Carnival Messiah at Harewood House

David Lascelles

The Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807 represented the beginning of the end of a brutal and de-humanising chapter in our history.

Much of Britain’s wealth in the 18th century, when the trade was at its height, was built on the hard labour of the slaves in the sugar plantations of the West Indies. Henry Lascelles - banker, owner of ships and slaves and sugar plantations, Controller of Customs and exclusive provider of supplies to the Royal Navy in Barbados - bought land in Yorkshire with the fortune he amassed. His son Edwin built Harewood House there and commissioned the finest artists, craftsmen and designers to fill it with beautiful things.

Today, more than 250 years after Henry Lascelles made his fortune, Harewood House is one of Yorkshire’s leading visitor attractions, with around 250,000 visitors each year. Since 1986 it has been an educational charitable trust, run for the public benefit, with an award winning education department and a vibrant contemporary art programme. How then might Harewood involve itself with the bi-centenary commemorations?

I was clear in my own mind what we should not do: indulge a sense of guilt about a past that "however appalling" can never, ever be changed. Instead, I felt that the best way to mark the bi-centenary would be to use Harewood and its resources as a venue to celebrate Caribbean culture in Britain today. And what more comprehensive, more multi-dimensional, more exuberant, more spectacular expression of that exists than “Carnival Messiah”, an exhilarating re-invention of Handel’s Messiah performed West Indian carnival style with music, dance and enormous costumes.  Created by Trinidad-born, Leeds-based director and musicologist Geraldine Connor, Carnival Messiah was first performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds in 1999 and has also played very successfully at Carnival time in Trinidad. It features a  large community chorus, largely made up of teenagers recruited at open auditions. Their training programme will have a strong educational emphasis, making participants aware of the many cultural heritages the show draws upon" their own and other peoples. We are staging 20 performances in a 1000 seater big top in September.

Alongside the digitising of Harewood’s West Indian archives, which for the first time will be made publicly available online, supported by educational programmes and visual arts exhibitions, this seemed to be the right balance: acknowledge the past, deal with the present, address the future.

Britain today is a multi-cultural society. That’s not a matter for debate in my opinion. It’s a fact. Carnival Messiah is its living embodiment and there is I think a wholly appropriate sense of full circle, of reconciliation, about it being performed here at Harewood at such a significant time.

Lord Lascelles is Executive Chairman of Harewood House Trust