Hugh Ragguette, a name that is synonymous with carnival in St. Vincent explained to The Vincentians that the historic roots of carnival lie in deep antiquity since at the dawn of history, man celebrated several festivals in which carnival was included. According to Ragguette, the word carnival in Latin means “farewell to the flesh.”
The Kalinagos and other indigenous peoples who inhabited St. Vincent had their festivals. With the introduction of slavery, the Africans with their varying cultures and rich variety added to those expressions. Although the practice of wearing Mass came from Africa and was subsequently adopted by the Greek and Romans, it was actually the French who celebrated carnival in the Caribbean as the highlight of the year.
After the British supplanted the French, the practice continued. The wearing of Mass in carnival was introduced by the Pope in Rome in 1494 and then spread throughout Europe. Naturally, the slaves participated in these festivals at a different level. “ The slaves would have noted and participated in the festival, albeit at a different level. Naturally, they were not invited to the mass balls and dances.” Ragguette stated.
However, when chattel slavery ended, the freed slaved embraced carnival and turned it into a callaloo pot, adding elements of the respective cultures. They took to the streets and displayed the theatrical spectacle they had created and to vent their subdued creative abilities. These street marches took place on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
Ragguette’s enthusiasm was unmistakable as he threw this arms open explaining how the festival momentum and became popular. Unable to chain the hands and feet of the slaves any longer, in 1892, he related, the colonial governor banned the festival claiming that the revellers were lashing out at each other and observers with whips. Ragguette held another opinion. “ The main reason was to suppress the people’s culture and their peculiar African expressions. The colonizer could not understand these expressions and wanted to stifle them,” he opined. The fire that he burnt within slavery was reduced to more members and in 1879, fuelled by the unchainable African spirit it leapt into flames again. In 1899, the people decided that come what may, ban or no ban, that they were going to celebrate. They began the celebrations as early as the Friday preceding Ash Wednesday. As a result, the colonizers brought out what Ragguette termed the armed might of the Empire. The people resisted and a riot broke out, writing the Carnival Riots of February 11 and 12 into this country’s history books.
From then on, carnival has been a part of St.Vincent’s culture. Four years later, carnival fever spread to Trinidad in the south where the festival had been banned resulting in the Comboule Riots. Ragguette explained that throughout the year’s persons have built on and experimented with the components of carnival to the extent Trinidadians have invented a musical instrument in the form of the steel pan to provide accompanying music to its calypso.
By 1973, it was virtually impossible to hold all the carnival shows during the Wednesday and Tuesday period. “Our pan, our calypso, and particularly our Mass has reached a level of development that it needed to spread its wings outside the Catholic Christian Carnival to a more embracing festival,” Ragguette commented.
Since the festival was held so soon after Christmas and the length of time available for shows coupled with the fact the Trinidad and Tobago who Ragguette stated “has run away with title of king of Carnival in the world and boasted of having the greatest show on earth,” held its carnival around the same time, it was necessary to move the festival to another day. The June-July period was decided as most suitable.