The Leeds West Indian Carnival is Fifty: Marking its African, Asian and European Heritage1
Max Farrar, Emily Zobel Marshall and Guy Farrar
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 79 (Winter 2017/18), pp. 125-137]
The Carnival in Leeds reached its fiftieth consecutive performance in August 2017, proudly maintaining its original title: The Leeds West Indian Carnival (LWIC). It was the first Caribbean-style street carnival in Europe, established and run by people descended from the slaves who were transported to the Caribbean.2 LWIC always acknowledges its debt to black students in Leeds in the mid-1960s (mainly from Trinidad), but the ancestors of the main movers in this extraordinary artistic endeavour were stolen from West Africa and chattelled in St Kitts and Nevis in the middle of the seventeenth century. (The first census of Nevis in 1671 recorded 1,739 slaves. The census of St Kitts, adjacent to Nevis, in the following year recorded 1,436.)3 Nevis-born Arthur France MBE, who pulled together the committee that created the early carnivals in Leeds, never misses an opportunity to explain his pride in his African heritage and to present the Leeds carnival as a journey of emancipation.4 There is another narrative in circulation about the meaning of the Leeds carnival that quotes Arthur France’s remark that it was a recipe for the home-sickness of Caribbeans who had arrived in Leeds (mainly from St Kitts-Nevis, with some from Barbados and Jamaica) in the early 1960s. While they do not exclude the ‘emancipation’ narrative, the authors of this article promote a more political interpretation, stressing carnival’s role in changing both the personal-subjective and the collective-material structures of society.
The Caribbean Carnival in Trinidad
The first resource for a political reading of carnival comes from its history in the Caribbean. The masquerade first arrived in Trinidad with the French settlers in the late eighteenth century. The ‘Masked Balls’ of the white French elite, and their masked parades through the streets as they visited each other’s homes, allowed for the ‘world turned upside down’ element of carnival in Europe to be re-enacted in Trinidad. Playfulness is carnival’s essence, and masking is the key to its subversion of the established order. A white, colonial man’s account of Port of Spain in 1827 included this: ‘Ovid’s Metamorphoses were nothing compared to the changes that took place . . . A party of ladies, having converted themselves into a party of brigands, assailed me in my quarters and nearly frightened me out of my wits’. Here, in true carnival fashion, men’s imposition of fearful power over women was (briefly) overturned. From Christmas to Ash Wednesday in Trinidad, the whites’ ‘long succession of festivities and pleasures’, set the tone for all subsequent carnivals. A French history of Trinidad published in 1882 reported: ‘Brilliant as fireworks were their [the whites’] cascades of witticisms, verbal sallies, and comic buffoonery’.5
African influence in the Trinidad carnival grew after the abolition of slavery in 1834, when, freed for their support for the British in the North American campaign in Virginia in 1812-13, 22,000 free Africans joined those who had been transported as slaves to Trinidad. Enslaved Africans, banned from the French Trinidadian balls, held their own dances and celebrations drawing from their African traditions and, in a defiant role-reversal, mocked their master’s behaviour and dress. After emancipation across the British Empire in 1838 the newly liberated merged these celebrations with a ritual known as Cannes Brûlées (Canboulay) based on the re-enactment of putting out fires in the cane fields (a task slaves were often called upon to carry out), which was in part an act of resistance and in part a harvest ritual.6 The ritual re-enactment, like so many carnival cultural forms, was seemingly contradictory, celebrating the extinguishing and the starting of cane field fires. The ‘Canboulay riots’ of 1881 and 1884 were a direct result of the colonial authorities’ efforts to ban the ritual, and resulted in further heavy restrictions on the practising of the Canboulay tradition.
