Trinidad Queen of Carnival Costume

Canboulay and the History of Carnival

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago is one of the world’s most vibrant and colourful festivals. However, the origins of Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago can be traced back to the enslaved Africans who were brought to the island during the colonial period.

At the heart of the Carnival lies the tradition of Canboulay, a celebration that has deep roots in Trinidadian history and culture. In this blog post, we will explore the history of Canboulay and Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago and its significance in the country’s cultural heritage.

Origins of Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago

Carnival was introduced to Trinidad and Tobago by the French plantation owners who brought the tradition when they fled Haiti during the Haitian Revolution in the late 18th century. The festival was initially a masquerade ball that was only accessible to wealthy French plantation owners.

However, the enslaved Africans on the island were not allowed to participate in the masquerade ball festivities. Instead, they were forced to create their own festivities in the sugarcane fields, including drumming, singing, and dancing. These festivities eventually merged with the Carnival celebrations of the French plantation owners, giving birth to the Carnival we know today.

What is Canboulay?

Canboulay is a pre-Carnival celebration in Trinidad and Tobago during the 19th century. The origins of Canboulay as an annual tradition date back to 1845, when slavery was abolished in Trinidad. Canboulay has its roots in the slave trade that brought people from Africa to the Caribbean. Trinidad and Tobago were British colonies and slave labour was used to work the sugar plantations. Enslaved Africans were not allowed to practice their cultural traditions, but they found a way to keep them alive through music and dance. The Canboulay played a significant role in the history of Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago. It was a celebration held by the enslaved Africans in the lead-up to Carnival. 


Canboulay is derived from the French word “cannes brulées,” which means burnt canes. The Canboulay celebrated the sugar cane harvest’s end and the sugarcane fields’ burning.

During the Canboulay, the enslaved Africans would dress up in costumes made from materials found in the sugarcane fields, such as burnt sugarcane, and parade through the streets. They would also play the drums and other musical instruments and dance in the streets.

Canboulay was a way for enslaved Africans to celebrate their cultural heritage and express themselves in a way that was not allowed during the rest of the year. The celebration often took place at night, and the participants would wear masks to avoid detection by their enslavers.

Canboulay was an act of resistance against the oppressive conditions of slavery. It was a way for enslaved Africans to connect with their cultural roots and express themselves in a way their oppressors forbade.

The Canboulay Riots of 1881 in Trinidad: A Turning Point in the Struggle for African Culture and Traditions

In the 19th century Trinidad the colonial authorities saw the African traditions brought to the island by enslaved Africans as a threat to their control over the population. To suppress these traditions, the government passed laws banning certain practices and cultural expressions.

News To The Trinidadians posted in Port-of-Spain 1881

Captain [Arthur] Baker demanded from our just and noble Governor, Sir Sanford Freeling, this authority to prevent the night of Canboulay, but our Excellency refused

Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso traditions in the making by John Cowley

Captain Arthur Baker became the head of Trinidad’s police force in the early 1880s and was determined to end the Canboulay, which he perceived as a threat to public order. In 1881, the colonial police force clashed with revellers in Port of Spain who had banded together against them due to their restrictions. 

The Drum Ban: A Spark for Riots

In 1881, the colonial government passed a law banning African drums, which were an essential part of the Carnival festivities. The law was enforced by the police, who raided homes and confiscated drums, leading to widespread anger and frustration among the population.

The Riots: From Peaceful Demonstration to Violence

In response to the ban on drums, the people of Trinidad took to the streets in protest. Unfortunately, the peaceful demonstration soon turned violent, with clashes between protesters and police. The riots lasted several days, and many people were injured or killed.

The Aftermath: Recognition and Celebration of African Culture

The colonial authorities eventually gave in to the people’s demands, and the ban on African drums was lifted. This was a significant moment in the history of Trinidad, as it marked the beginning of a movement to reclaim and celebrate African culture and traditions.

Legacy: Remembering the Canboulay Riots

Today, the Canboulay Riots are remembered as a testament to the strength and resilience of the Trinidadian people in the face of oppression. They also paved the way for developing the modern Trinidadian Carnival, now a world-renowned celebration of music, dance, and culture. The legacy of the Canboulay Riots serves as a reminder of the importance of preserving and celebrating cultural heritage.

The Evolution of Canboulay into Carnival

As Trinidad and Tobago moved towards emancipation, the celebrations of Canboulay began to evolve. In the late 1800s, the British government tried to suppress the Canboulay celebration, viewing it as a potential threat to their authority. In 1881, they passed the “Vagrancy Ordinance,” which made it illegal for people to play the drums or participate in any street procession.

However, the people of Trinidad and Tobago were determined to keep their cultural traditions alive. So they found a way to continue their celebrations by combining Canboulay with other practices, such as the masquerade, and eventually evolved into the Carnival that we know today.

Source: – Post Emancipation Carnival

In the 1840s, once Carnival became a two day celebration, black masquers adopted Canboulay as it’s opening feature.

Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso Traditions in the making by John Cowley

The Significance of Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago

Carnival has become an essential part of the cultural heritage of Trinidad and Tobago and is celebrated every year in the lead-up to Lent. The festival is characterized by colourful costumes, lively music, and street processions that attract visitors from all over the world.

Carnival is not just a celebration of music and dance but also a celebration of Trinidadian culture and identity. It is a time when people come together to celebrate their diversity and shared history and express their creativity and individuality.

The Future of Canboulay and Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago

The Canboulay tradition and Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago have come a long way since their humble beginnings. However, they face challenges in the modern world, such as the impact of globalization and changing social attitudes.

To ensure the survival of these traditions, it is essential to continue to pass them down to future generations. Therefore, efforts are being made to preserve and promote the Canboulay and Carnival traditions, such as the establishment of the Carnival Institute of Trinidad and Tobago, whose mission is “To preserve the traditional heritage of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival whilst ensuring its sustainable development as a viable industry”, by researching, documenting, and promoting the cultural heritage.


Featured Image by Holger Woizick on Unsplash

Cambridge University Press: Carnival, Camboulay and Calypso

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