These church-goers embraced this opportunity for dressing up, singing and entertainment under the appearance of religious devotion. The once ailing flower societies were revived in 1839 with ostentatious display and seriousness and their energetic revival remained a dominant force until 1860, when both groups were excommunicated from the church. However that did not put an end to the festivals, it only ushered a phase of relative quiet.
Did you know the flower festivals were the domain of the common working class and the flower societies are believed to have existed in the French Antilles, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Dominica since the earliest days of slavery? The first recorded mention in St. Lucia was in a letter by a Mme Jeanne le Vexier dated September 15, 1769, but their origin remains shrouded.
One Douglas Midgett theorised that the societies were founded during slavery and Henry Hegart Breen speculated that they had a political character – ‘their occasional reference to English and French, Republicans and Bonapartists would seem to confirm this impression.’ Austrian anthropologist, Manfred Kremser believed the flower societies were originally charitable self-help organisations with roots in the Catholic Church, given that each society celebrates a patron saint’s day.
However, other researchers believed the flower societies have African roots and their association with the Catholic Church was simply a guise to render them more appeasing to their European masters. Karl Wernhart associated the flower festivals of St. Lucia with sacred African kingdoms, which existed over 900 years ago from Niger to the Nile and from Ethiopia to Southern Congo and Rhodesia.
In a similar vein, Gerhard Kubik likened the la Rose and la Marguerite to the Congada dance drama found in South Brazil which traces back to an old Congolese tradition. All these groups share a hierarchically structured mock society. The flower societies are headed by a king and queen; supported by lesser royalty and a range of pseudo-legal, military and professional personnel such as a governor-general, president, judge, magistrate, lawyer, sergeant, corporal, secretary, doctor, soldiers, ladies of parliament, police officers, nurses and ordinary citizens.
Did you know during the eight weeks leading to the official feast day members hold regular séance at which traditional songs are revived and new compositions introduced and money collected for the feast? The shâwèl/chantwèl along with the other traditional musicians is the main attract at the séance and participants are fined a small fee by the police officers for perceived transgressions as a means of raising funds.
The séance culminates on the feast days of the respective saint day (St. Rose de Lima – August 30 and Mary Marguerite of Alacoque – October 17) with church ceremonies after which there are parades, food, drinks and dancing in the various communities.
Source: A History of St. Lucia by Harmsen, Ellis & Devaux – 2012
This feature runs every Tuesday and Thursday. It is written by daughter of the soil Anselma Aimable, a former agricultural officer and former correspondent for Caribbean Net News, who has a deep interest in local culture and history. Send ideas and tips to [email protected]