Impressions: Trinidad’s Canboulay Celebration by Colin Williams


Photos and Words by Colin Williams

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Every year, on the Friday before Trinidad Carnival, hundreds of people gather on the streets in Port of Spain for a grassroots pageant re-enacting the successful 1881 effort resist British suppression of carnival, which was then known as Canboulay (alternately spelled as Kambule). Trini-born, NY-based photographer Colin Williams attended Canboulay for the first time this year, reconnecting with his roots while documenting the pageant’s vivid recreation of Carnival’s past. 

My first visit to Trinidad Carnaval as an adult was in 2006. I have gone back every year thereafter for Carnaval—I spell it the way the grassroots way I heard it pronounced when I was a child, Car-na-val—with the exception of 2010. This year, I wanted to see and shoot Mas much differently from the images I have collected over the years. But I didn’t know what that would be. My personal mission, as always, was to shoot unique rich images, but this time I wanted to capture images other than the new norm.

I had always heard about the Canboulay re-enactment but never saw it in person or even had an idea of what it really was. I was told it takes place very early in the morning, and was not in the best location in Port of Spain. Well, maybe that would be a turnoff for others, but not for me.

The show started the minute I got out of the taxi in downtown Port of Spain. I was dropped off a few blocks from the venue and it was like a current; I just followed it and I was there. The streets were the stage and to my surprise at this early hour there were many people already seated in the small stadium set up, and along the streets. The show started on time, a first for me at any Trini event. I had no clue what to expect, and there was no one handing out a run-of-the-show or a program.

At first I was upset because I saw black people with white masks and gloves dancing to classical French music. Tired from getting in at 2AM from an 18-hour workday in New York and, I started to pack up after taking a few pictures, but I decided to stay and see if it got any better. I still didn’t see what the big deal was. Then I saw a rider on a white horse at the top of the hill. I was blown away by what came next, and it’s captured in some of my images. I have never dated any of my work by saying it’s my best. But I have to say the pictures from the re-enactment are the best images I have ever taken to date.

To me, Trinidad Carnaval is more special than any other bacchanal celebrated in the world. What I think makes us and our carnival unique is the religious aspect we have to it. For many, it’s like attending a religious pilgrimage.

Trinidad and Tobago was once a colony of France but our last “Boss” was England, so we only speak English, not French. Attending the Canboulay re-enactment, you really get to see the effort and research that has been undertaken to preserve the part of our culture and heritage which comes from the French. Trinidad Carnaval really is the Greatest Show on Earth.

Click to see all of Colin’s photos of Canboulay.

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