The fiesta can of course be traced back to Caribbean origins and the carnivals held in the early 19th century following the abolition of slavery. Particularly strong in Trinidad, the carnivals involved elements recognisable today, in particular that of Mas (short for Masquerade), in which Trinidadians dressed up in costumes that parodied European fashions.
The carnival of the 20th century evolved from the efforts of two remarkable women, Claudia Jones and Rhaune Laslett, both of whom were inspired by the terrible racial tension of the 1950s. Notting Hill had one of the most concentrated populations of West Indians in the country, following a mass influx in response to the post-WWII labour shortage. The new arrivals joined Brits, Irish, Europeans and Jewish refugees in already impoverished, overcrowded slums. Oswald Mosley’s fascist ‘Keep Britain White’ campaign exploited white working class angst, and white-on-black violence increased, culminating in the 1958 Notting Hill Race Riots.
Claudia Jones was a talented Trinidadian activist, expelled from America in 1955 on account of her Communism and deported to Britain. In 1958, she founded the UK’s first black newspaper, The West Indian Gazette, and a year later organised a ‘Caribbean carnival’. The event was televised by the BBC, hoping to build bridges between warring communities by showcasing Caribbean culture. Held indoors in January, Jones’ carnival was popular with West Indians but was far from an authentic carnival atmosphere.
In 1964, social worker Rhaune Laslett organised a festival, the first outdoor event in Notting Hill. Laslett — who was of Native American and Russian descent — was already an established figure, working towards healing racial and class-based tensions in the area through a range of initiatives. She maintained that the idea for the festival came to her in a vision, during which she saw a multi-racial community dancing joyfully together in the streets.
Laslett’s festival was held in collaboration with the London Free School, which she founded with political activist, journalist and photographer John Hopkins. Whereas Jones’ event had had a Caribbean focus, Laslett’s sought to encourage communication and communal participation between a variety of cultures — participants came from India, Czechoslovakia, Nigeria, Ireland, Ghana, the West Indies and many others. Significantly, however, Laslett invited popular Trinidadian musician Russell Henderson to play with his steel-pan band, one of only a few in the country. Henderson and his group went for an impromptu parade down the streets of Notting Hill, drawing Caribbeans with the sounds of home — the first Notting Hill procession.
The Notting Hill Carnival has been held every year since 1966, becoming a distinctly Caribbean celebration by 1976. It has often faced closure, being marred by violence in several years, and suffering from negative media coverage — a trait which seems to be repeating this year.
Notting Hill Carnival will take place from Sunday 26th – Monday 27th August.