Many elements of the costuming of masquerade characters drew directly from African traditions. Errol Hill has described the semi-military, semi-mountebank John Canoe character in the Bahamas, British Honduras, Jamaica and the USA in the nineteenth century as ‘another figure representing New World Africanism’ and the ‘celebration of acquired elements from English mumming, morris dancing, and French carnival parades’. The Moco Jumbie figure, known throughout West Africa, paraded on stilts, sometimes fifteen feet high, with a fabricated head concealing the Actor. According to an English account of Trinidad published in the early 1800s, this figure ‘frightened the boys’ with its accompanying swordsman’s menacing dancing and the Jumbo’s ‘antic terrible’. He wore an Eton jacket and an admiral’s hat decorated with feathers, and danced to a jig accompanied by a drum, a triangle and a flute, as Europe and Africa collided in Trinidad. 7
An image of the carnival in Trinidad in 1888
Expanding on these European and African influences, Michael la Rose has highlighted the impact of Indo-Caribbean festivals in Trinidad. South Asians were imported to Trinidad in the mid-nineteenth century as indentured workers when the abolition of slavery reduced the availability of cheap labour. La Rose notes that: ‘There were constant plans by the British colonial authorities to interfere with or stop the Canboulay Carnival. They also were preoccupied with keeping the African Canboulay Carnival from joining with the Indian Hosay festival with its Tassa drummers, parading Tadjahs and dancing halfmoons.’8 The Hosay festival originates in Shi’ite Muslim parades in which mosque replicas (Tadjahs) are carried, accompanied by Tassa drummers to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein9 As a recent documentary film by Mary-Ann Bailey and Dr Kim Johnson of the Carnival Institute of Trinidad and Tobago vividly demonstrates, the Indo-Caribbean presence in the Trinidad carnival is very much alive today.10
The Politics of Gender in Carnival
Carnival in Leeds today is, like Trinidad’s, led by people of African descent and it is thoroughly multicultural in its composition. Leeds City Council has been supportive of the carnival (as has the local police force, in contrast to London’s Metropolitan police) and in recent years its support has grown, as it recognises carnival’s celebration of ethnic diversity, and simultaneous contribution to social cohesion. But the images of carnival that are most often circulated (in print and social media) tend to concentrate on the bodies of women who conform to heteronormative stereotypes of beauty. Re-presenting carnival today as a site for political intervention and radical scholarship requires an answer to the critique of carnival that it objectifies ‘beautiful’ women and excludes those who do not please the male gaze. The Trinidad carnival does exhibit thousands of young slim women wearing little more than a sequinned bikini, but the feminist scholar Anna Kasafi Perkins maintains that Caribbean women in carnival have ‘subverted and continue to subvert’ negative interpretations of the female body, in particular those found in the Christian traditions of Lent which, she argues, ‘devalue the physical being and oftentimes view it as a site of sinfulness and temptation’. In Trinidad, she continues, the negative responses to what is sometimes called ‘skin mas’, due to the amount of flesh on display, is in fact a knee-jerk reaction by men to female empowerment; they succumb to a growing sense of panic as women are ‘taking over Mas, setting the pace and no longer being content to remain in the shadows playing adjunct to men’.11 Gabrielle Hosein, head of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies, argues that these women are seeking ‘autonomy and self-determination’ of their sexuality in defiance of the ‘respectability politics’ set by the church.12
Leeds carnival does include ‘skin mas’ but it forms a minor part of the parade and it does not require its members to be thin or young. Photographers who applaud the inter-cultural diversity of this carnival publish images of people of all ages, all colours, all shapes, in all types of costumes. A recent book on the Leeds carnival is the best example, but a search of specialist web-sites will show that this carnival celebrates body diversity in a progressive way.13 The argument made by Perkins and Hosein about Trinidad applies very well to the Leeds carnival: women command the stage, the road and the park in a multiplicity of costumes that they choose to wear in pursuit of their autonomy.
