Carnival vs. COVID-19: Casualty Or Sign Of The Times?

Carnival vs. COVID-19: Casualty Or Sign Of The Times?

Glastonbury, Wimbledon, Ascot, The Queen’s Birthday, The London Marathon, the list could go on. These events don’t usually appear in the same sentence, they do have one thing in common: they’ve all been cancelled.

September is officially here – the heatwave has passed, children across the country are returning to school, and the last bank holiday until Boxing Day is gone. Usually, the close of summer is filled with feathers, jerk chicken and sounds of the Caribbean as Notting Hill Carnival takes over the capital – but this year the steel pans were silenced.

For the first time in its 60-year history in the UK, Carnival was cancelled and celebrations moved online.

Notting Hill Carnival is an annual event that encompasses the streets of Notting Hill and the Kensignton area. This Carnival has origins in the carnival traditions of the Caribbean and the social and political conditions of the post-1948 arrival of the Windrush generation.

So how did it all begin? Here’s our brief history (read the full history here):

  • 22nd June 1948: The SS Empire Windrush arrives to the UK, and with it, 300,000 people from the Caribbean who settle primarily in Brixton and Notting Hill
  • 1958-1959: far-right movements occupy and galvanise the white working-class population in this area who launch attacks on the black community under the banner “Keep Britain white”, resulting in the death of Antiguan-born carpenter Kelso Cochrane
  • 30th January 1959: Trinidadian-born activist Claudia Jones and founder of the West Indian Gazette newspaper organise a Caribbean Carnival in St. Pancras Town Hall in response to these attacks. Jones’ husband continued this legacy throughout the 60’s following Claudia’s premature death
  • 1966: Community activists Rhaune Laslett and Andre Shervington organise a street festival to entertain local children and attempt to ease ongoing tensions
    • Well-known Trinidiain musician Russell-Henderson performed here, which transformed the festival into a carnival by introducing a procession incorporating steel pans
    • This year marks the first Notting Hill Carnival, adding bands, costumes and music reminiscent of the traditional Caribbean carnivals
  • 1976: Conflict with local white residents and the police leads to media coverage linking Carnival to crime and disorder in the hopes of shutting it down
  • Today: Notting Hill Carnival attracts up to two million attendees and 400,000 volunteers every year, and operates using very little government funding.

What makes Notting Hill Carnival so important?

The Black Cultural Archives explains why Notting Hill Carnival is a staple in the British calendar:

The history of Notting Hill Carnival represents the resilience and cultural diversity of the communities of London. Despite the political pressures Notting Hill carnival has grown and thrived and represents a space for challenge and community cohesion.”

Has the intention met the reality? NPN followed up with those of Caribbean descent in the diaspora to find out their experience:

“Having grown up in the UK as a black-British person of Caribbean descent and witnessing a lot of racism and division – Carnival was the first time I had ever seen my own culture being celebrated so openly & holistically. You would go and experience everything; the floats, costumes, various sound systems, street food and purely good vibes amongst both white people and black. It was the only time you would ever see it!! It was safe & fun back then, albeit still very loud!! We would go every year without fail – we’d just round up whoever was available and go and have a good time from morning all the way through to the night. It might sound strange, but it felt so nice to be able to celebrate being black!”

Carnival isn’t just a “street party”, but a bridge between two worlds – it is a taste of the Caribbean that also reinforces the spirit of London to embrace and celebrate other cultures. COVID-19 caused countless cancellations, postponements, and decreased funding – and it’s not over. It’s hard to say what 2021 has in store for us, but as we look back at the summer of all the things that didn’t take place and embark on a fresh start for the new school year, let’s not cancel cultural dialogue, unity or the importance of embracing diversity.

Take a step back in time with us – 60 years of the Notting Hill Carnival in pictures available here.