Welcome to Leeds West Indian Carnival.
I am a Caribbean man of African heritage living in the UK. Without this blend that I am extremely proud of I would not have had the gumption to start Leeds West Indian Carnival all those years ago.
When I left the tiny island of Nevis in 1957 heading for the UK like so many West Indians of my generation, I didn’t just leave my home and family behind. I left what makes the Caribbean tick, what gives the region such a pulsating heartbeat; I left my culture, my music, my art behind.
From the moment I arrived in Leeds, although I was optimistic about the future, I knew that the few pounds in my pocket and the faith in my heart would not be enough for me to thrive – to be me. Despite the best efforts of the Caribbean community to come together sharing stories and food, enjoying parties and music it was not enough. Even though we endured overcrowded flats and houses together, sharing the common hardships and struggles of the day – I could not get over the crippling homesickness.
So as I lay awake in my bedroom in Chapeltown, Leeds, it came to me that we didn’t have to leave everything behind, that we could work together to bring a little piece of home to England. From there on, having a West Indian Carnival in Leeds was my one motivation. I knew that I wasn’t the only one who felt the same.
Working with others with similarly ‘broken hearts’ – family, friends, Leeds University’s Caribbean students, even complete strangers – we fought to make Carnival happen. You can only imagine the battles we faced, not only from the authorities of the day but from within our own community! I was known as ‘that crazy man from Nevis’!
After an uphill struggle, the first Leeds West Indian Carnival was held in August 1967 – and my heart was fixed! It was the first formally organized authentic Caribbean carnival in Europe. For me it wasn’t about being the first. It was about bringing people of all races together and sharing Caribbean culture as widely as possible. I remember that shortly after that first carnival, a group of us didn’t hesitate to go down to London when we were asked to get the first formal Notting Hill Carnival on the road. The rest is history.
I have no doubt that carnival in all its glory would have lit up the streets in cities across the UK without me – so strong was the common yearning for our ‘roots’. Today what I call the Carnival Family is a closely knit one; we put aside city rivalries and the North-South divide to support and help each other.
Carnival is not just about putting on a street party – spectacular as it is! It is not just about sharing the sweetness of steel pan and soca music nor the magnificence of costumes. It is a serious business that needs strategic partnerships, like the one we have enjoyed with Leeds City Council for decades. It is about creating a cultural and artistic legacy for the UK – with carnival arts as a platform. It is the best way I know to secure unity and harmony.
We pride ourselves on welcoming EVERYONE carnival – ours is an open invitation. We will always put an authentic, warm Caribbean experience at the heart of what we do.
Because of this, today Leeds West Indian Carnival is much more than I ever dared to dream. It is quite simply the art and soul of the Caribbean.
Arthur France M.B.E.
Founder & Chairperson
You can read more about Arthur France here