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Liverpool – International Slavery Museum  – Sailor Mas costume 

Liverpool – International Slavery Museum  Art Commission Brief – Sailor Mas costume 


The transatlantic slave trade was the greatest forced migration in history.  And yet the story of the mass enslavement of Africans is one of resilience and survival against all the odds, and is a testament to the unquenchable nature of the human spirit. In 1994, National Museums Liverpool opened the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery, the first of its kind in the world. This gallery has achieved huge visitor numbers and impact, but there is now a pressing need to tell a bigger story because of its relevance to contemporary issues that face us all. Our vision is to create a major new International Slavery Museum to promote the understanding of transatlantic slavery and its enduring impact. Our aim is to address ignorance and misunderstanding by looking at the deep and permanent impact of slavery and the slave trade on Africa, South America, the USA, the Caribbean and Western Europe.  Thus we will increase our understanding of the world around us. 

Dr David Fleming OBE

Ray’s Fancy Sailor Mas on display at Liverpool International Slavery Museum 

Director, National Museums Liverpool 

Concept for the Sailor Mas costume (Fancy Sailor)
Ray Mahabir- February 2007 

Perhaps the most visual manifestation of cultural transformation is Carnival – a complex merging of European religious festivities within Latin America with   elements of African festival. Trinidad is the cradle of carnival but the festival has been transported across the Caribbean, North and South America and to Europe. 

Notting Hill Carnival in London, established by Claudia Jones, is the main carnival in Britain, celebrated by black and white. Other carnivals take place in cities across the country. 

The Sailor Mas character was introduced to carnival in the 1880s when British, French and American naval ships came to Trinidad. It is one of the more popular costumes, being lightweight and inexpensive. There are several variations on the Sailor Mas including Free French Sailor’ King Sailor and Fancy Sailor to name a few. 

The Fancy Sailor was an off-shoot of the King Sailor. The fancy sailor costume consists of papier-mâché headpieces, decorated and painted to look like birds, animals or plants. The sailor outfit is decorated with ribbons, medals, braiding, swansdown and other embellishments to match the headpieces. 

The Sailor Mas costume will be displayed within the Cultural Transformation section to support the interpretation of the story of carnival. 

Stilted Sailors by S.i.A at Notting Hill Carnival 2017

The Fancy Sailor Costume: 2007  

Traditional sailor mas dates back to the late 19th century, when British and American warships paid regular visits to Trinidad, and crewmen on shore leave were a common sight in Port of Spain. Later, around the time of the Second World War, its popularity was boosted by the large American naval presence.  The original mas was a realistic portrayal of these sailors ashore, complete with rolling gait, smoking pipe, and a lady on the arm. The famous sailor dance mimicked the movement of drunk, rowdy crewmen. Uniforms were white, shirts stiffly starched, and caps tilted by gloved hands. This traditional sailor costume slowly embraced other characters on a naval theme, such as the fancy sailor.

The original fancy sailor, with a comic, pointy-nosed mask, had been invented. The new headpiece was a hilarious sight, and provided a good disguise for sailors wielding their trademark talcum powder (which they threw on hapless spectators — hence the saying you cant play mas and fraid powder). But the fancy sailor headpiece evolved rapidly. Merino cloth stretched over a wire frame could be made to represent almost anything, and soon the sailors were competing with ever more fanciful designs, from swans to fish to airplanes to elephants, lending the mas a surreal touch. From realistic naval uniforms, the fancy sailor costumes evolved into flamboyantly adorned suits festooned with swansdown, sequins, foil, tinsel, bottle caps, mirrors, and medals. 

 The ISM Fancy  Sailor costume will be crafted from a combination of all the above methods and materials base on white sailor suit heavily accessorised and trimmed, with headdress, small back piece, and walking stick. 

From Crown Colony to Independence:  from Independence to 2002
King Sailor rules! 

King Sailor at Trinidad Carnival

In Trinidad and Tobago we have been depicting various forms of the military in Carnival since 1845, so it is fitting that the National Carnival Commission, NCC, the governing body of Carnival in Trinidad & Tobago has dedicated the year 2002 to King Sailor. What exactly is this and how is it depicted? In Carnival there is a hierarchy of characters and in sailor mas there is King Sailor. 

King Sailor is a traditional mas usually portrayed by men dressed in gaily colored bell-bottom trousers. With it comes a special dance, which is an integral part of its portrayal. It is performed with a side-to-side rocking of the torso and a quick heal-to-toe slide. The King Sailor usually carries a long pole, which he pretends to stoke’ the furnace and dances the mas.’ He also sticks out his abdomen and buttocks and with his legs does loose circles, meanwhile hunching his shoulders and moving his head forward and backwards. He moves forward in little hops, sometimes landing on the inside edges of his feet. With his hands he pantomimes various kinds of activity like flying a kite, driving a car, skiing. 

