“A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom” reads the banner of a Carnival inspired party/festival organised by Claudia Jones and Edric Connor at the St. Pancras Town Hall in the Borough of Camden, London. This took place after the 1958 race riots in Notting Hill Gate, in order to bring some semblance of peace and stability in the face of the rampant racism experienced by many Caribbean migrants who, at the invitation of the British government, came to England from the Caribbean in the late 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s.

On 22nd June 1948, Britain saw the arrival at the Tilbury docks, of the SS Empire Windrush, carrying 492 Caribbean pioneers who had travelled across the seas to begin a new journey in their lives. This date has now come to symbolise the first wave of post-war Caribbean migration to Britain. It should be noted however that many West Indians had lived in Britain before this date, hundreds of thousands of them enlisting in the British armed services during world war two.  Nevertheless, the arrival of the Windrush is seen as a defining moment in the history of this modern age. 

This migration was no mere coincidence: the post-war British economy was experiencing acute labour shortages in its service and industrial sectors.  In fact, an open invitation had been extended to citizens of what were then still British colonies, to ‘come to the motherland’. People from different parts of the West Indies, indeed some a thousand miles apart, came together with many other West Indians from the other islands for the first time on British soil. They received a very mixed reception, from a ‘welcome home’ to open hostility.

The Daily Express, June 21, 1948 read:                   

“five hundred unwanted people, picked up by the trooper Empire Windrush after it had roamed the Caribbean, Mexican Gulf and Atlantic for 27 days, are hoping for a new life.  They incloude 430 Jamaican men.  And there are 60 Polish women who wandered from Siberia, via India, Australia and Africa to Mexico, where they embarked on the Empire Windrush. The Jamaicans are fleeing from a land with large unemployment.  Many of them recognise the futility of life at home.”

The mid-twentieth century saw continual and substantial Caribbean emigration to Britain.  These Caribbean immigrants expected their economic and educational status to change dramatically.  Instead, Britain’s response to them was the long-term covert and overt practice of racism and marginalisation.  Like migrants the world over, once they had arrived, they were promptly pushed into the worst paid, least attractive jobs, and housed in metropolitan slum areas. Samuel Selvon, in his groundbreaking novel The Lonely Londoners, astutely observed:

“it have no place in the world exactly like a place where men get together to look for work, and draw money from the welfare state, when they ain’t working. Is a kind of place where hate and disgust, avarice and malice and sympathy and sorrow and pity all mix up. Is a place where everybody is you enemy and you friend”

It is in response to this disenfranchaisment, blatant racism and victimisation, whilst still mourning their lost dreams and crushed illusions, whilst facing the reality of daily survival in a hostile environment, that the seeds of Notting Hill carnival emerged, like a phoenix from the ashes,  to quell the disappointment of a disenchanted people.

Notting Hill Race Riots

To accurately survey the emergence of Notting Hill Carnival, we must chart the arrival and work of the political activist and communist, Claudia Jones, born in Trinidad, but brought up in the U.S.A.  She arrived in Ladbroke Grove, London, around 1951 and founded the Caribbean News publication, which later became the West Indian Gazette.  This publication espoused an international as well as a Caribbean ethos, whilst delivering a very progressive perspective on Black issues in Britain. Claudia Jones developed a considerable reputation for campaigning on behalf of the black community in the North Kensington area. Mike and Trevor Phillips note that:

“In the early 1950’s, the Notting Hill area was still a slum, full of multi-occupied houses crawling with rats and rubbish. The people who lived there were poor.  Their wages were low, or they were unemployed.  It had a raft of dodgy pubs, gang fighting, illegal drinking clubs, gambling and prostitution……..on the morning of  Sunday, August 24, the police began stopping groups of young white men in cars touring west London……they arrested a group of nine (armed) youths in one car after they’d assaulted several black people in Ladbroke Grove and Shepherds Bush……even then, it was not obvious, that this was the build-up to something more serious than the usual Saturday night mayhem”.

