Origins of Carnival in Jamaica

Origins of Carnival in Jamaica

  • French Set Girls.

    BELISARIO Isaac Mendez (1795 - 1849)

  • Red Set Girls, and Jack-in-the-Green.

    BELISARIO Isaac Mendez (1795 - 1849)

  • John-Canoe / Band of the Jaw-Bone John Canoe

    BELISARIO Isaac Mendez (1795 - 1849)

  • Koo, Koo or Actor-Boy.

    BELISARIO Isaac Mendez (1795 - 1849)

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Title: French Set Girls.

Author : BELISARIO Isaac Mendez (1795 - 1849)

Creation date : 1837

Date shown: 1837

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Drawing taken from Sketches of Characters: an Illustration oh the Habits, Occupation and Costume of the Negro Population in the Island of Jamaica, Drawn After Nature and in Lithography by I. M. Belisario. Kingston, Jamaica: Published by the Artist at his Residence, No. 21, King-Street, 1837. p. 23.

Storage location: Mazarine Library website

Contact copyright: © Mazarine Library website

© Mazarine Library

To close

Title: Red Set Girls, and Jack-in-the-Green.

Author : BELISARIO Isaac Mendez (1795 - 1849)

Creation date : 1837

Date shown: 1837

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Drawing taken from Sketches of Characters: an Illustration oh the Habits, Occupation and Costume of the Negro Population in the Island of Jamaica, Drawn After Nature and in Lithography by I. 11.

Storage location: Mazarine Library website

Contact copyright: © Mazarine Library website

Red Set Girls, and Jack-in-the-Green.

© Mazarine Library

To close

Title: John-Canoe / Band of the Jaw-Bone John Canoe

Author : BELISARIO Isaac Mendez (1795 - 1849)

Creation date : 1837

Date shown: 1837

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Drawing taken from Sketches of Characters: an Illustration oh the Habits, Occupation and Costume of the Negro Population in the Island of Jamaica, Drawn After Nature and in Lithography by I. 16-17.

Storage location: Mazarine Library website

Contact copyright: © Mazarine Library website

John-Canoe / Band of the Jaw-Bone John Canoe

© Mazarine Library

To close

Title: Koo, Koo or Actor-Boy.

Author : BELISARIO Isaac Mendez (1795 - 1849)

Creation date : 1837

Date shown: 1837

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Drawing taken from Sketches of Characters: an Illustration oh the Habits, Occupation and Costume of the Negro Population in the Island of Jamaica, Drawn After Nature and in Lithography by I. 19-22.

Storage location: Mazarine Library website

Contact copyright: © Mazarine Library website

© Mazarine Library

Publication date: January 2007

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Origins of Carnival in Jamaica

Video

Historical context

Isaac Mendes Belisario (1795-1849), painter and engraver of Italian origin born in London, installed in 1830 in Kingston in Jamaica, then English colony, excels there as painter of landscapes and portraits.

He himself lithographs in June 1837 twelve watercolor drawings of scenes of a sort of carnival practiced for decades by slaves at Christmas time. He himself publishes, by subscriptions, his «  Character sketches, illustrating the lifestyles, activities and costume of Blacks on the island of Jamaica " Accompanying them with detailed descriptive texts that can be said to be ethnographic. Although slavery was abolished in Jamaica in 1833, these lithographs are very telling documents on the perception of the life of slaves, before and after their emancipation; they are still very popular in Jamaica now.

Slaves are granted three days of rejoicing by their masters at Christmas and one at New Year. Competing "bands" of slaves organize themselves well in advance; they spend their very meager savings to prepare with the greatest care these costume parties, which take place in the form of parades in the street, except the party of the "French Set-Girls", led in a courtyard closed by a slave "Queen" , practiced only by the "community" which fled from Santo Domingo at war for Jamaica in 1794 [1]. They surpassed all other bands in their refined elegance.

The costumes, meticulously prepared, are in the days that follow

destroyed, sometimes by fire; in addition, rival "gangs" sometimes go so far as to clash violently. Finally, some parades, says Belisario, give rise to competitions whose reputation still animates the Parade, a large parade in front of the main "Taverns" (of Europeans) or even in front of the Kingston Business Center. We give a standing ovation under the name of "Actor-boys" these servants parodying one day their masters, the finery and the powers of these.

