This weekend millions will fill the streets for Notting Hill Carnival, the annual celebration of Carribean culture created to foster integration and unity. HEKKTA delves into why Carnival was brought to London, how it was born and how it has evolved through the years.
Carnival has become the largest street party in Europe, and as the years go on, the number of people attending grows higher and higher. Amidst the party, it’s easy to forget why Carnival was created and, for many, they will have no idea of the history of the event.
In the 1950s, racial tensions in London were reaching a climactic level. After the war, citizens of British colonies from all over the world were invited to England to find better work as a result of the lack of labour due to all those who lost their lives in WW2. The most notable event was the arrival of SS Empire Windrush, in 1948, which brought around 500 Carribeans to the UK.
The mass immigration of skilled workers after the war led to areas of concentrated populations. The new arrivals joined Brits, Irish, Europeans and Jewish refugees in already impoverished, overcrowded slums, and subsequently, racial tensions began to grow.
These tensions were fostered and exploited by certain white and working class figures, particularly Oswald Mosley with his fascist ‘Keep Britain White’ campaign, playing on people’s fear with rhetorics such as migrants would take white jobs, take their homes and were disruptive. This harbouring of hate and instigation of divisions in society created a very racist Britain. Colour bans sprung up in employment and housing, and migrants found themselves banned from places like pubs purely because of the colour of their skin and place of birth.
The Notting Hill Race Riots of 1958, and the racist murder of Antiguan carpenter Kelso Cochrane the following year, marked the breaking point. This dream that was sold the migrants by the British government had turned into a nightmare. These events became the catalyst through which activists mobilised in an effort to bridge cultural gaps and ease these tensions. It was through these racist tensions that Carnival was born.
Several anti-racism processions walked the streets of London, but it was Brixton-based Trinidadian political activist Claudia Jones who thought up the first concept for Carnival. She also created the first black weekly newspaper in Britain, the West Indian Gazette, in which she presented her vision for a Carribean carnival to build bridges in the community and create unity among people by showcasing Caribbean arts and culture.
The first Carnival of it’s sort was held at St Pancras Town Hall in January 1959, just 5 months after the riots, and it was even televised by the BBC. It was held indoors because it was too cold to be held outside.
Although Jones’ events were popular among West Indians, they were not the beginning of the actual Carnival we know today, rather the first event of a similar kind.
The Notting Hill Carnival, as it would later become, was the brainchild of social worker Rhaune Laslett, in collaboration with the London Free School, a community action adult education project co-founded by Laslett.
Laslett’s work began before the Carnival creation, with her playground called Shanty Town, which was for children in the area and she also established a voluntary neighbourhood service that provided free 24-hour legal advice to immigrants, local residents and the homeless.
Carnival, in fact, came to her in a dream in which she has commented upon stating, “I could see the streets thronged with people in brightly coloured costumes, they were dancing and following bands and they were happy. Some faces I recognised, but most were crowds, men, women, children, black, white, brown, but all laughing.”
So in 1966, the first Carnival occurred, to which a whole plethora of people came, all local residents, but hailing from many places such as India, Ghana, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine, Cyprus and elsewhere. Significantly, Laslett invited renowned Caribbean jazz musician and steel pan player, Russ Henderson, to perform with his group.
“We felt that although West Indians, Africans, Irish and many other nationalities all live in a very congested area, there is very little communication between us. If we can infect them with a desire to participate, then this can only have good results.” – Rhaune Laslett
It was this invite that went on to define Carnival as a Carribean celebration, as when the steel pans filled the London streets, West Indians flocked to the sounds of home. Henderson had inadvertently put a Caribbean hallmark on the festival and word quickly spread to the other West Indian communities in England about what had taken place.
On this day in 1966, it marked the beginning of a festival that would become part of London’s identity, repeatedly serving as a huge symbol of unity but also a reminder of the racial tensions in which it was born from.
It is a chance to promote integration and showcase the love that exists in city, rather than only showing the hate and violence. The modern celebration is a massive event, with big DJs, food, dancing, huge processions and amazing colour everywhere. It is a place for all Londoners to express their delight at the amazing ethic diversity which this city has and, for a few days, it brings colour and joy to all those who attend.
The perception and reputation of Carnival has become increasingly tainted, by those who ignorantly choose to believe it’s a general piss up and also the media that choose to report it in a very bad light. Violence in recent years has led to threats by the police and the government of closure. Not only would this be an enormous shame for all of the communities that hold it so dear to it’s heart, but it would be choosing to ignore the past. Carnival is a constant reminder for the need for constant social progression.
With the backdrop of the Windrush scandal and Grenfell, this year is more important than ever for Carnival to once again represent the reason it started in the first place. A celebration of unity and love within the community.
So from us here at HEKKTA, we hope everyone has a great Carnival – drink loads and eat plenty and always remember why it is that we celebrate Carnival.