Notting Hill Carnival: Resistance and Protest

The history of Notting Hill Carnival is shrouded in stories of activism and protest. Explore some of the most significant movements here.

Notting Hill Carnival Mas (2018/2018) by Getty ImagesNotting Hill Carnival

Notting Hill Carnival, a Place of Joy

Notting Hill Carnival is a place of joy, to dance and have fun with friends and other carnival goers, and to revel in the artistry of the five key arenas of Carnival, Mas Bands, Steel Bands, Calypso, Soca and Sound Systems. 

However, the origins of these arts come from a place in history which needs to be acknowledged and remembered in modern Carnival culture. This story will take a look at the years of protests and resistance which have shaped Notting Hill Carnival as we know it.

Dance at Plantation, Trinidad, 1836 (1836/1836) by Richard BridgensNotting Hill Carnival

The Origins of Caribbean Carnival

‘Modern’ Caribbean Carnival stems from a European tradition which originated with Italian Catholics. This tradition migrated to Trinidad and Tobago in the late 18th Century when French settlers hosted Masquerade parties, in which plantation owners mimicked the customs of their slaves.  

Following the abolition of slavery, former slaves reclaimed this practice and ironically mimicked the elaborate gowns of the plantation owners. They combined elements of their African heritage with European Carnival traditions and created mas, which, alongside music and dancing, remains central to Carnival celebrations. 

Carnival in the Port of Spain, Trinidad (1888/1888) by Melton PriorNotting Hill Carnival

As Carnival celebrations spread to other Caribbean islands it fused with unique local cultures, dress, dance and music, and became an expression of freedom and liberation from the constraints of the past following the emancipation of slavery. Those previously enslaved could now celebrate their native culture.

“Carnival was born from the seeds of revolution and rebellion, rebellion against the white slave masters and the tyranny of the whip.” - Sonny Blacks, music promoter

Kelso Cochrane protest by UnknownNotting Hill Carnival

The Beginning of Notting Hill Carnival

The very inception of Notting Hill Carnival was rooted in resistance. Following the Notting Hill Race Riots of 1958 and the murder of Antiguan carpenter Kelso Cochrane in 1959, Trinidadian activist Claudia Jones hosted the Caribbean Carnival at St Pancras Town Hall, to create a sense of unity in a time of racist violence.

Rhaune Laslett by UnknownNotting Hill Carnival

Following this, local resident and community activist Rhaune Laslett proposed a small event called the Notting Hill Festival in 1966 to ease the racial tensions which were still prevalent in the deprived area of North Kensington. 

London All Stars Steel BandNotting Hill Carnival

This became the template of the modern Notting Hill Carnival, centred around music, dance, food and the culture of the Caribbean diaspora. West Indians flocked to the streets of Notting Hill to hear the familiar sounds of steel pan and partake in playing mas, however what started as a festival of unity soon attracted racially provoked attacks.

The Mangrove Restaurant (1970/1970) by Getty ImagesNotting Hill Carnival

The Mangrove and the Notting Hill Frontline

In 1968, Trinidadian activist Frank Crichlow founded the Mangrove restaurant, which rapidly became a central hub of urban black resistance and a place of political discussion for those discriminated against within the community.

“The history of Mangrove embodied the spirit of British black civil rights resistance against racism and injustice” - Lee Jasper, community activist

The Mangrove (1978/1978) by Homer SykesNotting Hill Carnival

The Mangrove became the target of a series of raids, with police bombarding the restaurant hoping to catch illicit activity. The Mangrove was the pinnacle representation of an establishment in which black people lawfully gathered which was targeted by police harassment.

Mangrove Protests (1970/1970)Notting Hill Carnival

Mangrove Protests 1970

In retaliation, a march was held on the 9th August 1970, where a crowd gathered in front of the Mangrove, comprising of Caribbean communities from Notting Hill, Brixton, Islington and other areas of London. 

Mangrove 9 Protest (1970/1970) by The National ArchivesNotting Hill Carnival

The marchers numbered around 150, but the number of police grossly outweighed the protesters, with 588 constables, 84 sergeants, 29 inspectors and four chief inspectors. Unsurprisingly, tensions were high and violence broke out between the police and protesters. 

Mangrove 9Notting Hill Carnival

The Mangrove Nine

Following the protests, 9 men and women were put on trial for instigating the riot. After a long and difficult trial, the nine were acquitted. It was a moment of victory in the fight for racial equality. 

Watch members of the Mangrove Nine discuss the significance and meaning of the protest, with clips from the march in 1970.

Mas in the Ghetto (1973/1973) by Chris BellNotting Hill Carnival

Mas in the Ghetto 1973

Following the Mangrove trial, Rhaune Laslett stepped down as the organiser of Notting Hill Carnival, and was succeeded by Leslie Palmer. In Palmer’s 1973 Carnival, the theme was Mas in the Ghetto, to ‘emphasise the dreadful housing and slum-like conditions under which we lived in the Royal Borough’ - Leslie Palmer.

Here watch footage of the 1973 Notting Hill Carnival, Mas in the Ghetto.

The Riots of 1976 - Acklam Road (1976/1976) by Getty ImagesNotting Hill Carnival

The Riots of 1976

The ever rising tensions between the West London black community and the police came to a head in the carnival riots of 1976. Geared with more officers than had ever policed the event before, it gave both parties ammunition to exercise their anger. 

The Riots of 1976 (1976/1976) by Vernon St HilaireNotting Hill Carnival

“Carnival became the first opportunity that many of the black youths born in Britain had to express their anger on a national basis and to confront the police and let them know the forces of black anger.”  - Rasta Billy, former steel pan player.

Barricaded Dancing Revellers (1979/1979) by Getty ImagesNotting Hill Carnival

The Riots of 1976

Police brought in a military strategy which struck fear into those at the carnival, inciting the riot. The police were trying to ‘take back the streets’, and youths were ready to fight. The increase in policing raised the tension between them and carnival-goers, resulting in many casualties.

Early Mas in Notting Hill Carnival (1978/1978) by Frank BarrattNotting Hill Carnival

Although relations between Notting Hill Carnival and the police have improved over the years, carnival is still steeped in political activism. Due to its turbulent past, it comes under greater scrutiny than other large scale events, despite typically having lower crime rates.

Mas in the Ghetto (1973/1973) by Allan "Capitan" ThornhillNotting Hill Carnival

Notting Hill Carnival and Joy

The origins of Carnival are revolutionary, and now Carnival is a place of joy, celebration, liberation and freedom, however it is synonymous with resistance and protest. It continues to remain a place where communities can make their voices heard.

Green for Grenfell (2017/2017) by Ben CawthraNotting Hill Carnival

Green for Grenfell 2017

In 2017 Carnival went ‘Green for Grenfell’ as neighbours showed resilience for all those affected in the tragedy. The West London community came together to protest the acts in place which claimed the lives of 72 victims. 

Notting Hill Carnival, Introduction Video (2021/2021) by Notting Hill Carnival LtdNotting Hill Carnival

Notting Hill Carnival: Protest and Freedom

Notting Hill Carnival has been protesting for black rights since its inception, and has brought liberation to many people over the years. Carnival is a representation of freedom and movement, and the dark past of the tradition has made it what it is today. 

Although Carnival has been online for the past few years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we hope to return to the streets in force in 2022, and celebrate the event in person. See you there!

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