According to Jason Griffith who for the past 29 years brought out a sailor band, credited Jim Harding with inventing this style of mas. In the 1930s Jim Harding bought a merino mask and since there was little form in the mask he improved on it and made the nose with paper mache into the shape of a cone which was called Long Nose Sailor. Changes in the depiction of sailor mas came about based on occurrences in everyday life for instance when the King of England died his portrayal of a sailors costume was black and white as a sign of mourning. The following year at the coronation of King George VI, his sailor mas were red, white and blue in celebration, and there the King Sailor was born. 

In the early days the paper mache cone nose is what depicted the mas. This shape changed to birds, elephant head, reindeer or anything depicting an

Ray and his friend Roger in Peter Minshall’s Sailor Mas Ship Of Fools 2003

animal; the theme of the headpieces often had no relationship to the activities of sailors. When bandleaders were producing their mas they would hide the nose to conceal the shape and color portrayal from each other. Today the marketing process is different, in that if you want to sell your costumes they have to be displayed. 

After World War II the size of the headpieces changed dramatically and the creativity kicked in with the improved movements to costumes and decoration style. Some of the portrayals changed to tanks, ships, clocks and cash registers that lit up and opened and the original white costumes were now covered in gold braid, sequins, insignias and multicolored fabrics. Culturally in Trinidad and Tobago it was an exiting time as there was an explosion of creativity not only in dance and music but also artistic expression. 

Sailor Mas at Trinidad Carnival

In the 1930s the music that accompanied the sailor bands was tambour bamboo, the style of dance was a chipping and shuffling of feet. After WW II portrayals of the American military became popular because of their impact on the community. The dance changed due to the infectious music of the steelband that accompanied these bands which had a psychological effect on the sailors, and fancy dance steps came naturallysteps which coincided with whats happening on a boat, they used their sea legs to create a dance! 

Cito Valesquez, a master wire bender brought out a sailor band in 1959 called Fruits and Flowers” which revolutionized the making of costumes. His depiction, which had 22 floats, was so realistic, that his band was the only sailor band that ever won Band of the Year! For him and other master wire benders like Senor Gomes, Jason Griffith and Nobel Alexis their portrayals over the years would include spiders, flies, a hermit crab and even the signs of the Zodiac with life-size paper mache figures worn as headpieces. In contrast to the King Sailor there were other depictions in a sailor band just to name a few. 

There was Suck Me Nose sailors who had a hood over his head with very long noses and a costume made out of white cotton drill. They used to have a flask in their back pockets and a walking stick and would throw powder on a pretty girl and say suck me nose’ hence their name! 

Flour Bag sailors costume was made out of flour bag with a sailor cap and tie. 

Sailor Mas at Trinidad Carnival

Fireman or stokers wore a black sleeveless merino’ with paintings on the front and back, denim trousers with thick white gloves, an officers hat and large goggles over the eyes. No sailor band was complete without this character and he carried a long iron rod bent at the tip, which he pushed ahead of him. He had a specific and interesting dance, which was similar to the limbo’ in that his body was bent backwards, knees projecting and his lower legs were almost on the pavement! 

Fancy Sailor depictions varied in colors of blue, black or gold some with cordian pleated sleeves with lots of appliques and gold braids. Their dance was called kariko’ or Spanish maricon in which the dancer gyrates his hips in loose circles and sticks out his buttocks. 

Sea Bees were an abbreviation for Construction Battalions with engineers who carried huge spanners and wrenches. They wore navy work clothes and their dance was fingers spread and with a rolling gait which mimics drunkards, lurching diagonally right and left and dragging their feet. 

There were also Relief Sailors who assisted the King Sailors with their headpieces because they were too heavy to wear all day. Their dance was called rock de boat in which the dancers hold each other on their shoulders forming two or three lines moving across the stage in opposite directions which gave an appearance of waves. 

‘effigy of Joseph Johnson’, John Thomas Smith, 1815

“I had in my possession an old post card I kept and it was the inspiration for the  commission” – Ray Mahabir  

Joseph Johnson, an ex-seaman street singer. Joseph Johnson, known as ‘Black Joe’, was a seaman discharged from the Merchant Navy when he was wounded. He was not entitled to a seaman’s pension nor could he claim parish relief, because he was born abroad. To earn money, Johnson became a street singer who built and wore a model of the sailing ship Nelson on his head. Sailors were amongst the first free Black people to reside in London. This etching is from ‘Vagabondiana or, anecdotes of mendicant wanderers through the streets of London; with portraits of the most remarkable.’ by John Thomas Smith. This print was originally published in 1815. 



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