History and Culture in Trinidad and Tobago


The better part of this morning was spent packing for a long weekend in Trinidad, the island we have heard much about and seen little of. I only packed absolute necessities, knowing my itinerary allowed me to pack an outfit for each day’s activity and no more. I also packed some skincare and hygiene essentials but left makeup, jewelry, and shower products at our guest house in Tobago.

We arrived at the airport at 10:15 and checked in for our flight which left at 1:15. Upon arrival, we ate lunch in the local food court. I had two doubles from the place nearest the airport on the far left of the u-shape of restaurants. It was $12TT total, and there’s cold water at a fountain in the plaza. I would strongly recommend only getting pepper sauce if you’re the type of person that likes to feel like your tongue is on fire. I tried a bite with some and immediately broke into a sweat, and I consider myself someone that can handle a fair amount of spice. Doubles are an Indian dish with a doughy flatbread somewhat like a thick tortilla with curried chickpeas filling. As with most East-Indian dishes, expect to get your hands dirty. You eat this dish by tearing off pieces of the bread and pushing the filling onto it and eating it bite by bite this way. It tastes delicious, savory, and the pepper sauce gives a bite that is cut by the bread.

We drove from the airport to Pax Guesthouse, about thirty minutes from the airport and fifteen from Port of Spain. I’ve learned that this guesthouse was a British monastery built in the 1800s, named Pax for peace. The guesthouse has beautiful views from every angle, tons of hidden patios and sitting rooms, and every room is furnished with a comfortable bed, desk, armoire, and a sink. As this is a guesthouse most of the rooms share a communal bathroom for each floor. There are rooms with private bathrooms for a slight extra cost. The rooms are about $900TT a night though it will be cheaper if you call directly rather than booking through Expedia. Prices are raised for Carnival at all residences. The guesthouse is central to Port of Spain, the capital where events like Carnival take place, and the airport, as well as access to transportation that will get you anywhere else on the island. It also has a hike of about a mile from the guesthouse to a church built around the same time and boasts gorgeous panoramic views of the city below and the rainforest that it rests between.

We had a dance rehearsal for our performance tomorrow and then dinner at the guesthouse which was a pork stew with side salad, split pea soup, and veggies on the side. It was absolutely delicious but was more similar to American food than local cuisine. Breakfast is included, dinner is a slight extra cost. While dinner was delicious I always advocate trying local cuisine.

Following that, we had a brief history class about Trinidad and Tobago in order to inform our understanding of the country and the relationship between the islands. The islands boast a diverse population influenced heavily by colonialism. The first peoples, called the Amarindians for all of the many tribes that settled here, came from what is now Venezuela across the difficult 10-mile passage. According to the Fort King George museum, this passage is the stuff of literal legend, the Warao tribe told the tale of “the Serpent’s Mouth:” according to legend the passage is inhabited by the “Snake of Being,” a giant serpent which consumes anyone who dares try and navigate the sea. They called Trinidad ‘lere’ for ‘the island.’ It did not mean ‘land of the hummingbird’ as some (including Google) claim, though there are many species of hummingbirds here. (Side note: Pax guesthouse has hummingbird feeders on several balconies and terraces that draw the hummingbirds from the rainforest.)

The first invaders were the Spanish in 1498, it was at this time that Colombus named the island Trinidad after the Holy Trinity because he saw three mountains from the sea that he believed were the father, the son, and the holy spirit beckoning to him. The Spanish didn’t develop or colonize the land, only on the search for El Dorado, the city of gold. It was nearly half a century before any colonizers would attempt to settle on the island. Eventually, French plantation owners from nearby Caribbean islands were invited to settle and granted land based on the number of Sub-Saharan African slaves they brought to work the plantations. This was the first introduction of Africans and of French to the population on the island. The French were welcomed under a secular agreement in which they were governed by the Spanish and had to identify and ‘seem to be’ Roman Catholic. The slaves, of course, saw none of this wealth.

With the French came French language, dancing, and culture. The masquerade balls held by the French were witnessed by the slaves that worked within the house and imitated in the barracks, where no language was shared between the slaves as a consequence of colonial efforts to isolate and confuse, but this mimicry of the flirtatious French dancing met traditional African movements. Belle and pique are two of the kinds of dance that cropped up from this. It was through this that a new kind of dance and celebration was created, what would eventually become Carnival.

The British soon arrived on the scene in the 1790s, as can be said with most countries, and when the British fleet arrived the Spanish governor, Chacon, set fire to the entire Spanish fleet present at Trinidad and Tobago in surrender. It was a very nonviolent overturning of power from the Spanish to the British.

By this point, it was a British colony, with a French-speaking population, and Spanish laws.

