Academic journal article Ethnology

Bakrnal: Coup, Carnival, and Calypso in Trinidad

Academic journal article Ethnology

Bakrnal: Coup, Carnival, and Calypso in Trinidad

Article excerpt

On 27 July 1990, the people of Trinidad and Tobago experienced a violent, attempted coup d'etat. Six months later, the attempted coup became one of the dominant themes of Carnival. Among a group of young men in Anamat,(2) a village in eastern Trinidad, a shared cultural model(3) emerged from discussions concerning the event. They viewed the coup attempt as a threat to their cultural construction of freedom, as an anomaly of Trinidadian history, and as an event at odds with their cultural model of Trinidadian character. During Carnival, however, their evaluations and representations of the coup attempt changed. In their new cultural model, the coup reflected Trinidadian character and was incorporated into a teleological narrative of the island as a place where, periodically, there are conflicts in which freedom and humor triumph over political repression and fear. This article describes how the cultural model of the coup attempt arose and how it changed.

By focusing on cultural models of a specific event, this article departs from the approach taken in much of the anthropological literature on Carnival festivals. Most studies view them in terms of role reversals, inversion, and antistructure; a perspective emphasizing general, abstract aspects of social structure.(4) These theories generally do not deal with aspects of cognition grounded in daily life, although cognition is influenced by participation in festivals as well.

Trinidadian Carnival of 1991 changed the way in which a specific group of young adult men represented the coup attempt of 1990. Carnival participation precipitated these changes. But what about Carnival and, specifically, what about the events attended by these men changed their cultural models of the attempted coup? Mostly, the men attended fetes that involved large crowds of revellers and the performance of calypsos. Elements of the relationship between audience and performance are what brought about the changes in their cultural models.


Trinidad is the southernmost island in the Lesser Antilles, lying only ten miles off of the coast of Venezuela. It was colonized by the Spanish, but while under Spanish rule became dominated by the French, who developed a plantation system. The British seized the island in 1797 and, in 1834, abolished slavery. Former slaves chose to leave the plantations. In the wake of full emancipation in 1838, the crises of lacking plantation labor prompted the English to introduce indentured laborers from India, a system that endured until 1917. Around the turn of the century, the island's extensive petroleum resources began to be systematically exploited. By the mid-1930s, labor disputes and political mobilization led to confrontations between newly formed labor organizations and the colonial administration. The island gained universal suffrage in 1946, internal self-rule in 1956, and independence in 1962. In the 1970s, the high price of oil on world markets generated an economic boom in Trinidad, which led to a massive expansion in the manufacturing, construction, retail, and service sectors. The boom ended in the 1980s with falling oil prices. The outcome of Trinidad's complicated history is a multicultural, stratified, and occupationally diverse society.

Even though the population of Trinidad and Tobago is diverse, a national identity and national self-image has taken shape. This image's characteristics include pride in cultural diversity, elements from the British colonial heritage, and elements of creative resistance to British colonialism. With regard to cultural diversity, Trinidadians take pride in being a "cosmopolitan country," one in which many different races and ethnic groups co-exist. Most Trinidadians admit, however, that ethnic conflict and racism are problems that divide the island's population, especially during elections, but Trinidadians also value the products of the contact between different cultures. …

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