In 1958, when Kelso Cockrane was murdered in the Notting Hill area in a racially motivated incident, the West Indian community responded with violent rioting.  These disturbances became known as the Notting Hill race riots and had the effect of creating a watershed in the mentality of the immigrant West Indian community in Britain. They no longer regarded Britain as the ‘Mother Country’. These working-class people from a varied cross section of the Caribbean islands, who had never come together before as a collective, began looking toward themselves for their salvation.  Thus were the seeds sown for the birth of a new British black identity. 

A visionary, Claudia Jones recognised and exploited the relationship between politics and culture and on recognising that a dangerous but crucial change of attitude had taken place within the West Indian community, she orchestrated in 1958, the first public Carnival procession around Powis Square followed by a dance at the St Pancras Town Hall.

The 1958 Notting Hill Race Riots served to establish the ‘place’ of the Carnival and the weather of the summer season, probably the ‘time’. Sympathies in the Notting Hill Gate area were positive, the black working-class rubbing shoulders with the hedonistic, white, upper-classes of Holland Park who lived on the periphery of the Notting Hill area. These people were attracted to the creativity, pleasure, enjoyment, rhythm and music of carnival and these ‘coming togethers’ would often take place in the neutral territory of the Mangrove Restaurant.

Errol Hill had this to say in his book The Trinidad Carnival: Mandate for a National Theatre:

“The Carnival of Trinidad has traditionally served as a most powerful cultural force which has not only successfully welded together a diverse multi-racial and heterogenous society, by creating an identity for Caribbean people in the Caribbean, but more importantly, it has created an identity for those West Indians who have found themselves domiciled in foreign countries and in particular Britain”.

Migration and Carnival

Migration always challenges a culture to replicate itself in new spaces, and this often with somewhat differing and even sometimes totally new materials, migrants will adopt, adapt and re-invent. Humanity invariably responds to change with energy, with vision and with creativity.  These new possibilities of human interaction arise only because these migrants are from the same place. Race, class, colour and other barriers are breached or dissolved as they, previously imagining themselves disparate, discover their shared identity.

In the case of Caribbean migration to Britain in the mid- 20th century, this manifested itself through the practice and celebration of Caribbean home traditions and in particular Carnival celebrations.  Caribbean cultural expressions such as food, music, artistic activity, drink and fashion, became the important visible symbols of a memory they held inside.

What often emerges in terms of these cultural adaptations is usually familiar enough to be comforting and comfortable,  but sometimes the results are so startlingly new and represent such radical departures from previous trajectories, that people scarcely remember or recognise that they are descended from a certain remembered or un-remembered prototypes of model, myth and/or memory.

Carnival for the 20th-century Caribbean migrant in fact addressed initially and emphatically, the deep spiritual and psychological needs associated with anonymity, alienation, racism, materialism, classism, sexism and subversion of spirituality.  Then to a much lesser extent, it addressed their social needs - that social clothing which hid their natural nakedness, so preventing them from becoming their real selves, by imposing tension, anxieties, and other neuroses of social existence.

Evolving culture cannot be divorced from the social and political system in which that culture is located. Carnival is one of the various modes of action by which settlers from the Caribbean and their children have changed the cultural life of Britain.

Refusing the racial assumptions of imperial British culture, Carnival has appropriated and reformulated European aesthetics, combining them with African traditions, and created a new cultural space as a tool for liberation. As Brian Alleyne points out that, despite differences in detail, the existing studies of the British carnival all ‘see the development of carnival in Britain in terms of a struggle by West Indians (Caribbean people) to make a public expression of a collective identity in the face of a structurally racist and hostile social reality in Britain. They have treated the carnival as one instance of the ongoing struggle of Black people to forge social and political space in Britain’.

Carnival as Protest

There is a long history of the Trinidad carnival being used as a vehicle for protest against the injustices of colonial subjugation and this was transported into the British carnival tradition; this ‘protest’ must be understood in the context of opposition to white British racism.

What is particular about the English speaking Caribbean peoples is that they are simultaneously deeply familiar with British culture because they have lived with the British for so long, and yet, considered by those very same British, to be ineradicably different, because they are ‘black’.