Another way into the politics of carnival is to examine the ‘traditional mas’. These figures in Trinidad and even in Leeds are in the minority among the revellers but they deliberately recreate and celebrate the more theatrical, satirical and raucous elements in the history of carnival. Some of these are violent, recalling the famous Canboulay riots in Port of Spain. The ‘stick fighters’ are one of the traditional mas bands. Tony Hall, director of Lordstreet Theatre Company and originator of the Jouvay Popular Theatre Process, argues that stick-fighting contains the underlying meaning of carnival, which is to ‘dance and fight’.14 Another traditional example is The Midnight Robber — a quintessential Trinidadian carnival ‘badman’. Dressed in a black sombrero adorned with skulls and coffin-shaped shoes; his long, eloquent speeches descend from the West African ‘griot’ (storyteller) tradition and detail the vengeance he will wreak on his oppressors. He exemplifies many of the practices that are central to Caribbean carnival culture: resistance to officialdom, linguistic innovation, and the disruptive nature of play, parody and humour. Elements of the Midnight Robber’s dress and speech flow directly from West African dress and oral traditions.15 Morally deviant, the Midnight Robber boastfully proclaims to be both terrorist and saviour; a criminal extraordinaire and breaker of institutional and supernatural laws. The Midnight Robber, Anansi and Brer Rabbit each harness the forces of creation; ‘my father was King Grabbla, who grab the sun, moon, stars’, claims the Midnight Robber.16 In West African and Caribbean tales Anansi is also creator, bringing both stories and wisdom to humankind, as well as snakes and diseases.17 These tricksters are agents of destruction and creation who offer a psychological release to listeners, onlookers, storytellers and Mas players. With their focus on turning the tables on the powerful using intelligence and verbal skills, they formed part of a discourse of resistance to colonial power and the traumatic legacy of slavery in the Americas.18
When we examine our own carnival, in Leeds (Yorkshire, UK) we observe how ‘skin mas’ (also known as ‘pretty mas’) and what we might call the boisterous and rebellious forms of traditional masquerade, can exist side by side. As in life, there is no true path in carnival; no final claim for authenticity can be sustained. As radicals, the authors of this article search for and support the carnival rebels, shape-shifters and ideologues; as masqueraders we exult in the boisterous, bacchanalian and liminal moments that carnival conjures up. In pursuit of both politics and pleasure all three of us participate in a troupe called Harrison Bundey Mama Dread’s Masqueraders (HBMDM). HBMDM is a group of volunteers of all ages, all social classes, all genders and various national origins who form one of the biggest mas bands in the Leeds West Indian Carnival.
HBMD attracts large numbers of masqueraders because it has always consisted of people of all colours and classes, and it always makes a political point. It speaks to contemporary social and cultural issues, aiming to tell stories through its costumes. Often, members carry placards to emphasise their message; wherever they can, they seek to amuse the people watching as they dance down the road, and interact with by-standers. Troupe titles indicate some of the issues HMBD has tackled:
- ‘Judge Dread – Innocent Till Proven Guilty’. This very first troupe, led by a Rastafarian in a Judge’s wig, highlighted those unfairly imprisoned.
- ‘Shame on You BP’ about the Exxon Valdez oil slick in Alaska. Masqueraders carried a specially designed BP logo, with dripping oil and fouled birds, and a huge banner with the slogan and logo adorned the truck carrying the troupe’s sound system.
Harrison Bundey Mama Dread ‘Shame on You BP’ Masquerader at Leeds Carnival 2012. © Max Farrar
- The mas bands ‘All Ah We Matter’ and ‘Love Ghetto Connexion’ have emphasised the desire to value all communities and bring people together.
- ‘Eco Warriors’ consisted of masqueraders dressed in costumes made of plastic bags.
- ‘Free Dem’ (against the incarcerations in Guantanamo Bay).
- ‘Blud Ah Go Run – Save the NHS’.
‘Blud Ah Go Run – Save the NHS’. Harrison Bundey Mama Dread Masqueraders: some members of the ‘Save the NHS’ troupe, Leeds carnival 2012. © Max Farrar
- ‘Unstich the Rich’ troupe was led by its own huge Midnight Robber, based on the character discussed above, and made by Marina Poppa of Callaloo Carnival Arts. He represented the financial sector, in response to the melt-down of the banks, and the masqueraders’ placards linked the bedroom tax and reductions in pensions for retired workers to the crisis.
The creative (and political) task for HBMDM is to combine social commentary with the desire to be recognised as carnivalists. It insists that its own beautiful costumes, bling and spectacle must have equal weight with social critique. The process aims to combine the concern with political power in a performance which is as playful and humorous as it can be, given the issues being addressed. Its 2017 masquerade attempted this task on the theme of migration, adapting the Trinidadian patois statement ‘All Ah We Are One’ into ‘All Ah We Are Migrants’. Partnering with the David Oluwale Memorial Association, HMBDM told the tragic story of a British migrant from Nigeria, David Oluwale, who was brutalised by two Leeds policemen as he slept rough in the city centre in the late 1960s. We believe that his death by drowning in the River Aire in Leeds city centre in 1969 was the result of police actions. Using the skills of three different artists (Alan Pergusey, Jane Storr and Hughbon Condor) HMBDM created a carnival King. The abject David Oluwale became the regal King David — a huge papier-mâché David Oluwale head. This was carried on the shoulders of Simon Namsoo, a Trinidadian-British member of HBMDM, with huge sheets of chiffon floating from his waist, representing the water that migrants to the UK must cross.
