Every year, hundreds of thousands of people take part in Carnivals around the world. Carnival isn’t just a street party, it’s a reclaiming of the streets by the people. With its roots in ancient ritual, it resists oppressive power and celebrates freedom. It spans all of human experience and embraces both the sacred and the profane. Carnival is complicated; it means many different things to different people! It is a time when social conventions are overturned, hierarchies are dismantled, and people can explore different aspects of themselves and feel free of the usual rules of society. It is also about remembrance of people and times past, about challenges overcome, new beginnings and renewal. Most of all, Carnival is about togetherness, heritage, empowerment, rebellion and transcendence.
The European Carnival
The Caribbean Carnival that we see on our streets has roots in many different cultures. Pagan traditions in pre-Christian Europe celebrated fertility and spring. These celebrations were marked by feasting and a subversion of authority. Later, the Catholic Church adopted Pagan spring celebrations into the Pre-Lenten festivals. Lent is the period leading up to Easter where, traditionally, Christians fast. The term Carnival originates from the Latin colloquialism ‘Carne Vale’ meaning ‘farewell to the flesh’. In medieval and Renaissance Europe in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, when Lent began, there was street performance, feasting and masking. During this time, social conventions of hierarchy and gender were temporarily overthrown. Carnivals like this can still be seen in Fasching celebrations in the Cologne (Koln) region of Germany. These celebrations were regarded as threatening by those in power and were supressed for a time in the 1600s, but Carnival celebrations continued among the European upper classes and transformed into masked balls. In the UK, winter fire festivals such as Bridgwater Carnival and Lewes Bonfire are street parades which continue the traditional anti-Papist celebrations of the thwarting of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot on November 5th, 1605. These European traditions were taken to the Caribbean by plantation owners and workers during the era of the transatlantic slave trade.
The history of Carnival in the Caribbean is shaped by the transatlantic slave trade. Between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, European colonial forces, including Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands, forced millions of African people into enslavement. Enslaved African people were transported in brutal conditions by ship to the Americas to work on the land. As a result, many Caribbean nations had a significant African population, who brought with them their own cultural traditions, including religion, festivals and masquerade. The enslaved Africans were banned from practising their own rituals and folklore, but during holidays – such as Lenten Carnivals and Christmas – they were able to practise their own cultural traditions in their quarters, although they were not allowed to masquerade in the streets. The arrival of indentured servants from South Asia and China brought additional new masquerading traditions to some Caribbean Islands such as Trinidad, which are reflected in the ‘pretty Mas’ that can also be seen on our streets today. After the emancipation of enslaved Africans in the Caribbean in 1838, Carnival celebrations took place in the streets. These traditions have gone from strength to strength and are a hugely important time of year across the Caribbean. They provide a space for Caribbean people to challenge the abuse of power and mock those that abuse it. They are also a unique and phenomenal celebration of Caribbean music, artistry, performance and food.
The Windrush Generation and Caribbean Carnival in Britain
After World War Two, Britain encouraged the migration of people from the Caribbean to the UK, to help the country rebuild. In 1948, the passenger ship The SS Empire Windrush arrived from the Caribbean at Tilbury Docks. Many of the passengers were Jamaican servicemen who had served Britain during the war, but other passengers on board came from other Caribbean islands including Bermuda, Trinidad, and British Guyana. The Caribbean people who settled in Britain between the 1940s and 1970s have become known as the ‘Windrush Generation’. The Windrush Generation weren’t welcomed by many British people, and racism and social unrest followed. In response, Claudia Jones, a grass roots organiser, set-up a Carnival event in Kings Cross, to celebrate Caribbean culture in the UK. Meanwhile, in Leeds, Arthur France and the Leeds West Indian Carnival founders wanted to challenge the racism that they experienced by showing that Black people were capable of organising themselves. During the 1960s, Notting Hill Carnival and Leeds Carnival took to the streets, and other Caribbean-style Carnivals developed across Britain’s cities. Caribbean Carnival has gone from strength to strength and now is a major part of the cultural life of the UK.
Modern British Carnival
Carnival in Britain has become a space for people of all cultures and backgrounds to celebrate together in the street. Carnival plays an important role in creating a positive sense of community in multicultural Britain. Community groups, cultural organisations and professional Carnival bands take part every year. Each Carnival has its own character and traditions, informed by the communities that are involved and the geographical location and history of the area. These include seaside Carnivals, Lord Mayors’ shows, and the Caribbean inspired parades and fire festivals described here. There are Carnivals of all shapes and sizes which take place all over the UK every year. We hope to see you at a Carnival next year!