Cross-Cultural Commemoration: From the Slave Trade Abolition Bicentennial to Carnival Messiah

By Franklin, V. P. | The Journal of African American History, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Cross-Cultural Commemoration: From the Slave Trade Abolition Bicentennial to Carnival Messiah


Franklin, V. P., The Journal of African American History


Harewood House is currently listed as "one of the Treasure Houses of England." Located in northern England between Leeds and Harrogate in Yorkshire, it is currently an independent charitable trust established to maintain and develop "its collections and grounds for the public benefit." (1) However, Harewood Estate, along with Gawthorpe Estate, was purchased in 1739 for [pounds sterling]68,828 by Henry Lascelles, whose family had acquired much of its wealth in the transatlantic slave trade. From the late 17th century, beginning with Edward Lascelles, he, his brother Daniel, and his three sons George, Henry, and Edward made their fortunes as sugar merchants, money lenders, plantation owners, and slave traders in the British West Indies. Both Henry and Edward Lascelles were appointed as Collector of Customs in Bridgetown, Barbados, in the 1730s, and the Lascelles family would eventually hold interests in forty-seven sugar plantations in the British West Indies. (2)

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The renowned architect John Carr of York was commissioned by Henry Lascelles's son Edwin to build the magnificent new house at Harewood, and Robert Adam, a foremost interior designer of the period, was hired to lay out the furnishings that were supplied by the master cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale. The house was completed in 1771. Henry Lascelles was later named the Earl of Harewood, a title inherited by family members to the present day who added to the collections Renaissance masterpieces, watercolours by J. M. W. Turner, Sevres porcelain, and Chinese ceramics. (3) As of 1986 Harewood House has been open to the public.

In January 2007 the Heritage Lottery Fund made a grant of [pounds sterling]408,000 to the Leeds West Indian Centre Charitable Trust "to run a programme of activities involving the local community in the commemoration of the bicentennial, emphasizing the role played by the enslaved in campaigning against the trade, and highlighting the contribution of African culture to the [United Kingdom's] heritage." Working with David Lascelles, son of the present Earl of Harewood, the British Arts Council made a grant of [pounds sterling]100,000 to Harewood to hold performances of Carnival Messiah in September 2007. The main purpose of the project was "to provide a large number of young people with opportunities for new artistic experiences." Up to 500 people, extending over a period of six months, were involved in the production and performances of Carnival Messiah, written and directed by Geraldine Connor. (4)

Staged as a Caribbean version of George F. Handel's 1741 oratorio The Messiah, it combines elements of Trindadian Carnival music, Reggae, Gospel, and even Hip Hop, and it traces in words and music the history of Trinidad and Tobago from the era of slavery to the present. Carnival Messiah was first produced in a smaller form in 1999 and 2002 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and then at carnival time in Trinidad in 2003 and 2004. As the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade approached, and since Harewood was built and furnished based on wealth created through slave trading, David Lascelles was often asked, "So what are you going to do in the bicentenary?" (5) Since Carnival Messiah had been performed in Leeds earlier, David Lascelles began collaborating with artistic director and ethnomusicologist Geraldine Connor to make it the focal point of bicentennial events at Harewood. As Connor pointed out, "Harewood is the only stately home in the United Kingdom to be completely transparent about its involvement in the slave trade by marking this important anniversary with a thoughtful creativity through the performances of Carnival Messiah." (6)

The stage production involved over 200 performers and musicians, including over one hundred children from the community, professional actors, educational specialists, and members of the technical and management team. The grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund was awarded to ensure that children and adults from the Leeds and Yorkshire area not only witnessed the performances and helped in the production, but that many would receive training and participate as the performers. …

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