 As reflected in Carnival , many of the creative talents of the Caribbean community are still framed within this familiarity of these richly ‘traditional’ arts practices which are interwoven within the textures of our lived culture, it is clear that even new and experimental work draw upon these repertoires, idioms and languages of representation. George Lamming had this to say:

“It is the brevity of the West Indian’s history and the fragmentary nature of the different cultures which have fused into something new; it is the absolute dependence on the values in that language of his coloniser which has given him a special relation to the word, colonialism.  It is not merely a political definition; it is not merely the result of certain economic arrangements.  It started as these and grew somewhat deeper. Colonialism is at the very base and structure of the West Indian cultural awareness”.

This is why Carnival Messiah has license to take the elements of ‘Carnival’ off the street and place them in a theatre. This is a manifestation of appropriation as well as globalisation. I refer to this phenomenon as ‘Carnival futures’.

The 'New Britain'

The Windrush Migrants, otherwise known as the formerly colonised, the sometimes anti-colonial, and now  post-colonial subjects, have transformed themselves in Britain over the past 40 years through Carnival practice, using the creative and expressive arts as the central weapon and leading non-confrontational feature of change.

Today, third and fourth generation Black, Asian and  other post-colonial ethnic minorities in Britain  have formed communities that are both distinctively marked culturally but yet have never been separatist or exclusive (although, some may have been perceived as such)  They have maintained some cultural traditional practices and these continue to carry respect. 

However, the degrees and forms of attachment are ever changing and fluid – they are being constantly negotiated. Traditions co-exist with the emergence of new, hybrid and cross-over cultural forms of tremendous vitality and innovation.  These communities are in touch with their differences without being saturated by tradition.  They are actively involved with every aspect of life around them without the illusion of assimilation and identity. This is the ‘New Britain’.

If anything, their perennial problem has been one of omission, of lack of accommodation and lack of inclusion (hospitality) from within the host country. However, it seems to me that the agenda of Britain’s black communities is complex but clear.  They desire to be treated and represented with justice and equality (i.e. treated as the ‘same’) while simultaneously demanding recognition of their ‘difference’( i.e. there are many ways of’ being black’).

Today, Britain needs a fresh and creative political and social consensus on migration. This should contain a bias towards seeing the economic benefits of inward migration and welcoming the diversification of society. Politically, the question to be asked is how migration can equip Britain for the global economy and society that is here to stay.

The Carnival tradition in Britain is really best understood as a subtle, cultural/political response to racism. Its subtlety lies in its production of an invisible politics, a politics which is normally non-confrontational. Carnival in Britain understands that the anti-human negativity of racism is effectively challenged by the embodied, human performance of art.

 Carnival Messiah essentially does the same thing by acquiring, appropriating, re-defining, adopting and adapting an existing status and re–moulding this into the conceiver’s re-imagined, re-negotiated format, made relevant by the conceiver’s own historical and contemporary multi-generational experience, of the Caribbean and now Britain.

Claire Holder had this to say:

“Carnival is not just a legalised rave..... an occasion to make a quick buck.....lest we forget, millions have lost their lives in pursuit of liberty and millions more will do so in time if mankind continues to want to assert superiority over others....carnival evolved as a victory over oppression.....carnival is a celebration of our liberation....for us as a people, carnival is spiritual - the embodiment of our sense of being and purpose."

Out of the ‘violence and rupture’ of a colonial legacy of negative social factors was born the Carnival of Trinidad and Tobago. Out of the experience of racist rejection during mass migration to Britain from the Caribbean in the 1940's grew the unique celebration that today is 'Carnival in Britain'.

© Geraldine Connor (2006)

This essay was taken from the Harewood Community, Education and Outreach Programme, an initiative of David Lascelles and The Harewood House Trust, in collaboration with Geraldine Connor. It was created for the Harewood Festival 2007  in commemoration of the bicentennial of the abolition of slavery parliamentary act 1807.

Banner image © Tony Bartholomew (2019)