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Bacchanal Blues: The Origins of Notting Hill Carnival

28th August 2019

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The world famous Notting Hill Carnival attracts approximately .. people each year. As the number of masqueraders as well as onlookers grow, it is easy to forget the true meaning behind the carnival and the foundations on which it had been built.  

 

 

Many have forgotten that 1950’s Notting Hill was far from the wealthy borough that it is today. Known as ‘Notting Dale’, the then working-class area in west London was comparable to a slum. Although the area housed large numbers of Trinidadians, Jamaicans, St. Lucians and other Caribbean people who were invited to the UK to rebuilt the capital after the war, restrictions preventing Black and Irish people from pubs, bars and accommodation were common. Teddy boys, lurked on street corners during the evening, pursuing black men who they believed to be ‘stealing their women’. 

 

As a result, social tension and racism was rife, escalating to a four day riot in Notting Hill during a Bank Holiday weekend in August 1958. An incident involving Jamaican Ray Morrison and his Sweedish wife catalysed the riot which spread across Ladbroke grove and Colville. In an attempt to pacify and bring together the notting hill community, Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian political activist birthed the first ever caribbean carnival which took place on the 30th January 1959 in St. Pancras Town Hall only 5 months after the race riots.

                                                               

 The first Caribbean Carnival, held by Claudia Jones in St Pancras Town Hall, 1959

The nomination of Carnival Queen, 1959

The first official Notting Hill outdoor carnival dedicated to celebrating Caribbean culture took place in 1964, with only a few hundred people. The carnival was held annually and eventually under the influence of Rhaune Laslett, took the streets of Notting Hill in order to bring all communities together. Static sound systems were introduced in 1973 and eventually, the first stages for live performances were organised in 1979 by Wilf Walking, initially featuring reggae bands. 

 

Mas, short for masquerade is an integral part of carnival culture, tracing back to slavery with the burning of the canes. Now it is symbolic of freedom among black people, a form of street theatre, a way of expressing Caribbean identity and a critique of white imperialism.

 

Rooted in Caribbean culture, the notion of togetherness and unity as well as the Windrush generation influence is the foundation of the Notting Hill Carnival. It is a weekend of self-expression, culture and heritage, representing the freedom of the Caribbean diaspora. 

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