WAR OF THE BAMBOOS

If you’re spending your Christmas holiday in Saint Lucia, you are certain to enjoy one of the island’s most festive seasons. As with everything else here, Christmas has its own peculiar traditions which add to the uniqueness of our holiday season. In sharp contrast to carols which encourage peace and goodwill to all men, in Saint Lucia you will be treated to a virtual bamboo-cannon war (locally known as bamboo bursting) that shatters the calm of cool December evenings.

This war traditionally begins in early November, lasting until the end of December, and starts from sundown, going on into the night. Although it may sound alarming, there is really nothing to fear because the participants in this traditional folk method of heralding the coming of Christmas are primarily young boys, and the cannons are non-ballistic. They are made from the semi-tropical bamboo grass and each bamboo-cannon team tries to outdo the others in making the loudest booms.

Mature bamboo stalks, about six inches in diameter. are cut to varying lengths – the longer the bamboo, the more resonant the boom. The ends are trimmed and all nodes inside the hollow stem are broken except the last one – this will serve as a receptacle for the fuel when the bamboo is tilted into a firing position. Over the receptacle, a one inch square hole is bored away from the end of the bamboo. The bamboo’s open end is elevated slightly by placing it on a pile of stones with the closed end on the ground. Kerosene is poured in through the hole and a bottle lamp (called a ‘shal’ in Kwéyòl) is kept nearby to serve as the lighting source.

The cannon firer gets a thin piece of stick that doesn’t burn too quickly and this is dipped into the kerosene inside the bamboo and set alight by the flame from the ‘shal’. The flaming tip of the stick is thrust into the hole above the receptacle and the expert firer puts out the flame by clamping his hand over the hole. This must be done several times to warm the kerosene until a few modest pops are heard. As the kerosene vaporises, the explosions of the fuel and the oxygen mixture grow into thunderous roars. The force of the explosion, in the form of a ferocious blast of hot air and a blinding flash of accomanying light, is propelled through the elevated cannon.

Bamboo bursting is not an easy act as the operation requires precision and expertise if it is not to be disappointing or dangerous. Between firings, the bore has to be cleared of smoke and this is achieved by blowing briskly through the hole over the opening of the receptacle chamber. A bamboo cannon crew typically consists of three or four persons: one mans the ‘shal’ and refuels the cannon, one handles the lanyard and another blows to clear the smoke. It is very important that the crew looks out for cracks developing along the bamboo’s length as the wood dehydrates. The bamboo may shatter under the force of a particularly massive explosion.

An evening of bamboo bursting ends when the kerosene has been exhausted. So when you hear cannons firing in Saint Lucia after dark, you know that Christmas is on its way.