The Carnival of the Underworld – Trinidad’s Jamette Carnival

The celebration of Carnival is synonymous with the twin island state of Trinidad and Tobago. This festival which was introduced by French settlers in 1783 has a long and unique history as it has been marked by various eras including that of the notorious Jamette Carnival. The era of the Jamette Carnival was characterised by the cannes brulees, sexual displays and violent gang rivalry. Hollis Liverpool noted that the Jamette Carnival served a particular purpose as, “… it reflected the violence of a society that was directed against the lower classes, back upon the upper classes and sought through its masquerades and calypsos to destroy the political power and economic position of the middle and upper classes.” Today we will be delving into the history of the Jamette Carnival of the 1860s to 1890s.

The word “Jamette” comes from the French word “diametre” and this referred to the class of people below the diameter of respectability or the underworld.  Essentially, this referred to the individuals who were part of the urban working class who lived in the barrack ranges of Port of Spain. In a broader context it also included all those who participated in Carnival celebrations. A description of the Jamettes can be found in The San Fernando Gazette of 1871,

“… hordes of men and women, youthful in years but mature in every vice that perverts and degrades humanity, who dwell together in all the rude licentiousness of barbarian life: men without aim, without occupation and without any recognised mode of existence – women, wanton, perverse and depraved beyond expression.”    

These individuals however, were to be the main participants in Carnival by the 1860s as the white elite removed themselves from the celebrations. Even though they removed themselves from these celebrations this did not mean that they did not object to what became known as the Jamette Carnival.

A significant feature of the Jamette Carnival was the cannes brulees procession. The genesis of this aspect of the Carnival could be traced back to the days of slavery. L. M Fraser noted this and gives this explanation,

 “…whenever fire broke out upon an estate, the slaves on the surrounding properties were immediately mustered and marched to the spot, horns and shells were blown to collect them and the gangs were followed by the drivers cracking their whips and urging with cries and blows to their work. After Emancipation the negroes began to represent this scene as a kind of commemoration of the change in their condition, and the procession of the ‘cannes brulees’ used to take place on the night of the 1st of August, the date of their emancipation….After a time the day was changed and for many years past the Carnival days have been inaugurated by the ‘cannes brulees”

Objections to the cannes brulees procession was rampant by the white elite. They gave reasons such as, the obscenity of the songs sung, the castigation of the upper classes in the songs, the danger of the flambeaux in the city, frequent clashes of stick fighters, the loud noises made by drums  and horns as well as lewd and obscene dancing. Eventually the cannes brulees would be banned after the Canboulay Riots of 1881.

Sexual displays were also an integral aspect of the Jamette Carnival. Males and females would take to the streets portraying sexual themes in their masquerades. The infamous Jamette bands were at the forefront of this particular aspect of the Carnival. The women of this Jamette band would often engage in activities such as, startling bystanders by opening their bodices and exposing their breasts, fighting among themselves for the attention of males, openly soliciting men of the middle class, wearing sexually revealing clothing and danced indecently through the streets. However, the masquerade which most infuriated the white elite was that of the Pisse-en-lit. This masquerade was played exclusively by masked men dressed as women Often they would wear long transparent nightgowns, others would wear very little except menstruation cloths, and some carried chamber pots and their dancing stimulated sexual horseplay.  The Port of Spain Gazette of 1888 noted that, “Most of the bands of men dressed as women paraded the whole city from morning to night, repeating the same songs containing double ententes of the most obscene manner, meaning and dancing in the lewdest manner.” This sexual display was according to Andrew Carr, “… laughing at the sexual prudery and Victorian standards of the upper-class … the more the whites complained, the more obscene and open the Jamettes became.”

Violence and gang rivalry was a hallmark of the Jamette Carnival. Different bands represented different areas and fought one and other for turf and lands. These bands were formed due to the overcrowding which was evident in Port of Spain, the unsanitary conditions of the barrack yard and heightened tensions between various migrants from neighbouring islands. The Trinidad Chronicle of 1877 printed an editorial which depicted the situation at this time,

“There appear to be about a dozen different bands, each generally representing the young vagabonds and semi-vagabonds of a street or loacale. Thus the Free –grammar hail from Cobourgtown: the Bois d’Inde or Allspice tree from Upper Prince Street: the Bakers from the street behind the Market; the Danois, from the Dry river suburb; the peau de Canelle, from the streets behind the Goal; the Rose barrier from about the Toll-gate; the Corail from Newtown, the sAmandes boys and lads from about the wharves, allies of the ‘Bakers’ as the Danois generally are of  the next, the strongest band of all, the Maribones, form Belmont road. The Cerf-volants came from Duncan Street; and there is said to be a St. Anns band whose name we cannot learn. Two others, the s’Hirondelles; and the Savanne a Newtown band are said to have been broken up.”

Some bands would not only fight simply for turf but instead they would attack the middle and upper classes as well as the police. However, the newspapers of this time sensationalised the fighting that occurred during Carnival. Much of the fighting that was described can be attributed to the stick fighting ceremonies. Bands such as the Bakers, Maribones and Free-grammars were all in fact stick fighting bands who took their stick fights very seriously and in addition sought to fight for their turf on the same day. Liverpool notes that, “What appeared to be mere violence, was as serious art and way of life for the African combatants, in a world of oppression and low status, stick fighting gave the stick fighter dignity and power.”

The era of the Jamette Carnival helped shape the festival as we know it today. For it has showcased the adaptability and metamorphosis of the festival. Visit the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago to learn more about the Jamette Carnival.

WORK CITED

Fraser, L.M. “History of Carnival” Colonial office Original Correspondence, Trinidad. (C.O. 295), vol. 289. Trinidad No. 6460.

Liverpool, Hollis “Chalkdust” Rituals of Power and Rebellion: The Carnival Tradition in Trinidad and Tobago, 1763-1962. Chicago, IL.: Research Associates School Times, 2001. Print.

Port of Spain Gazette, February 15th, 1888.3.

Trinidad Chronicle, February 9th, 1877. 3.

San Fernando Gazette, February 25th, 1871.

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