A good place to start the story is where I first heard it 15 years ago with local historian and anthropologist John Cupid. For Cupid there was “a tradition of celebration” on our islands long before the French arrived, and before that, long before the Spanish came too. A “tradition of celebration going back to the Warrahoon.”
As many might know, the Warrahoon were and are a group of Amerindians from the Orinoco delta who, the archaeological record states, were here in the 500-year period before European arrival. They were also involved in the Trinidad Carnival of 1848 documented by Charles Day, who, when discussing the initial period of Carnival after the beginning of French immigration, recorded his observations of a “Warrahoon masquerade” played by “half-Indian peons and Africans” on the streets of Port-of-Spain that appeared well-established.
According to Cupid, this was not surprising. “There were always celebrations on the island. Where we are here, on these hills and high valleys of Lopinot, there were people…long before the Catholics came, there were celebrations on the island of Kairi (Trinidad).” He went on to say the Warrahoons’ animal masquerade involved a headdress made of animal skin, painted face, and animal skin worn on the shoulders and ankles. And that the Capuchin monks who arrived in the late 1600s as missionaries to Trinidad “observed these celebrations.”
Is there evidence to back up his story? Historical anecdote and oral histories do describe the Warrahoon playing an animal mas and painting their faces with roucou berries and red ochre. Also, Cupid’s version of events makes sense. It does not erase the presence of the Amerindian population, its culture and genetics on the island, which we know existed in plain sight into the early 19th century. Nor does it erase their cultural influence and how a tradition of celebration may have existed here long before Europeans began their colonial conquest of the Caribbean.
This is an easy observation to support because anthropologists and historians have demonstrated the world over the long-established, cross-cultural human capacity for celebration. Celebration does not suddenly appear with colonial immigration. For example, we know as far back as 525 BCE that the Greek historian Herodotus wrote of the spring solstice celebrations he witnessed in North Africa. He mentioned Egypt, where celebrations were held to mark the opening of their crop season and honour the fertility of both the earth and women.
He wrote, “The Egyptians were the first people in the world to hold general festive assemblies, and religious processions and parades, and the Greeks learnt from the Egyptians.” Support for Cupid’s suggestion that a tradition of celebration has long existed on the island can also be found in the diaries of Bartolomé de las Casas (one of the first European settlers to the Caribbean) who recorded seeing Carnival-like behaviour.
In terms of archaeological evidence, it is agreed that roucou berries and vegetable substances like cashew nuts were being used as facial and body decoration at the time of Spanish arrival in the region. This idea then, of festival and celebration on our islands before the arrival of Europeans, is not a huge leap.
That “Wild Indian” masquerades—a mixture of Warrahoon and North American Indian influences—are also a recorded sight throughout the 19th and 20th centuries at Carnival time and are still seen on the outskirts of today’s bikini-and-beads Carnival is further evidence of an Amerindian strand and connection.
Anthropologically all of this is important because it suggests the dominant and simplistic European origin myths about our Carnival are incomplete. Cupid’s story does a similar thing to later narratives of Africanisms that surround Trinidad Carnival in the 19th century.
And lastly, the story also supports ideas of cultural mixture and process in understanding our society, opening the way to including other cultural influences in the story of our Carnival such as East Indian, Chinese, and American, over the more simplistic, familiar and traditional European and/or African origin myths that most often dominate.