Hugh Ragguette, a name that is synonymous with Carnival in St. Vincent explained to The Vincentian that the historic roots of Carnival lie in deep antiquity: since at the dawn of history, man celebrated several festivals of which Carnival was one.
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 "mas'" 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 Mas' 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 mas' balls and dances.” Ragguette stated.
However, when chattel slavery ended, the freed slaves 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 his arms open, explaining how the festival gained 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 coloniser could not understand these expressions and wanted to stifle them.” The fire that burnt within slavery was reduced to mere embers 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 colonisers brought out what Ragguette termed "the armed might of the Empire". The people resisted and a riot broke out, writing the Carnival Riots of the 11th and 12th February 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 years people 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 Mas' 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, whom Ragguette stated “had 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 season. The June-July period was decided as most suitable.
With more time to work, the CDC wanted to introduce a Caribbean component into its programme.
Antigua and Barbuda already had a Caribbean Calypso Competition and the organisation could not get beyond the logistics of a Caribbean Pan or King and Queen of the Bands competition.
Ragguette explained that it was felt that a show should be organised to showcase “the beauty and profound intelligence of our Caribbean women”. This resulted in the birth of Miss Caribbean Carnival - Miss Carnival.
Carnival can be regarded as a truly cultural festival. The event puts on display, the talent of Vincentians in the areas of music, signing, dancing, song writing, script writing, stage production, costume designing and production, playing of traditional and improvised musical instruments to be invented in the twentieth century – the Steel pan. All of these cultural components are combined into one single power pack to generate the contagious “Spirit of Carnival” in those who become involved. It should however, be emphasized that not everyone sees Carnival as a cultural expression. There are those who isolate all the negative features of the festival, combine them together and then use the results to justify the condemnation of the entire festival as being vulgar and non-productive.
The festival sees the annual return home of thousands of nationals, their offspring and their friends, many of the young nationals having their first look at St. Vincent and the Grenadines and being allowed the opportunity to become reconnected with their roots They are introduced to what their parents refer to a “home cooking”. These taste an array of new drinks. They get a chance to wear clothes in colours and styles, which mark them out as being strictly West Indian, and particularly Vincentian - all of the above along with fine weather. They are given choice to select and enjoy the good things and to reject and shun the bad ones. At the end of the ten-day festival, they are able to purchase pieces of genuine Vincentian Craft and take them back to their places of residence, or adopted homes, wether as gifts for friends or constant reminders of the pleasures of “coming home for Carnival”.
Audiences may also enjoy a wide variety of stage presentations, or join in the parades of costume bands. For the less energetic, street parties are enjoyable during the evenings and day-trips into the countryside, or trips to the Grenadines during the day. Carnival is therefore not only the mixture of several aspects of Vincentian culture , but also the showcase of Vincentian talent at the premium cultural Festival of the year, presented nation wide in style, fashion and true Caribbean splendour.
It was easily recognisable that better organisation and more publicity encouraged greater local and overseas participation in the 2001 Carnival. It is therefore hoped that this trend will continue and be maintained in the coming years.