Notting Hill Carnival has grown over the years to become Europe’s largest street party. The carnival has attracted up to 2 million people in the past, making it the second largest street festival in the World after the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival held in that country.
It is hard to imagine that it all started in 1965 as a small gathering of 500 people. The Notting Hill Carnival was influenced by black immigrants from the Caribbean, particularly Trinidad, who were concerned about the rising racial tensions in the area as well as the low standard of living and lack of career opportunities.
Notting Hill in the late 50s was marked with racial tensions. Fascist groups urged disaffected residents to ’Keep Britain White’ and white working class ’Teddy Boys’ became increasing hostile towards the black community.
This resulted in riots in 1958 that saw 300-400 white ’Teddy Boys’ attacking the houses of West Indian residents.
The community relations were still tense and in 1959 Kelso Cochrane, an Antiguan carpenter, was stabbed to death by a gang of white youths.
The death of Kelso Cochrane and the previous year’s violence is said to have inspired the Notting Hill Carnival.
The first carnival was organised in 1959 by Claudia Jones, who is recognised as the ’Mother of Notting Hill Carnival’, and was indoors at St. Pancras Town Hall.
The carnival began as more of a local event than an Afro-Caribbean event but over the years it has grown more diverse and has become one of the largest street parties in Western Europe. The first carnival in Notting Hill began in 1965 when local woman, Rhaune Laslett, invited members of the various ethnic groups in Notting Hill to take part in a weeklong event that would end with an August bank holiday parade.
Notting Hill Carnival has not been without controversy over the years. In 1976 a riot broke out at the end of the carnival. The escalated violence resulted in over 100 police officers being injured. Two famous participants at the riot were Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon who later formed the seminal punk band The Clash and wrote the song ’White Riot’ about the event.
The Carnival, which used to showcase the Afro-Caribbean community primarily, now represents a wealth of other nationalities including those from South America, Afghanistan, Kurdistan and the Philippines.
Notting Hill Carnival has grown vastly in size over the years and has become important income for London’s economy, generating more than £100 million. The crowds fill the streets for as far as the eye can see. More than 1 million hours go into making the costumes and 150,000 plumes and 30 million sequins are used by costume makers. There are more than 70 performing units and 38 sound systems that keep the party going all day long at this memorable event.
From Trinidad to London
In Trinidad, during the days of slavery, black people (slaves) were forbidden to play musical instruments and wear costumes, apart from when the traditional imported European Carnival took place, six weeks before Easter.
On those occasions their participation was limited to providing entertainment for their masters.
It was also known that slaves wore forbidden to be in the streets after dark unless they were accompanying their masters. When the Laws were repealed and freedom from slavery was announced in 1833, the slaves took to the streets in song and dance, indulging in their culture and using their artistic skills to mimic their masters and pour scorn on the system that had had them enslaved for so long.
Consequently, slaves would dress like their masters, powder their faces to look pale like their masters or make masks to resemble their masters, distorting images and features if they regarded their masters as particularly evil or ridiculous.
These celebrations of freedom provided the only opportunity for black people to express their feelings about their slave masters and they quickly developed the art of costume making, creating fantastic ensembles which satirised their situation as Africans, transported to the Caribbean top become slaves.
In Trinidad the tradition continued, going from strength to strength, as people from all over the island began to take part and associate themselves with Carnival, The skills of costume making, steel drumming and calypso became what is today, a huge festival of arts and culture, of which Trinidadians everywhere are justifiably proud, drawing on all aspects of their cultural heritage from Africa and Europe.