The Truth About the Origins of the Crop Over Festivities - It Was An Old Plantation Festival
by Flora Spencer and Interviews with Commonwealth Caribbean Resource Center (COMCARC) & Caribbean Conservation Association (CCA)
So Yu Going To... CARNIVAL Magazine
Against the background of the plantain environment in Barbadian Festival Crop-Over sprang into existence.
Festivities sometimes varied from plantation to plantation, but the pattern was basically the same. For labourers it was a time of rejoicing; a day when the successful reaping of the crop was celebrated; a day when they could forget the vicissitudes of life and enjoy themselves.
History is mute on the date of the birth of Crop-Over, but we have been fortunate to have of it from the to the island as well as from reports in the press during the early post-emancipation period, while we rely on oral tradition for accounts of early 20th century celebrations.
Although the plantain owner hosted the Crop-Over Festival it was the labourers who arranged the programme and a varied and imaginative one it certainly was. The Festival took place in the Mill Yard and when the last canes were harvested, the procession of carts bringing in the final load signaled the beginning of the celebrations.
The first cart was usually led by a woman whose white dress was accentuated by a freshly laundered handkerchief into the folds of which was tucked a vivid flower. Following came the carts and personnel connected with the operations of the plantation from the tillage of the land to the harvesting and carting of the sugar cane.
Each cart held its final load of canes, some of which were tied with gaily coloured headkerchiefs or strips of cloth of various hues and even plantain shag (leaves) were used when the supply of the more colourful material was exhausted or unattainable. The last cart carried the effigy of "Mr. Harding."
"Mr. Harding " made from sugar cane trash, cut quite a figure, dressed as he was in an old black coat, a top hat and a home-made mask. He represented hard times ahead and in some instances he also portrayed the cruel gang drivers, who because of their fearlessness and supervisory ability were chosen from among the plantation labourers.
When the procession reached the Mill Yard, it wended its way two or three times around the mill to the cheering of the participants. The entire spectacle reflected a kaleidoscope of colour and movement: - The windmill, with its varying shades of grey, having withstood the vagaries of the weather, towered majestically above the procession.
Women had tucked blooms into the folds of their headdresses and pinned them on to their clothing while men stuck them into their hat-bands. Some men, instead of using hats with flowers, wore home-made three-cornered head- dresses, the multi-coloured streamers of which tossed and waved in the breeze. Then the carts! Clamp-carts, drawn by teams of donkeys, mules or oxen; all were ablaze with flowering branches of flamboyant, bougainvilleas, hibiscus, oleander and sometimes plantain shag or colourful strips of old cloth.
When the procession ground to a halt, an old and respected labourer thanked the host on behalf of his companions, and after a suitable reply was made, festivities got underway in earnest. Merry-making took many forms. Eating, dancing, singing, competitions and various side attractions were the main features of the day's entertainment.
Huge estates tubs held sweet liquor or black strap. There was fancy molasses, rum and sometimes faternum. Included among the eatables were rice and peas, pork or beef stew, coconut and other types of bread, salt-fish cutters, corned beef cutters and sometimes ham cutters, pudding and sousa, cassava pone and "hats" (cassava bakes).
Dancing played a very important part in the festival; some of the most popular being Joe and Johnnie, Chiggoe or Jigger foot dancer: Four Cent Fassy; Cattadonia; Grand Change; Congalala; Bluka Boot Dance; Treadmil Dance; Belly to Belly and the Four Knee Polka; Dance to the Four Points of the Mill; various set dancers; Murzurkas; Quadrilles and lastly, but by no means least, the Tilt Dance (Stilt Dance).
Tilt-dancing took tow forms. The traditional tiltman who dressed in women's clothing and wore a mask danced to the music of his Band. The Competition Tilt Dance was performed by the younger folk who did a strip-tease down to underwear while dancing. The winner being the one who danced "the prettiest" while on stilts.
Then there was dancing with the Donkey Man. There were also two types of Donkey Men. One wore behind him a tail of old rags which shook as he gyrated using only the lower part of his body. He usually accompanied himself on the instrument of his choice.
The other Donkey Man wore a covered frame in the shape of either a donkey, horse or mule, and in this contraption he "horse-up" to the strains of music provided by his band. Accompanied by his own band "The Bear" performed his antics. The man who played the part of the bear dressed in a crocus bag around which was wrapped yards and yards of plantain or banana shag. To this were pinned bows upon bows of red cloth or paper. As he capered people danced around him occasionally stopping to pull at his costume and run back as if in fear.
Dancing was accompanied by many types of musical instruments. There were fiddles, flutes, flutinos, drums, guitars, concertinas, tamborines, mandolins, rattles made from calabashes filled with pebbles, picolas, bongos and other drums and of course the various other homemade instruments. Bands were numerous, and most unique were the Tuk of Bumbalum and the donkey Steel Band.
Singing was heard throughout the day. The labourers sang, not only because they were happy, but because they loved to sing. It was the one medium through which they could express themselves, and so besides the popular songs of the day they sang songs of their own composition - the folk songs which were spontaneous, witty and rhythmic.
For persons with a spirit of rivalry, competitions were organised, "Catching the Greased Pig" was popular. The prize being the pig. "Climbing the Greased Pole" was another, the successful climber found money on the top of it. Then there was Climbing the Greased Rope." Part of the attached to the tail-tree of the mil was greased and at the end of the rope was the prize. In addition to these was the deft and intricate art of stick-licking.
Side attractions included the "Barrel Men" and the "Hand-Walkers." The Barrel Men frolicked in barrels which had tops bottoms removed and were supported by straps slung over the wearer's shoulders while the "Hand Walkers" walked on their hands, their feet pointing skywards.
As the day's revelry drew to a close the host, and sometimes members of his family presented gifts of headkerchiefs, neckties or money. If the labourers were extra lucky they received a gift of sugar. This was known as "Bashen."
Climaxing the day's revelry, was the burning of Mr. Harding to the singing of songs such as "Hold Fast, Old Ned at the Door." Old Ned being the personification of lean and difficult days anticipated by the labourers until the coming of the next crop season. "When times get hard" and "Mr. Neel don't call nobody." Mr. Neel referred to the Manchineel Tree, the juice of which blistered anyone whom it made contact.
Food and drink consumed; Mr. Harding disposed of; the labourers jubilant, but weary straggled from the Mill Yard. The Crop-Over Festival had not only been a measure of compensation for a job well done, but it had offered an opportunity for people who had little of this world's goods to demonstrate their ingenuity and inherent creativity. Crop-Over was their moment!
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