Image Analysis

All the scenes are presented frontally, in bright light and outdoors. The mood is happy. The round, plump faces of the ex-slaves smile. The men, like idlers, wear long hair and often beards. Even the instrumentalists, very poor, who accompany John-Canoe participate in the joy of the party. The lithographs show a happy, well-nourished people who have fun and put on beautiful clothes for it. In fact, with a few exceptions, all the characters have their hair done.

Belisario designs the clothes with the thoroughness of a theater decorator-costume designer. The heterogeneous elements that compose them almost all have European origins, and not African ones. His comments emphasize the magnificence of wigs and fabrics for large masked figures, the profusion of jewelry, etc.

Belisario's style of drawing is firm and frank: this is undoubtedly the character of the artist. He felt the mesmerizing power of these slave carnival scenes. Even though actors and spectators smile, are beautifully dressed and even, for some of them, elegantly shod, they are above all former slaves. Even if, writes Bélisario, certain "bands" are named, "red" to represent the English, "blue" for the Scots, even if, Belisario still tells us, certain parades and costume contests borrow characters from Shakespeare, which stage these four days of mad and intense freedom, it is the ephemeral and ironic recomposition of the order of society and the order of fate, with the lexicon of the clothes of the masters. If the visual signs of adornment of the enslaved bodies are these fabrics, these hats, these lace, these wigs from Europe, multiple are the signs which show that those who were born slaves play these four days, even more, a great deal. dramaturgy to rebuild their person or recharge their batteries in their African culture.

The tenacious and deep persistence of African animist usage is evident in various characters. The barefoot “Jack-in-Green”, which the artist depicts on the backs of dancers in caps, in very wide lace dresses and slender pumps, is in fact central to the ceremony, like some of the most powerful and powerful. most feared African masks, in the dances of possession, where the body of the initiate who dances as the spokesperson of the invoked, much feared "genius", is entirely camouflaged - and protected - by a mask on the face and long plant fibers all over the body.

Belisario also endeavors to portray John-Canoe, a masked dancer, with static and monotonous steps, decked out in heterogeneous signs of European power. He carries a model of a house, which Belisario says he does not understand, but this character reincarnates John Canoe, who was a customary village chief in the Gulf of Guinea, exercising in the 1720s a very great moral authority, if only for by the effectiveness of its ritual relations with the "geniuses" and the Ancestors.

Belisario shows us an organized world free from violence. Even the musicians, with their powerful percussion instruments, meticulously drawn, smile in the beautiful celebration that all the lithographs convey to us like a peaceful theater, which is ultimately not very exotic.

Even in the deportation to the Americas, the slave does not forget Africa. The carefully designed musical instruments by Belisario parade with the dancers in the middle of the crowd. They are able to summon "geniuses" and induce trance or possession of initiates. Belisario notices the percussions which showcase power par excellence and have a bewitching effect on those who hear them in the street during the parades. He clearly notices the goatskin stretched over the square frame of the small flat drum that follows John-Canoe; and this goat undoubtedly comes from an animist sacrifice. He also notices the large drum with a very low single note, identical to the current Gros-Ka in Guadeloupe, and the lower jaw of a horse whose teeth an initiate rubs with a wooden stick: "a sound prelude in a theatrical performance, at the entrance of a grumbling ghost ”.

Interpretation

The use of European sartorial signs in these scenes is parodic, but it is also carried and assimilated by the animistic thought, without writing, which inhabits all these former slaves. A sign, even sartorial, exercises power over reality and gives it an order: here that of making a concrete contribution to building an identity and a destiny. It is not slaves who dance trying to forget that they are black, it is blacks who, dancing dressed with signs of European clothing, put into action for them, blacks, the signs of power of the Europeans. They can, all the more so as animist, polytheistic thought can perfectly incorporate new and even heterogeneous elements into its practices.

  • carnival
  • dance
  • slavery
  • music

Bibliography

From discovery to emancipation, three and a half centuries of West Indian history, exhibition presented by Marcel Chatillon and Jean-Claude Nardin Mazarine Library., November 2, 1998 - January 29, 1999. Paris, 1998 National Library of Jamaica | Biographies | Isaac Mendes Belisario, Guide to the sources of the slave trade, slavery and their abolitionDirectorate of Archives de France, La documentation française, Paris, 2007.

To cite this article

Yves BERGERET, "Origins of Carnival in Jamaica"


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