Trinidad was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1498 on his third trip to the new world. He named the island “The Trinity” for the three hills he saw when he first landed. Spanish colonization has begun by 1507 and it remained a Spanish colony for 300 years until it was captured by and ceded to Britain in 1802. It was during the Spanish colonial period that the Kweyol, Creole, language was born.
The term Creole comes from the Spanish word criollo meaning “of local origin” that refers to the mixture of early Europeans, Amerindian (natives), Africans, Indians (from India) who contributed to Trinidad’s culture and heritage. Other settlers to Trinidad came from Louisiana in the US and many French-claimed islands in the Caribbean. By the time Britain took control of the island, it hada complex culture that existed nowhere else in the Caribbean. Trinidad was a Spanish colony with a French, Kweyol and Spanish speaking population; Creole became the common language for this diverse population who originally spoke many different languages.
Carnival Began in Trinidad
Carnival was introduced to Trinidad around 1785, as the French settlers began to arrive. It did not take long for wealthy plantation owners to celebrate this tradition, which has earlier roots in the Catholic religion and the last celebration before Lent. Carnival in Trinidad began with fancy plantation balls where guests dressed elaborately, putting on masks and wigs to dance late into the night. The tradition was picked up by other Caribbean islands and by Louisiana as Mardi Gras.
Today, Carnival is the largest festival in Trinidad. It is supported by the government and raucously celebrated for 5 days by locals and tourists. Parades display colorful and very elaborate costumes with drum bands and dancing in the streets. Costumes are an array of vivid colors that match the island’s tropical environment. Carnival in Trinidad is like a mirror that ref lects the many cultures and traditions of the people who have come to this island. African, Asian, and American Indian influences can also be seen.
Carnival is such an important aspect of life in Trinidad that many schools sponsor carnival bands to teach young people about their roots and culture. The Kiddies Carnival has hundreds of schools and community organisations participating.
Culture Expressed in Food
Cuisine in Trinidad is a reflection of the many cultures and food preferences of the early settlers. Indian, Amerindian, European, African, Creole, Chinese and Lebanese influences combine to create unique blends, as well as providing traditional dishes of their own.
Typical dinner fayre in Creole Trinidad includes stewed chicken, white rice, red beans and fried plantains. Homemade ginger beer is also very popular. Callaloo is a classic Creole soup made from dasheen leaves (a variety of taro with large yellowish tubers and large leaves) and crab. The island is also influenced by the Indian population with their Hindu traditions, unique cuisine and different native dress. For the Indian population a classic meal includes curry chicken, potatoes, channa (chick peas) and an Indian flatbread called roti. Food is important in both Hindu and Muslim celebrations, as it is in Christian holidays. All of these traditional dishes are regarded as part of Trinidad’s national heritage.
Food is also an important part of island culture and is generously shared at festivals, ceremonies and family occasions. Trinidadians are very sociable and to them it is important to create a gregarious and joyful atmosphere for all special occasions and gatherings with a lot of food.
Recognized in Art and Fashion
Calypso music originated in Trinidad culture and is recognized around the world for its unique melodic sound and use of steel drums. This music was made popular in 1950s by entertainers such as the Andrew Sisters, Harry Belafonte and the actor Robert Mitchum; Calypso is the precursor of Reggae. Two relatively new music forms, “chutney” and “pitchakaree,” are Indian-music influenced and have roots in Trinidad as well.
Fashion has developed as a real focus, with government support and a recently opened Caribbean Academy of Fashion and Design (CAFD). The mission of the academy is to educate and train aspiring designers and managers in the art and business of fashion with a goal of playing a major role in developing a Caribbean fashion industry. The island is already known for producing many internationally recognised fashion designers. A young designer from this talented group recently appeared during New York’s Fashion Week. High fashion from Trinidad has taken vivid Caribbean colours to another level.
The Carnival heritage has also influenced both interest and talent to come to the island and study. Trinidad boasts a world famous masquerade designer, Peter Minshall. He was artistic director for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and the 1994 World Cup opening ceremony in the United States.
Trinidad has a unique history that has blended many cultural influences with its native history of Amerindians to play an important role in Creole history, culture and contemporary lifestyle. This crossroads of cultures has brought to the world the celebration of Carnival, a diversity of cuisine and significant contributions to music and fashion.