Notting Hill Carnival a history of reconciling riot torn Britain

Monday, 29 August 2011


Racist killing of Kelso Cochrane
kelso_cochraneAs with the first ever Notting Hill Carnival in 1959, this year's celebrations have also been burdened with easing the rancour left in the wake of the civil unrest, which swept the nation earlier this month.

The brainchild of Claudia Jones, community activist and publisher of the first black British Newspaper, The West Indian Gazette, the Notting Hill Carnival was born out of the response to the tragic racist murder of, a young African Caribbean man, Kelso Cochrane back in 1958.

Racial tensions in Britain were particularly high at the time. Extremist right wing groups the White Defence League, which badged itself along similar lines to the Nazis and the National Labour Party, which claimed to a racial nationalist group dominating life in Notting Hill at the time.

The post-war generation of black Briton's suffered a series of racist attacks at this time and it was not uncommon for racist white youths to regularly roam the streets 'nigger hunting'.

It was against this backdrop that Kelso Cochrane, who was saving money from his work as a carpenter to study law, lost his life.
On Sunday 17th May 1959, the 22-year-old when he was set upon by six white youths who brutally assaulted him and stabbed him through the heart. He died later in hospital.
The police failed to prosecute Kelso's killers, even though; those responsible were reported in many quarters of openly boasting of the murder.

Advert seeking wittnesses

Advert_seeking_wittnesses_for_Kelso_murder_by_brother_Stanley_CochraneJust eight months earlier in mid-August 1959 a series of racist attacks in Nottingham has sparked several nights of rioting, which by the end of the month has spread to Notting Hill in west London.

Because of the social unrest which had swept through the country in 1958, Keslo's killing made the national headlines with over 1,200 people turning out for his funeral.

Kelso's brother Stanley did not have the funds to travel from Antigua to England for his the burial, but arrived a year later in search of the truth about his brother's killing.

As soon as Stanley arrived in England he worked with TV researchers to gain a better understanding of what happened on the night of his brother's murder.

He also placed adverts in the paper seeking witnesses to come forward. Because Keslo's clothes had been destroyed a lot of evidence had been lost, making it impossible to utilise the advances in forensic technology that could have secured convictions in this case.
Stanley returned to Antigua with only pieces of the puzzle about his brother's death.

Claudia Jones the Mother of Notting Hill carnival
claudia-jones._webIt was against this backdrop that Claudia Jones, with the help of her friend Amy Ashwood Garvey worked to create an occasion, which would act as a focus for cohesion, healing and unity in response to the siege face by the black community at the time.

Jones organised the first ever carnival on January 30 1959, at St Pancreas Town Hall.

It was televised by the BBC for Six-Five Special, a forerunner to Top Of The Pops, and was timed to coincide with the Caribbean's largest and most famous carnival in Trinidad.

The success of this event led to several others in halls around the city.
Jones's vision for introducing an annual carnival of celebratory street dance and song were inspired by the formative years she spent in her native Trinidad and Tobago.

Historians and cultural commentators are keen for people to be aware of the origins of what is now undoubtedly the largest street festival in western Europe. They say that it is important to remember that the Notting Hill carnival is an expression of African Caribbean culture and history.

They note that the people who had been trafficked from Africa to work as slaves on the plantations in the Caribbean, during the transatlantic slave trade were forbidden from holding festivals of their own. With the abolition of slavery in 1838 the freed African people created carnival to celebrate their freedom.
Black Britain using cultural politics to confront conflict
notting_hill_carnival_-_lady_in_yellowThe Notting Hill carnival has created an irrefutable sign of black people's permanent presence and cultural contribution to Britain.

While 50 years ago the community was mourning the loss of Kelso Cochrane, today again black Britain grieves over the police shooting of 29-year-old Mark Duggan, whose death sparked the most serious scene of civil unrest in living history.

In what seems like a blink of an eye, Europe's most celebrated street festival, appears to be burdened with the erasing the unease left in the wake of the recent riots.

This bank holiday will see yet again of how a marginalised community, who are dealing with youth unemployment rates of 50%, over representation of innocent black citizens on the national criminal DNA database, rates of sectioning under the Mental Health Act at an all time historic high, and exclusion rates of black pupils continuing to increase year on year,  continue to use cultural politics to confront the bombardment of negative stereotypes and racism that is still prevelant in Britain today.

Notting Hill Carnival

Across Notting Hill. Free. Aug 28-29, 9am-7pm.

Tube: Notting Hill Gate/ Westbourne Park

About the author

BMH_UK_logoMatilda MacAttram is founder and director of Black Mental Health UK (BMH UK) and a member of the Ministerial Advisory Panel on Equalities and Mental Health. She also a member of the stakeholder group of the Ministerial Council on Deaths in Custody.
MacAttram sits on the editorial board for the Journal of Ethnicity and Inequalities in Health and Social Care and is an expert advisor for the Centre for Social Justice's Mental Health Review. In 2008 she was awareded a community services award from the mentoring charity 100 Black Men of London and in 2010 MacAttram was listed by Black Women in Europe™: as one of the most influential black women in Europe.

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