Simon Namsoo performs King David Oluwale, surrounded by Harrison Bundey Mama Dread Masqueraders in hibiscus flower costumes at Leeds carnival, 2017. © David Goodfield
Recognising that the Oluwale story is not very well known, and that the migration theme would not be easily understood by the thousands of people watching the carnival parade, we produced a postcard for the troupe members to hand to people as they went by. The front was a photo of troupe members in their hibiscus flower costumes, and the reverse included these words:
ALL AH WE ARE MIGRANTS
Migration is a human need
Our King David leads 150 masqueraders from varying migrant backgrounds. We acknowledge the many, like David, who have died — and continue to perish — in water. Every human has a migrant story. In recent times, the barbarism of slavery, forced migration, and Empire, divided us all. Because of our ongoing struggles against racism and injustice, we continue to flourish. The hibiscus flower, symbolic of joy and immortality, celebrates the colour and life that migration brings.
‘Water’ is a central theme for the Remember Oluwale charity, since Lagos (where David originated) is a city on the water. The charity’s patron Caryl Phillips has made the argument that Leeds, connected to Hull and to Liverpool by rivers and canals, should also be considered a city on the water.19 Even more significant for the troupe’s theme, crossing the water is the experience that links African slaves to every migrant entering Britain today. Those who wore life-jackets in the carnival parade were particularly mindful of the people dying now, unrecorded, as they cross the Mediterranean.
Search and Read, Dance and Fight
As well as starting the carnival in Leeds, Arthur France was a founder of the United Caribbean Association in Leeds, and he proudly wore his Black Power badge to Roscoe Methodist Church in Chapeltown, a church that many of the UCA members attended. His synthesis of emancipatory politics with the art and performativity of carnival continues to inspire many of us who participate in carnival. Some of those whose work might appear to take the ‘pretty mas’ direction also subscribe to this coalition of interests. For example, Lorina Gumbs, a young carnival designer, produces an exhilarating troupe of young women, many in sequined bikinis. A 2017 carnival brochure includes a photo of the carnival head-dress Lorina had made, with this explanation: ‘Lorina’s theme is Emancipation. At the heart of the design is the crown of Kings and Queens surrounded by colours evoking sea voyages, Caribbean fields and sugar mills. The chains [in the head-dress] represent the shackles of slavery, with a broken chain representing freedom’. Very close observation might decode the signs in this headdress, but Lorina’s political message becomes much clearer with these sentences.
Those of us who research and write about carnival do so in order to open up its meanings for wider scrutiny and discussion, and as masqueraders and as intellectuals, we hope to offer people the opportunity to think and act politically while they perform and play. Indeed, political, traditional mas is enjoying something of a resurgence in Leeds in the fiftieth year of its carnival. A host of cultural activities and events in 2017, including a large international conference at Leeds Beckett University,20 attended by members of the carnival community and other interested parties have celebrated and engaged with the more profound, violent, resistive, political and traditional elements of Caribbean carnival. In this fiftieth anniverary of Leeds’ first carnival there has been much discussion around the reintroduction of traditional masquerades. When Midnight Robbers re-appear in Leeds alongside other traditional masqueraders, we hope that those who encounter their anti-authoritarian energy and speeches will be inspired to research and read, but also, as they are moved by the spirit of the mas towards a personal and political awakening, to dance and to fight.
Guy Farrar is a semi-retired carer, worked in training, education and community development, keen photographer and carnivalist. Co-writer, with Steve Skinner of Liberating Leadership published by the Community Sector Coalition.
