture, because for many African peoples, masking is widely used in their rituals for the dead and also connected them with secret gender-specific societies (Lewis:180). Obviously banned from the masked balls of the French, the slaves would hold their own little Carnival in their backyards using their own rituals and folklore, but also imitating their masters’ behavior at the masked balls (Regis:231).
For African people, Carnival became a way to express their power as individuals, as well as heir rich cultural traditions. After 1838 when slavery was abolished, the freed Africans began to host their own Carnival celebrations in the streets that grew more and more elaborate, and soon became more popular than the balls (Liverpool). Today, traditional Trinidad Carnival has been a product of both African and European masking legacies. For me personally, Carnival in Trinidad is like a mirror that reflects the faces the many immigrants who have come to this island nation and is the uniqueness of their cultural re/creations all over the Caribbean Diaspora (Lewis:184).
Ever since I was a young girl my Grandfather would tell me of stories on how he would make costumes for Carnival and how he was very popular in Trinidad. In order to put a carnival band together, it takes many weeks of welding, sewing, gluing, applying feathers, sequins, foil papers, glitter and lots of creativity, energy, and patience. With individual experience, it takes a lot of time and effort in order to make what you envisioned comes to life. Costumes are sewn, decorated, and fitted to each individual dancer.
All this creative activity takes place in what are referred to in the Caribbean as “mas camps,” where teamwork and organization are crucial to creating an award-winning production. For my Grandfather being a “Band Leader”, costume designer and leader of the people that wear his costumes, means the world to him. It was and still is a form of expressing his cultural tradition in ways that you can only see in his drawings. My Grandfather is a homegrown Trinidadian mas’ man from Woodbrook, Port-Of- Spain in Trinidad and Tobago.
His love for the artistry involved in making costumes derives itself from his days as a young child coming home from school and stopping in the Silver Stars mas’ camp. While all his friends listened to pan, he would watch his cousin create and construct costumes. As he began to get older, he began to draw and create costumes of his own. When asking him about his younger days he said, “I just couldn’t help myself… growing up in a third world country forces you to do whatever you had to do in order to make money and put food on the table.
Even though, I had many jobs at the young age of eleven, I made my first costume and was given permission to play with Silver Stars. From that day forward, I began to teach myself the history and craftsmanship of Carnival and decided to give it a try! ” Listening to this story not only inspired me but also taught me a valuable lesson in cherishing what I have in life because there are those out there that have much less. In addition, I also learned that not only did my Grandfather make his first costume at the age of eleven; through hard work and dedication he then brought his first band in 1978 called “Planet of the Apes”.
This band shocked spectators, masqueraders, and judges. I asked him what inspired him to create such a thing and he said, “Franklin J. Schaffner’s Science fiction film based on the novel La planete des singes…. it is like the recent movie Planet of the Apes, however instead of taking over the world, the masqueraders assumed the dominant role and flooded the streets of Trinidad. ” I laughed at this creation because I found it to be so “Halloween like”.
However, when thinking about it, to individuals back then this was a spectacular sight, a fantastic portrayal of this fiction film and a great first impression in the world of mas’ creativity during that Carnival season. Although my Grandfather enjoyed seeing his first creation come to life this was just the beginning in his success. Some of his other presentations include; “This Land is Ours”, “Travels of Marco Polo”, “Bush Medicine”, “Touch of Class”, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, “Harim”, “Island Fun”, “War Cry”, “Paint Box” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” to name a few.
With his name increasing in fame throughout the years, he also met some lifelong friends and teachers, one being Peter Minshall. Peter Minshall is one of the most incredible artists working today in Trinidad. He is acclaimed internationally as the foremost artist working in the field of “dancing mobiles,” a form of performance art that combines the three-dimensional quality of large-scale sculpture with the dramatic and choreographic expressiveness of a live human performer.
My Grandfather told me that the reason that Minshall started to work in that field was because, “The dancing mobile was one of many forms to grow out of the masquerade tradition of Trinidad Carnival and if he is the only one taking it on then there is no competition and with no competition means more awards. ” However, even when my Grandfather did not receive awards for his masterpieces, they are still remembered today as the pieces of art that influenced Carnival today. After listening to him recall past memories of his glory days I asked him why he retired in 1991.
He then replied, “I had a family and wanted them to have a better life than living here in Trinidad. So I decided to move to the United States and started to create a life here, where I still live today. ” Hearing that reply almost brought me to tears, with the love of his family and the determination to provide a better life for them he made the biggest jump of his life. He first moved to New York where he had three jobs which were a taxi driver, a police man and a photographer.
It was a difficult task having all of these jobs and taking care of your family however as he would say it, “Nothing is too much, you just have organize your time. Being an immigrant in the United States was a tough challenge for him however, with the experience of the Carnival business on his shoulders he was ready to accomplish anything. Not only did he buy a house, he sent all five of his daughters to a private catholic school where they received the best education that his money could buy. Now, forty six years later my family still owns the house that he bought when he first moved to the United States and he just came out of retirement in the Carnival business.
I remember entering his room and wondering why his old Carnival drawings were are all over the bed. In confusion I asked him what he was doing and he replied, “I’m coming out of retirement, I am on a crusade to bring back the traditional culture of mas’ making techniques in Trinidad Carnival with a modern touch. With a little hard work I believe that I can reclaim my position and also win the people of Trinidad with my new costume designs. ” This taught me that even though you might give up your passion, you can always pick it up and start it again.
As of today, my Grandfather has created three bands called “Aloha”, “Valleys of the Nile” and “D’ Mayan empire” which will be reveled in Carnival 2013. Each year as I travel to Trinidad to experience this cultural festival I am always reminded by the history in which it originated from and the many that did not see the light of freedom. To visitors it seems to be five days of partying however, to my family it is a time to appreciate our Catholic faith and also a time to celebrate our cultural independence with the other decedents of different African heritages.