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Origins of the Cape Carnival
The official end of slavery, Emancipation Day, 1st December 1834, was celebrated by street parades, bonfires and fireworks. It is believed that the carnival tradition of Cape Town, now celebrated at New Year, began here.

The characteristic, close harmony Cape choirs developed from Malay traditions and were strongly influenced by American 'coon' shows. To this day 'Cape Coons' (an ironic name) perform in numerous troops during the Carnival and on other special occasions, wearing face paint and dressed in glittering jackets and bright ties.

Their songs mixed up traditional Dutch and Malay songs with new songs to create a unique style. The extrovert 'coons' offended middle class notions of 'respectability', but they were and remain a unique expression of the coloured community.

Over time the carnival became an annual new year event, and by 1907 it was a regulated and highly organised procession of 7 troupes that marched from the Grand Parade to Greenpoint Common every 1st January. Their names bore testimony to American minstrel influence: The Jolly Coons, the White Noses, the Diamond Eyes etc. But within a few more years the names became more international with the Spanish Cavaliers, the Prince of Benin's Escorts etc.

The New Year carnival continued throughout the World Wars and depression years, in spite of some criticism from left-wing intellectuals, and the coons were described by a visitor as 'a real high spot in the flatness of Cape Town life'.

Although some troupes contested the war effort, very large sums of money were donated by many troupes. The Allied Forces colours and designs (from the Union Jack, Union of South Africa flag and the Stars and Stripes) began appearing in costumes and patriotic songs were included in their repertoire.

Under apartheid, however, street parades were severely restricted, and the Carnival was banned from Greenpoint stadium in 1968. Carnivals and demonstrations of any kind were further curtailed by the Gatherings and Demonstrations Act of 1973.


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