Max Farrar’s PhD thesis on black-led social movements in Chapeltown, Leeds, was published as The Struggle for ‘Community’ (Edwin Mellen, 2002). Since retiring in 2009 he spends his time with family and friends, writing, taking photos, doing politics, and working as secretary to the David Oluwale Memorial Association. More at www.maxfarrar.org.uk or www.rememberoluwale.org
Emily Zobel Marshall is a Senior Lecturer in Postcolonial Literature and Course Director for English Literature at the School of Cultural Studies at Leeds Beckett University. She teaches courses on African-American, Caribbean, African and Black British literature. Her research specialisms are Caribbean literature, Caribbean carnival cultures, trickster studies and folklore and she has published widely in these fields. Her book, Anansi’s Journey: A Story of Jamaican Cultural Resistance (2012) was published by the University of the West Indies Press and she is currently researching her forthcoming book, American Tricksters: Trauma, Tradition and Brer Rabbit, to be published by Rowman and Littlefield.
2 See Geraldine Connor and Max Farrar (2004) ‘Carnival in Leeds and London, UK: Making New Black British Subjectivities’ in Riggio, Milla, C (ed.) (2004) Carnival: Culture in Action — The Trinidad Experience (London and New York: Routledge) Available at http://maxfarrar.org.uk/max-blog/writing/culture-politics/carnival-in-leeds-and-london-uk-making-new-black-british-subjectivities/
4 See, for example, Arthur France (2017) ‘Foreword’ in Guy Farrar, Tim Smith and Max Farrar (2017) Celebrate! 50 Years of Leeds West Indian Carnival, Huddersfield: Jeremy Mills Publishing.
5 For all the quotes in this section, see Errol Hill, The Trinidad Carnival, New Beacon Books 1997 pp7-12.
6 Milla Riggio, ‘The Carnival Story – Then and Now’ in Milla Riggio, (ed.) Carnival: Culture in Action – The Trinidad Experience, 2004, Routledge, p42.
7 Errol Hill, op cit, p12.
8 Michael la Rose, ‘“The city could burn down we jammin’ still!” The history and tradition of cultural resistance in the art, music, masquerade and politics of the Caribbean Carnival’. Paper presented to the International Conference on the Caribbean Carnival, ‘Power, Performance and Play’ at Leeds Beckett University, UK, 19-21 May 2017. Available at http://www.leedsbeckett.ac.uk/-/media/files/faculties/aet/city-could-burn-down–mlr-talk-leeds-carnival-conference-may-2017-illustrated-final.pdf?la=en
9 See ‘Hosay: A Caribbean Shia Ting’ at ShiaChat, http://www.shiachat.com/forum/topic/235001593-hosay-a-shia-caribbean-ting/ and ‘Second Imam Hussein Day Seminar in Trinidad 1418/1997’ at al-Islam. https://www.al-islam.org/organizations/bmma/hossay.html ‘Hosay Manhattan’ shows South Asians in New York performing a Hosay festival in 1996. https://vimeo.com/120197595
11 Perkins, Anna Kasafi, ‘Carne Vale (Goodbye to Flesh?): Caribbean Carnival, Notions of the Flesh and Christian Ambivalence about the Body’, Sexuality & Culture, 2011, 361–374, p373.
12 Gabrielle Hosein, quoted in M Powers ‘Leave Me Alone’ The Washington Post, Feb 26, 2017.
14 Tony Hall, ‘Mas Interventions’. Paper presented to the International Conference on the Caribbean Carnival, ‘Power, Performance and Play’ at Leeds Beckett University, UK, 19-21 May 2017.
15 M Warner-Lewis, Guinea’s Other Suns: The African Dynamic in Trinidad Culture, Majority Press, 1991, p83.
16 D J Crowley, ‘The Midnight Robbers’, Caribbean Quarterly. Vol. 4, No. 3/4, 1956, pp. 263-274.
17 Emily Zobel Marshall, Anansi’s Journey: A Story of Jamaican Cultural Resistance, 2012, University of the West Indies Press. Danquah, J.B. The Akan Doctrine of God, 1944, Lutterworth Press p199.
18 This section draws upon the article Emily Zobel Marshall, ‘Resistance Through “Robber Talk”: Storytelling Strategies and the Carnival Trickster’, in Caribbean Quarterly, 2016, Volume 62.
19 Caryl Phillips and John McLeod, ‘The City by the Water’, Interventions, 2015, 17:6, 879-892. Caryl Phillips exploration of David Oluwale’s life and death was published in his book Foreigners (Harvill Secker, 2007). Phillips was born in St Kitts and grew up in Leeds.