Monday, February 20, 2006

FREDERICK DOUGLASS AND THE "CANNES BRULEES" RIOT

FREDERICK DOUGLASS AND THE "CANNES BRULEES" RIOT

At first sight the connection established above appears to be so amazing as to be the work of a racing, manic, or perhaps just hypomanic mind. There is method, however, in the mania. The "Cannes Brulees" Riot occurred in 1881 — a major act of resistance by Africans in the Americas. Clearly, this act is intimately and organically connected to Frederick Douglass, perhaps the best known of a long, long line of Africans who stood up to white supremacy in the Americas.

Hollis "Chalkdust" Liverpool, Ph.D. discusses the Cannes Brulees Riot in his masterful work, Rituals of Power and Rebellion: The Carnival Tradition in Trinidad and Tobago 1763-1962, first published in 2001—that is, one year after Ah Come Back Home: Perspectives on the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. Cannes Brulees used to be the opening ritual of the Carnival festival in Trinidad and Tobago. Because this ritual fomented and gave expression to Africans’ identification with their cultural tradition, it was considered by the British colonial elite to be a major threat to rule and order upon the plantation. In the 1881 Carnival festival, the rank and file Africans of Port-of-Spain decided to resist the British authorities’ attempts to suppress their dearly beloved ritual. Chalkdust writes:

As the cathedral midnight bell rang, the Negres Jardins who had been waiting sounded their drums, blew their horns, lit their torches and broke into a Kalenda singing as they paraded through the town....

Every one in Port-of-Spain it seems was celebrating. But as the main band reached down Duke street, the Police under Captain Baker pounced upon them. The long-awaited fight followed. Bottles and stones flew from every angle towards the Police. Men and women ran into the nearby yards for more ammunition needed at the battlefront. Police officers on horseback drew their swords to defend themselves, while other policemen with their batons smashed their way through the crowd mostly in an attempt to run for shelter. Some masqueraders fell f rom the blows of the policemen’s batons; others took their place. Some masqueraders were arrested, but the bottles and stones forced the police to set them free. All the streetlamps in the area were smashed. As the police ran, the crowds followed them with sticks, bottles and stones as the running battle spread over Duke, Prince, Charlotte, George, Duncan and Queen streets. Some policemen took off their uniforms in order to escape the wrath of the crowd. In the end, they all withdrew. The urban working class people had triumphed. About 40 to 50 masqueraders were severely wounded as were thirty-eight policemen. Only a few persons were arrested. (307-09)
That was a glorious chapter in the long history of Africans’ uncompromising rejection of white supremacy.

Just one generation earlier and some three thousand miles to the north, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, an analogous act of resistance played out. The event is described in chapter 17, "The Last Flogging," of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. It was a Sunday morning and the sixteen-year-old Frederick decided that he was not going to take another whipping from the brutal criminal called Covey. The final paragraphs of the account read as follows:

At length (two hours had elapsed) the contest was given over. Letting go of me, puffing and blowing at a great rate, Covey said, "Now, you scoundrel, go to your work; I would not have whipped you half so hard if you had not resisted." The fact was, he had not whipped me at all. He had not, in all the scuffle, drawn a single drop of blood from me. I had drawn blood from him, and should even without this satisfaction have been victorious, because my aim had not been to injure him, but to prevent his injuring me.

During the whole six months that I lived with Covey after this transaction, he never again laid the weight of his finger on me in anger. He would occasionally say he did not want to have to get hold of me again—a declaration which I had no difficulty in believing—and I had a secret feeling which answered, "You had better not wish to get hold of me again, for you will be likely to come off worse in a second fight than you did in the first."

This battle with Mr. Covey, undignified as it was and as I fear my narration of it is, was the turning-point in my "life as a slave." It rekindled in my breast the smouldering embers of liberty. It brought up my Baltimore dreams and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before—I was a man now. It recalled to life my crushed self-respect, and my self-confidence, and inspired me with a renewed determination to be a free man. A man without force is without the essential dignity of humanity. (142-43)

"The oppressor is responsible for our oppression, but we are responsible for our liberation." Frederick Douglass took the responsibility upon himself. The working-class people of Port-of-Spain took the same responsibility upon themselves on that Carnival Monday morning in 1881. Carnival is the centerpiece of our resistance to white supremacy. This is probably why the surrogate white supremacist at Plantation U are so opposed to it.

Our response to the silly gestures of the effete pseudo plantation bosses is: "You had better not wish to get hold of me again, for you will be likely to come off worse in a second fight than you did in the first."

No, no, don’t stop the Carnival.

No comments: