The Story Behind the Crop Over Festival
The present day Crop Over Festival is a uniquely Barbadian festival that emerged out of the tensions in the meeting and merging of the island’s British and West African heritage. In ancient times, when several societies were predominately agrarian, cultures the world-over patterned their daily lives including agricultural practice in extremely complex and scientific ways that related in specific ways to their spiritual world-views.
The Yam Festivals of the peoples of Nigeria and Ghana, the point of origin of the majority of Barbadian descendants, are well-known examples of this. While agricultural and spiritual customs among the different ethnic groups such as Igbo, Ewe, Ga and Akan from the two countries varied – as they did across the African continent – one of the living cultural practices they shared was veneration of the ancestors at the end of one harvest season and the beginning of another.
Most Africans believe that such festivals help them forge close bondage with their ancestors and ask for their protection and continued blessings. Festivals are also held in order to purify the whole state so that people can enter the New Year with confidence and hope. In the British Isles, the celebration of Harvest Home marked the end of the reaping of grain, the main sustenance for all. It was later replaced by the Harvest Festival introduced by the prominence of the Anglican Church in the mid-nineteenth century.
The little evidence we have of early ‘crop over’ celebrations in Barbados and the rest of the Caribbean are written accounts by plantation owners in their diaries and financial ledgers and the journaling of British travel writers documenting their experiences as they move through the region. Researchers tell us that one of the earliest accounts given was in 1798 by the manager of the Newton Plantation in the parish of Christ Church where he reported that on culmination of the sugar cane harvest he would assemble the enslaved and give them “a dinner and sober dance.” It has also been noted that the plantation feasts and dances organised by the Planters were only one type of celebration that took place at the end of the crop. Investigations into the cultural practices of labourers during that time reveal that Enslaved Africans organised their own fetes and dances in their own free time. Some writers believe during such moments of revelry slave rebellions were secretly planned; others argue that Africans used these leisure spaces to commune and connect with Ancestral spirits.
The early Crop Over celebrations were not centralised and took place on individual plantations or groups of plantations, where activities were concentrated in the mill yard. The very last loads of cane to be harvested were brought into the mill yard, the nucleus of animal-drawn carts. These were decorated with branches and flowers, such as the hibiscus, bougainvillea and oleander; the canes were tied down with bright coloured cloth.
The first carts were usually led by a woman in a white dress and elaborate white head-tie, with a bright flower tucked into it. After this came the other carts, accompanied by the various workers associated with the sugar crop, all carrying final loads of canes.
The very last cart carried ‘Mr. Harding’ an effigy made of cane trash stuffed into an old pair of trousers and a coat, with a top hat on its head. After Emancipation Mr. Harding symbolised that period between sugar crops, when employment was difficult to obtain and money was scarce. This time was referred to as ‘hard time’ – the crop time and the hard time divided the Barbadian year, in the same way that spring, summer, autumn and winter divided the year in countries with temperate climate. A Bajan might be a sugar curer in crop time and a carpenter in hard times. The procession entered the mill yard and made two or three circuits of the yard so that the enthusiastic crowd could get a great view of the beautiful decorations and the workers themselves.
As the procession stopped, an old and respected labourer stepped forward to the waiting plantation owner or manager, the day’s host. With exaggerated solemnity, the labourer thanked the host on behalf of the other revellers, after a similarly exaggerated reply, known today in the folk tradition as speechifying, the festivities started.
Food was very important on the day’s agenda. The plantation provided a number of animals to be slaughtered, so that there was meat in abundance, made into stews, pudding and souse and roast pork. There were fragrant pots of peas and rice, as well as coconut bread and pone, and in more recent times, large supplies of salt bread to provide corned beef, cheese, ham and salt fish cutters. *For the non-Barbadian reader, pone is a type of bread made with cassava and a ‘cutter’ is a salted loaf cut down the middle with a filling.
There were also cassava ‘hats’ a roughly made bread of the residue of cassava from which the starch had been extracted. All these dishes were ‘washed down’ with copious amounts of liquid both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. Swank was a favourite, made from cane liquor diluted with water, fancy molasses, mauby, coconut water, rum and falernum – a very sweet alcoholic beverage.
And then there was the music! Here the Tuk Band played a very active role, with its accompanying troupe of folk characters: ‘shaggy bear’ – a man dressed in an outfit made of plantain shags or sheaves; the ‘mother sally’ – another man dressed up like a woman with exaggerated bosom and buttocks; the ‘donkey man’ – who danced in a donkey costume with four legs, but which, in silhouette, looked like a man riding a two-legged animal; the ‘tilt-man (later called stilt-man) known as moko jumbies in other territories- who walked and danced on slim elevated posts. Researchers believe the origins of these folk characters are deeply rooted in African ancestral worship and that some aspects, such as costume and the aesthetics of their performance survived the trans-Atlantic crossing. Along with the music, there was also much singing; many of those survive to this day as traditional folk songs. The lyrics were witty, the tunes rhythmic and many were composed on the spot.
There is no folk festival without dance and many dances were created over the years, but unfortunately, many of these dances have been lost because the steps were forgotten or not passed on to the younger generation. Two of the most popular ones were Joe and Johnny and Belly to Belly, both entailing highly suggestive movements, perhaps making them the precursor to the much debated ‘wukking up’ of the present era. There were also Quadrilles, Mazurkas, the Chigga-Foot Dance, Congalala, Four Points of the Mill, Treadmill Dance, Grand Change, Bluka-Foot Dance, Four-Cart Fessy, Four Knee Polka and the Catadonia.
The captive audience was also thrilled by other competitions, for example: catching the greased pig, where the prize was the greased pig. Another game of skill involved climbing a greased pole, which carried the prize – a sum of money at the very top of the pole. Such competitions were practical at the time, as celebrations were very centralised, so that patrons were never far from home. Very popular too was the art of stilt-walking, either in the form of competition or demonstration, which featured the stilt-walkers stripping to their underwear during the performance.
Side attractions were but another element of the Crop Over Festival in those days. There were Barrel Dancers, who danced about ‘wearing wooden barrels with the tops and bottoms removed; hand walkers-acrobatic men walking around on their hands with their feet in the air and the ever popular stick-licking competitions.
In addition to the Tuk Band, other bands cropped up, employing a wide variety of standard instruments, like the flute, fiddle, banjo, mandolin guitar, and a number of percussion instruments – bongo and conga drums, bottles containing water, small calabashes filled with seeds called shak-shaks and even two bones held together in one’s hand.
The grand finale of the festivities was the burning of Mr. Harding – this straw effigy, symbolises the fervent hope that the hard times to come would not be very severe.
The Crop Over festival as previously described dwindled around the 1940’s but did not die out entirely. After the Second World War there was a decline in the sugar industry and several of the plantations folded. This coupled with managers’ and owners’ reticence to invest in such extravagant festivities led to such a decline that many believe it had disappeared completely. However, oral testimonies from respondents who participated in the National Cultural Foundation’s Crop Over Oral History Project as well as other research projects conducted reveal that plantation crop over celebrations continued to take place during the 40s, 50s, 60s and indeed after the state’s involvement in 1974.
It is thought that in an effort to fill the void left by the absence of the Crop Over Festival, the Junior Chamber of Commerce – the Jaycees began to stage an annual carnival at Kensington Oval. This ran from 1958 until 1964. The event comprised float parades, masquerade bands, calypso contests and beauty pageants. This Trinidadian type carnival did not gain much popularity and was soon abandoned.
The Yoruba Foundation under the direction of Elton ‘Elombe’ Mottley, came up with the idea of reviving Crop Over. However, it did not receive the necessary support and approval from the Government; the concept was eventually taken up by the Board of Tourism, now the Barbados Tourism Authority in 1974.
The Tourist Board’s Crop Over planning committee was headed by Julian Marryshaw, Carol Cadogan and Emile Straker. The idea was to create an event that would attract tourists to the island during a time referred to in the industry as the ‘Slow Season’.
These early Crop Over events encompassed plantation fairs, beauty pageants, barge shows in the Careenage, featuring local, regional and international artistes. The late Bajan calypsonian the Mighty Dragon real name Edrick Jordan insisted that calypso be included on the Crop Over programme, and so a competition was started, the first of which was won by the Mighty Destroyer – Keith Christian in 1974.
The responsibility of producing Crop Over was later handed to the Ministry of Culture then headed by Nigel Harper and subsequently Elton ‘Elombe’ Mottley. In 1983 the National Cultural Foundation was established and has been conceptualising and producing the festival ever since. Over the years the Crop Over Festival has evolved significantly into the grand spectacle that it is today; some traditions have been lost; some new ones have emerged and some have been transformed. In 2014 it is spread over a period of eight weeks and is considered a major financial stimulus in the country generating some $80 million in economic activity throughout all tiers of the society.
-based on articles written for the National Cultural Foundation by John Gilmore (1988) and Addinton Forde (1998).