The story of Carnival starts on the African continent where carnival is as old time itself. Annual festivals with song and dance are an integral part of life. In West Africa, annual festivals take place each year around harvest time. The songs are an opportunity to confront the wrong doing of people in authority in the past year by mocking them through the words. “Kpanshimo” among the Ga people of Ghana takes place the day after “Homowo”, a harvest festival which commemorates the end a famine. The Yoruba and Igbo people of Nigeria call the annual exuberance Masquerade, an opportunity to join in singing and dancing with people dressed in costumes. The Igbo people say: “One does not stand in one spot to watch a masquerade”. The truth is, it would be difficult to watch carnival and not be drawn to take part. Sadly, many sit on the outside, watching, either because they are unable cross into this strange alien world where strangers hug each other and social norms are forgotten for the day or, they are frightened by the unknown.
A generation ago, around 1937 when my mother was a child in Accra, the grand-daughter of a Presbyterian priest, she was not allowed to take part in this street exuberance which took place nearby, and could only try and catch a glimpse of the people by looking over the wall of the house her grandfather had built. Perhaps too, her father being a civil servant working in the treasury contributed to this distance from this street abandon. It simply wasn’t the done thing and the gates to the house, nicknamed Jerusalem Gate, remained firmly shut to the wildness outside.
Following the trafficking of Africans across the Atlantic from the 1400s to the 1800s, these annual festivals were transported from the African continent to far flung places like Brazil where because of the irrepressible nature of the human spirit, it was reinvented to become the Mardi Gras carnival which continues till today, and Trinidad where carnival was rooted in protest. It is no accident that Notting Hill carnival, Europe’s largest street party came to the UK through the Caribbean where it had evolved as a means of protesting about injustice and oppression.
The history of Carnival in the UK is intertwined with the story of race riots, Enoch Powell’s “Teddy boys”, murder and the community’s response to it. In 1959, tensions in the Notting Hill area led to riots and several young people were arrested and fined. Claudia Jones, a Communist Activist born in Trinidad, who had been imprisoned in America during the McCarthy era, found herself in the UK when she was refused entry to the land of her birth after being deported from the US. In line with her activism, Claudia Jones decided to raise money to pay the fines of young people who had been arrested and also share the beauty of culture from the Caribbean. Her fundraiser took the form of an indoor carnival at St Pancras Hall in January 1959. The St Pancras Hall Carnival was televised on the BBC. This indoor festival led to many giving Claudia Jones the title “mother of Carnival”.
9 White rioters were handed 4 year sentences a few weeks before May 1959 when Kelso Cochrane, an Antiguan carpenter, on his way home when he was attacked and killed. No one has been convicted of that murder.
In 1966, Rhaune Laslett, half Native American, half Russian social worker had a vision to transform Notting Hill, then a deprived area, by holding a street festival that would bring everyone together to share their different cultures and promote communication. With support from a number of people and organisations, Notting Hill’s first multicultural street festival featured local residents from Ghana, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine, Cyprus, Nigerian musician Ginger Johnson and his group the Afro-Cubans, Agnes O’Connell and her Irish Girl Pipers and white New Orleans-style marching band. The Notting Hill Carnival as we know it today, is now the biggest street festival in Europe, attracting 2 million visitors, 40 000 volunteers and 9000 police. This large multicultural exuberance of music, dance and costumes has been a yearly presence on the streets of London since 1966.
Just as in 1937, a world away, some children could only attempt to watch from over a wall, in 2018, some see carnival as exposure to dangers unknown rather than a beautiful expression of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. The history of Carnival in the UK is not just a story about how art forms and culture migrate across Continents, but about how a fairly deprived area can develop an internationally renowned festival to rival the fame of the Rio Carnival. The predictable focus on crime figures add to the discomfort many feel about Carnival even though it contributes to state revenue and pro rata has lower crime figures than Glastonbury.