The British began developing more of the land for a variety of crops including sugar and cacao and brought more slaves via the Atlantic Slave Trade to work on this land. They also put in place more rules and structure, establishing a capital, a government, and laws over all of the people now inhabiting the island, both free and enslaved. This was met with deep protestation and there were riots and uprisings by the enslaved.

The slaves were emancipated in 1894 but didn’t gain freedom until 1898. They were forced into ‘apprenticeships’ to learn how to be free before they were granted their freedom, these ‘apprenticeships’ were of course just another way of saying slave labor. Following emancipation, the free blacks were able to demand high wages because they were the only labor on the island. The response was to search for other laborers. The first laborers to be brought were Chinese, but this labor-force wasn’t efficient enough in the climate and so other laborers were brought in. The Chinese were able to establish businesses and began fishing. The new labor force was East Indians, who were brought as indentured servants and had the option to stay after their indentured servitude or go back to India. As many came from lower castes originally many chose to stay and changed their names.

The country gained independence in 1962 and since then has had immigrants from many nearby countries including Venezuela during their economic crisis. It is due to this mixing of many populations that Trinidad and Tobago have their rich culture of music and dance that makes them so unique compared to many nearby countries and the rest of the world.

The original masking celebration that would eventually become carnival was in celebration of the burning of the cane, which is what is done just prior to harvesting sugar cane. The British and the religious sects deemed this celebration unholy, wrong, and evil and attempted to abolish cultural practices. Some of these cultural practices include stickfighting, a form of African martial arts or sword fighting that ends when an opponent has drawn blood and is still practiced in competitions today. Another tradition that they attempted to abolish was steelpan drum playing. Both of these traditions survived the colonial ideas that attempted to quash them.

Pre-carnival was the celebration the French had before Ash Wednesday and lent and it is what inspired Carnival today. It was ‘elite’ and, as with many things, the enslaved were not allowed to participate. In Carnival today, anyone can be anything, so long as you buy or make a costume. Carnival Monday was a time to display the life that you are living or the life that has been forced upon you. There are characterizations of devils and a myriad of other characters. These characters represent a protest against the indignity and humiliation forced upon the enslaved for centuries. Some of the characters include: the pis-en-lit, a woman dressed in an old, dirty nightgown holding a chamberpot with puncheon and something made to look like feces and she drinks from the chamberpot. There are characters who drag chains, and others dressed as Jabjab (the French word for devil) wielding a whip. There is the Jab Malasi (devil of molasses) inspired by the horrors of slaves being dipped in boiling molasses as a punishment and so out of molasses they rise, this is characterized by a person drenched in molasses walking up and down the streets. There are also characters from post-colonialism, such as during WWI and WWII young girls were sometimes raped and sometimes prostituted themselves and so someone dressed as a young girl walks up and down the street holding a white baby and asking where the father is. The Dame Lorraine is a comical exaggeration, stuffing the bosom and bottom and shaking them in peoples faces. These characters used to be common during the mass parade on Carnival Monday but now are only kept alive through the competitions to embody these characters. Carnival is taking on new frontiers, with some costumes being Brazilian inspired with feathers and beads. What is different about Brazilian Carnival is that only members of dance troupes are allowed to participate, whereas in Trinidad and Tobago it is a unifying experience and anyone can join.

Calypso is the music of the people, and it tells the history of the people as it is happening. There are calypsos about prostitution during WWII, calypsos about politics, and Sokas (a kind of calypso with an upbeat tempo and a catchy vibe) about everything from social media to cheating to love.

All of this is a unification of the people, through their resilience and the culture that they created. People take their culture with them, they bear it as much a part of them as the skin on their backs.

Carnival Monday and Tuesday always takes place prior to Ash Wednesday, and in Tobago, the party goes for the entire week. The main stage for Carnival is in Port of Spain with a close second in San Fernando.

Following class we went to watch the local steel pan band, Exodus, practice for their performance in the pan competition at Carnival. This is a free activity, open to the public, and well worth a few minutes of your time. They were superb and incredibly impressive. Each band that plays in the competition is from a local area and unifies the local community both by engaging members of the band in art and by drawing support from the community. There is no age discrimination and the band that we saw had a girl as young as eight playing in the band. The band can consist of up to 100 people and one person can be playing up to twelve drums. The ‘engine room’ is located near the center and back of the group and they are who keeps the tempo and energy, this is also where the conductor, if there is one, will be located. Watching the musicians was fascinating, they dance as if the beat is in their bones, looking akin to a wave or a shadow as they move over their drums.

#Vacation #Travel #TrinidadTobago #Trinidad #studyaway #StudyAbroad #Lutesaway #History #Culture #SteelPan #Carnival #Colonialization #Doubles #PaxGuesthouse #Flying

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